Mallahan for Mayor
Chances are that most Seattle voters expected this year’s mayoral election would pit Mayor Greg Nickels versus "Who’s That?" What we got instead, from the surprising summer primary, is Who's-That vs. Who's-That. Both candidates for mayor, Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, are relative unknowns, neither of whom has run for or held public office before. Soon one of them will be Seattle’s mayor.
Now with Election Day a scant three weeks off voters are scrambling to get acquainted with the two. An easy way to do that is to tag each candidate and put them in a box. So McGinn, who is probably ahead in this game, is “the guy who’s against the tunnel.” If Mallahan has a tag it’s “the business guy.” Mallahan is a T-Mobile executive who wrote a check to finance his own campaign. (Asked about that Mallahan said, “I wanted to take Mayor Nickels' war chest off the table as an issue.”)
Is “business guy” the right box for Mallahan? Yes and no. When asked how he would tag himself Mallahan says, “I’m a social-justice Democrat with a track record of producing efficiencies in large organizations.” When you push into Mallahan’s story a little deeper one of the interesting things you discover is that politics is not something he’s getting into because there’s nothing else to do in business, or because Ross Perot-like he wants to show those people in government “how to run it like a business.”
Mallahan has been thinking politics for a long time. Born and raised in Everett he went off to the nothing-if-not-political environment of Washington, D.C., for his college education at Catholic University. But it was at Cascade High School in south Everett that a young Joe Mallahan got his first taste of politics and felt the calling. Two high school teachers, Phil Zalesky and Elliott Cheap, made the difference. “They had a mock politics class I took. I loved it. That’s where it started for me.” (Zalesky and his wife Laura are well known community leaders who played an important role in the creation of the North Cascades National Park.)
In D.C., while working as an aide in the office of Washington Congressman Al Swift, Mallahan got a piece of advice he took to heart. “Joe,” a Swift staffer said, “There are plenty of lawyers, too many, in politics already. Go into business first (instead of law), and from there into politics. Besides, too many people have the idea that all Democrats are anti-business.” Mallahan took the advice.
Along the way Mallahan did graduate studies (a master's degree) at UW’s Jackson School of International Studies, and was involved in community organizing in (of all places!) Chicago. Later, when work gave him the chance to return to the Northwest he took it. He had hoped to get into politics before now, but “things happened.”
Why Mayor? I asked. Why not start with City Council or the state Legislature? “People pointed out, including my wife, that the experience and resume I had put together was an executive one. ... And city government has become inefficient.” Here’s where the business experience does come into play. “I have a lot of experience at achieving efficiencies in large organizations. ... As mayor I would start with the public safety and planning areas of city government. There are a lot of opportunities for efficiency there.” But how does a businessman’s eye for efficiency connect up with “social justice Democrat?”
Once in office, Mallahan hopes he will gain credit for being “a principled decision-maker and a good steward of taxpayer resources.” He would use that credit to work on a recovery of “progressive Northwest values,” which he feels are, if not lost, at risk. He would restore the gang unit and community outreach programs in the police and public safety area. He would work on density and affordable housing to ensure Seattle’s affordability for working people. Noting that his own two kids are having “great educations” in Seattle public schools, he would work to strengthen schools throughout the city.
A tunnel supporter, Mallahan warms to the topic of a Seattle waterfront that is accessible and helps Seattleites to “feel the saltwater more.” He recalls the thrill of exploring tidal pools north of Seattle at Birch Bay. He imagines that some of the tidal zones created inside the Seattle Aquarium might be created outside as the waterfront — tunnel underneath and out of mind — becomes accessible and inviting. “That could do a lot to help us understand how special the Puget Sound is and how important it is we take care of it.”
One perhaps little-noted similarity between the two candidates is that both are Catholics, though not practicing. (“I’ll go back to church when they ordain women,” says Mallahan). But both candidates show some of the strengths of Catholicism. Both seem to enjoy the hurly-burly of community life, and both heard the church’s social teachings about poverty and justice.
While it remains true that whichever candidate is elected will have a steep learning curve, and the City Council will gain clout early in the next mayoral administration, Seattle has two pretty good if not well known candidates for mayor. Maybe instead of it being a problem, it’s a good thing that Seattle is a city where two newcomers can be running for mayor.
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