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14 ways to become Seattle's mayor

Sally Clark stands aside, while others are pacing around to challenge Mike McGinn in 2013. Here's the field and the time-tested ways to get to the finish line.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn Jen Nance/ Office of the Mayor

Mayor Mike McGinn (with the bicycle) took part in a dedication for a portion of the Mountain to Sound Greenway through the city.

Mayor Mike McGinn (with the bicycle) took part in a dedication for a portion of the Mountain to Sound Greenway through the city. Washington State Department of Transportation/Flickr (CC)

Peter Steinbrueck

Peter Steinbrueck Peter Steinbrueck

Ron Sims.

Ron Sims. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Tim Burgess failed the progressive litmus test.

Tim Burgess failed the progressive litmus test.

I know, I know. Give me a break from election news. But fast upon us are critical decisions about the Seattle mayor’s race in 2013, an important pivot point in the city. First the most recent news on the possible candidates, and then a primer on the paths to the hot seat.

All assume Mayor Mike McGinn (still unpopular but doing better at mastering the job) will run for reelection, and he’s been busy holding fundraisers. The leading challenger is thought to be City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who tells me he will decide no later than Jan. 21 on making the race and is leaning that way. Cheerful commercial real estate broker Charlie Staadacker is a long shot but is first out there lining up backers. Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck is “more interested” than before and has a prominent issue: questioning the SoDo Arena.

The big news is that City Council President Sally Clark is pretty much taking herself out of the race, telling me that while the mayor's job is "supremely attractive," she prefers to stay at her important post at the council “for the cycle” which would be through 2015. That decision “could alter,” Clark says, if good candidates “with a spring in their step” fail to enter the race for mayor. City Attorney Pete Holmes has firmly taken himself out of contention. City Councilmember Bruce Harrell is thought likely to get in, despite no clear base of voters, but won’t make any decision until December.

State Sen. Ed Murray may be the next majority leader of the Senate, but he is at least looking at a mayor’s race (as he did before). “I do believe there is the time to both reach out to people and raise funds [for mayor] despite the legislative session,” he tells me. During the session, Murray would not be allowed to do any fundraising, but he would have lots of funds from groups wanting the good favor of the Senate kingpin, as well as strong support in the gay community, where he is a hero for gay marriage.

 I would add Chamber of Commerce president Maud Daudon and former King County Executive Ron Sims to the list of remote possibles. And of course, X.

Ordinarily, Seattle mayors get a fairly automatic second term.  Not this time, after all the early stumbles by McGinn, who has had to regroup entirely after his big issue, opposing the waterfront tunnel, blew up in his face. For the past year, McGinn has been undergoing a major makeover. He’s mended some fences, pushed for the basketball arena as a legacy project, become the cops’ BFF on reform issues and rushed around cutting ribbons and taking credit for numerous small-ball accomplishments. Still got that beard, but he’s wearing suits and minding his manners. Still, he’s hugely vulnerable in many quarters, so a spirited challenge will await him.

Let me handicap the race and provide a kind of overview of mayoral politics in Seattle by suggesting 14 assorted paths to victory, slotting in some of the candidates where appropriate.

Crowded Field.  A vulnerable mayor will draw lots of challengers, thus paradoxically making him less vulnerable. Imagine there are five or six pretty good opponents, and you can see a scorecard after the low-turnout August primary with McGinn (as the best known and with some firm supporters) getting 40 percent of the vote and the others grabbing 10-20 percent each. That gives McGinn a strong lead for the general election, discouraging donors to his opponent. Plus, he might draw a weak rival from such a field. By contrast, a small field can squeeze out the incumbent in the primary, as happened to Mayor Greg Nickels in 2009 and Mayor Paul Schell in 2001.

Sole Ownership of a Hot Single Issue. This strategy also relies on a crowded primary, with all the contestants on the same side of this big issue, except for you. McGinn played this game expertly in 2009, being the sole opponent of the deep-bore tunnel, rallying that youthful constituency, and surviving the primary. The candidate who might repeat the trick is Peter Steinbrueck, the only one with the political courage (so far) to question sharply the wisdom of a basketball arena in SoDo.  If he survived the primary this way, however, there would be no end of grief from sports fans for him in the general.

Assemble the Big Five. These would be: greens, unions (especially city workers and the SEIU), minorities (especially blacks and hispanics), downtown developers, and cops-and-firefighters. These groups give money, provide volunteers, and have big stakes in the outcome since they do a lot of business with the city. They tie your hands once mayor, however, and can be a liability in an age of austerity-driven reform politics. Mayor Nickels excelled in putting this coalition together. Tim Burgess might have the best shot next time.

Independent, Self-Funded Type. Before Seattle politics got so cynical, the town admired people of this stripe, who promised to produce good public policy, not political paybacks. Joe Mallahan was cut from this cloth, though his inexperience was fatal, and it got him through the primary in 2009. Doug Jewett, the last Republican to run, in 1989, was an example, though not able to self-fund. Burgess, who did contribute about $60,000 to his first city council race, might be a self-funder this time (he won’t say if he would or could), and is also a best-practices policy guy.

North End, Up-Market, Research Economy. North Seattle is where the votes are, and where appeals for education reform resonate. Paul Schell got elected on a Northern strategy in 1997, but it’s easy for such a strategy to get tagged as elitist and too-white. A modern variation of this might be to run as a new-ideas technocrat, like some of the Microsoft alumni (Ross Hunter, Tina Podlodowski, Suzan DelBene) or other tech-venture types like State Rep. Reuven Carlyle.

Neighborhood Pitchforks. It used to be that there would normally be an establishment candidate friendly to “downtown,” and an unhappy insurrectionist talking about neighborhoods, high taxes and the dangers of apartment zones. The Schell-Charlie Chong race in 1997 was the last pure example of this, with the neighborhood guy — as usual — getting shellacked. Mayor Charles Royer, elected to the first of three terms in 1977, actually rode the neighborhood horse into power. Of the current contenders, Steinbrueck would be the most credible neighborhood tribune. The old issue for this politics, fending off apartments, has been overwhelmed by the Religion of Density.

Celebrity. Royer, a television personality, is the one example of this working, though it is a popular route to the city council, including such ex-journalists as Jim Compton and Jean Godden. Dave Stern, inventor of the happy face, is another minor celebrity who gained little traction. Likewise, former KIRO anchor Susan Hutchison bombed in her race for King County Executive. In other cities, the current flavor is a former basketball star, and if Lenny Wilkens suddenly moves to Seattle you’d have a real threat. Please, God, not Dale Chihuly.

Populist Backlash. During years of greater racial tension, we had a series of these candidates, normally framing the issue as one of law and order: Liem Tuai against Uhlman in 1973, Doug Jewett against busing in 1989, and Mark Sidran pushing for street civility in losing to Nickels in 2001. If the Seattle economy were worse, you might expect some populist anger, but this time most of the backlash will just be against McGinn and maybe bike lanes. Moreover, McGinn positions himself as a populist and anti-establishment guy whose heart is in Rainier Valley.

Symbolism. Seattleites, having things pretty good, feel free to vote for candidates that make the voter feel good about him or herself. Mayor Rice was a popular, effective, black mayor. McGinn is a green mayor. So what about a gay mayor, or a woman mayor? Or, like symphony conductors, how about a very young mayor? Another opportunity for voter-pride would be to stress density issues and those that seem linked to climate change. McGinn tapped this vein three years ago, but now it’s pretty much a cliché, claimed by all.

New Coalition.  The Big Five is pretty tired, and hard to lasso, but there are other interesting rising interest groups that have money and troops. Mayor McGinn smartly spotted two of them: bicyclists and the nightlife lobby. Another variant of this is to take the younger and more radical part of bigger groups, such as peeling off the anti-tunnel, anti-car brigades from the environmental groups, whose leadership backed Nickels but whose foot soldiers were restive.

McGinn’s political style is to assemble intense little groupings, give them favors and patronage, and not worry about coherence. So now he’s added sports fans, food-justice folks, even cops. He also shrewdly positioned himself as champion of ethnic groups in the southeast part of the city. All of this is packaged as an irreverent, young, “New Seattle.” Old Seattle, McGinn used to say, doesn’t “get it.” One problem: these folks don’t vote a lot. Another: Many are newcomers, not plugged into local politics. A third: all this drew on the Obama magic of 2008, long faded.

Women. The first advantage a woman candidate such as Sally Clark or Maud Daudon would have is that you would stand out from the crowd, gaining an instant base that you wouldn’t be dividing with other candidates. There is a formidable network of successful, active women in this town who are eager for such a candidate and would fund and work for a good one. On the list of desired candidates, all of whom keep saying no, are: Martha Choe of the Gates Foundation, Deborah Jacobs, the former Seattle librarian, Ginny Anderson, former head of Seattle Center, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, and Sally Jewell, the head of REI.  (Sally Jewell! Be still, my beating heart!)

Last-Minute Surprise. Norm Rice patented this technique, where you get in about two hours before the filing deadline, avoid months of negative attacks on you before, and float through the primary as the media’s Next Hot Thing. If Ron Sims gets in, this will probably be his method, both because he’s famous enough to do it and so that all his past miscues as King County Executive are not an issue. The risk is that the interest groups have pre-committed and there isn’t enough money left to head off a front-runner.

Shadow Republican.  You couldn’t use the dread word in this city, of course, but there are ways to tap the 20 percent of voters who huddle in that camp. (Not to mention the suburban money you could garner.) Mayor Schell sent some of those signals, when party-pure Democrats attacked him for once playing tennis with Slade Gorton. Mark Sidran was also liked by this group, though it meant The Stranger called him “Satan.”  A candidate like John McKay, an ex-Republican who attacked the Bush administration for its purge of him and fellow U.S. Attorneys, would qualify.  Again, it gives you a base, a mediagenic message and a way to talk “reform.” In avoiding the R-word, such a candidate is advised to say nice things about the anti-war, permissive side of Libertarianism, rife in the tech economy.

Harmless. Maybe a good way to deal with all the distrust of government is to say you will do no harm; in fact do very little at all. Charming characters like Charlie Chong got pretty far on this appeal. The new Charlie, Charlie Staadecker, would also offer mostly smiles and his deep love of the city and the arts. A variation is to be so addicted to process that voters can feel assured that nothing anyone dislikes will be enacted.  Four more years of McGinn’s bumbling also has its perverse appeal, leaving important matters in the control of the please-em-all city council.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.

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Posted Wed, Oct 31, 8:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Chihuly for Mayor: Two Ashtrays on Every Ceiling!


Posted Wed, Oct 31, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

"..the Religion of Density" ha ha

I call it the religion of 'BIAW will save us by building big shiney buildings'.

Steinbrueck has tons more going for him than the arena deal. He could probably bring his connections to bear to get the sports fans an arena in a better place. He also gets the real social science behind how this city and region can grow up rationally, sans 'religion'.

Posted Wed, Oct 31, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Is it possible that a very prosaic subject could be a ticket to the Mayor's office? City government has for years been postponing the day of reckoning with the backlog of street, bridge, and other infrastructure repairs. Pothole fixes wear out, both physically and politically. Add in the unfunded costs of the 520 project. A candidate who levels with the city's taxpayers - that postponing a real fix greatly increases life-cycle costs since deeper repairs are needed - might strike a cord. We all use the streets, even bicyclists. It could be combined with a realistic (affordable) plan for transit investments, one that recognizes that matching funds will not be forthcoming from the feds as they have in the past to build a network of streetcar lines to every neighborhood, which seems to be the current Mayor's vision.

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

a realistic (affordable) plan for transit investments, one that recognizes that matching funds will not be forthcoming from the feds as they have in the past to build a network of streetcar lines to every neighborhood

Not sure what you’re talking about there, Dick. There will be plenty of money from the feds coming available for worthy transit projects.

I don’t want to get too technical here, but Dick may not be aware that the “Surface Transportation Authorization” measure President Obama signed in July was as fat as the last one.

The big FHWA/FTA transit funding grants will be coming from the pool of federal dollars available under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). On July 5, 2012 it was signed into law. Its financing provisions apply to FY'13 and FY'14, and they are as generous as were provided during the last fiscal cycle. Long story short, there’s a fairly deep pool of “New Starts” (and other) grant money that can be tapped by transit services providers that have worthwhile projects.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

OT: So Dick Nelson – mind if I ask you a question? Apparently when you were a state legislator you were a co-sponsor of the regional transit authority enabling statutes. Did you and your colleagues make a conscious decision to disregard what the US Supreme Court said about how only administrative powers may delegated to appointive-board municipalities?

Old-Metro just had been struck down two years before, due to how its structure violated the 14th Amendment. I’ve got to believe 14th Amendment issues were addressed when the regional transit authority statutes were in the sausage-making process. Why didn’t you guys provide regional transit authorities with a directly-elected board? That’s what the federal constitution demands when municipalities are granted all those broad and discretionary infrastructure planning and siting, taxing, bond-selling, etc. powers. A US Supreme Court opinion addresses that issue: the 1967 _Sailors v. Kent Bd. of Education_ opinion.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

The article refers to onetime mayoral candidate Dave Stern as "inventor of the happy face"; and his campaign button duly riffed off the famous image. Yet there are other claimants to the title of its 'inventor' (with illustrator Harvey Ball being the Wikipedia favorite). So, despite the temptation around here to make Seattle the center of the universe, I wish this claim about Mr. Stern could be stated with some cautionary language ('alleged', 'self-proclaimed', etc.).

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

"The Religion of Density." Yes, just look what it's wrought in NYC right now--gridlock. NYC validates my opinion that the density and mass transit folks simply don't get it--it just doesn't work when there's any disruption in services like electricity, or when nature poses an on-the-ground weather challenge. While we aren't likely to have any hurricanes, I decline the invitation to get stuck in the kind of mess we're seeing in NYC. Plus I decline the invitation to live in tenements, on floors so high that I could be trapped in my home for days without power and food. Let the density and transit lovers relocate, the sooner, the better.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 5:34 p.m. Inappropriate

" Let the density and transit lovers relocate, the sooner, the better."

Now, now the current Mayor is not the only NYC import, just the one with the current power to match his interest in putting our money where his mouth is.


Posted Thu, Nov 1, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Not sure why you make the statement that "the leading challenger is thought to be" Councilman Burgess. Whose thought is that, and what criteria have been applied?

As for your simultaneous thought that the big news is Ms. Clark's not running, I would say that's not news at all (since it would be very premature, and ill-advised, for this talented young councilperson to make a run now). Far better for her to commune with sympathetic contacts in the press, some of whom might help lay name-familiarity foundation stones. I wonder how that could be done?

Among the names you mention, surely there must be an appealing, youthful, forward-thinking, articulate person with deep historic Seattle connections and an intuitive feel for our region and its needs. Mustn't there?

I think I'll take that thought to one of our small city parks--perhaps one that affords a sweeping view of Elliott Bay--on one of these last fall days for contemplation.


Posted Sat, Nov 3, 5:43 p.m. Inappropriate

What? No mention of Dennis Kucinich?


Posted Sat, Nov 3, 7:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Brewster, this is such a weak article. A bunch of names that have been thrown around for 2 years now and some made up "types" of mayors. Perhaps it's time to stop playing King Maker. That time was a decade (or two) ago, not that the old establishment doesn't wish it were still so...Brewster as a Top Civic Pundit.

The Burgess is Top Contender posit is weak. The only person besides yourself who has decreed that is...Burgess. Though the way he kisses up to the downtown establishment means soon enough there are likely to be more backers. A non-downtownie Master of the Universe doesn't have to mean we have to be stuck with Amateur Hour McGinn, either.

You wrote off Harrell as a someone without a base,which is pretty funny. For anyone wanting a leader both good in business AND social justice, Harrell fits the bill. Anne Levinson is another who is strong in both areas. And neither fits the stereotypical Middle-Age-to-Old-Age White Business Guy image that is awfully passe, given the diversity of thought, income and ethnicity that is the Seattle today.

There are quite probably other names that also fit the bill, but one would have to do more thought analysis than bringing out the tired old Steinbrueck saw and newly tired Burgess boost.

Posted Sun, Nov 4, 4:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Clark is not talented. Clark may be a bunch of peoples favorite little pet; but she is not a "talented councilperson". Clark even got her council position through being a pet. She was appointed, originally. Clark is a run of the mill, will do anything for the wealthy interests, politician. Clark cares little about anything but herself. She belongs in no elective office. Ballmer, and Hansen, probably have a job for her.

Burgess is another will do anything for the wealthy interests. Butgess is subservient to lobbyists, like Christian Sinderman. A citizen can never count on Burgess to stand for anything, or to do anything other than provide tax exemption, and free public funds to wealthy individuals. Burgess only represents the interests of the extremely wealthy. Burgess belongs in no elective office.

Harrel? Get Real. Harrel used the most amount of money in Seattle history to get his council position. Harrel will say yes to free public money going to wealthy interests before there is even a request, or plan. Harrel is a joke. A bad joke. Harrel belongs in no elective office. Sorry, being what some call a "minority" does not mean you are special, I know some racists are all hung up on skin color, and ethnicity. So, Harrel is supposed to get a pass because of his skin color. So, if Harrel's skin color was white, then he would be passe? I think that the racism is passe; but hey, if you wish to base your vote on race, what can I do about it.

None of the publicized possible contenders for Mayor, including Mcginn, should be elected to any office. Perhaps, Steinbruck, but he is not as yet running. Finally, Really, Clark is a "talented councilperson"? No, she is not.


Posted Sun, Nov 4, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Burgess is considered the leading challenger because he is almost certainly going to run and has a proven ability to raise money from the traditional Seattle donor groups. He's a flawed candidate, sure, but right now he appears to have the inside track with members of the downtown/lawyer power base.

Steinbrueck remains a factor because he's well known, he has the ego to think he has a chance, and there are still some positive feelings towards him (and his family) among city voters.

Harrell is iffy because he's a decent campaigner, but can't shake that "second place thing." People think he's OK as a councilmember, but when it comes time to vote, Seattleites are likely to choose a more impressive candidate.

I agree with David's analysis that Clark isn't a factor. She simply won't run against two or even one of her colleagues, and she's not strong enough to scare anyone out of the race. Sally is just too conflict-averse and too eager to please everyone; the same personality traits that have held her back as a Councilmember.

Ed Murray has a lot of strengths and rates above most of the people on this list, especially if R-74 wins, but he's a loudmouth and mayoral campaigns provide lots of chances to say something stupid.

McGinn's probably going to run again and he still has a base in the low twenties. He's got a reasonable chance to make it through a primary, but less of a chance of repeating. Beyond that, his presence in the race makes it hard for anyone off the political radar to make a strong run.

Maud Daudon and Ron Sims are interesting names, nothing more. What exactly has Maud done, except serve as sidekick to a failed mayor (the almost-forgotten one-termer Paul Schell)? Sims slept through his third term as County Executive and got into hot water as HUD deputy because of his aversion to both Washington DC and hard work.

McGinn and Burgess will probably run and Steinbrueck may run if he feels like it. If that's the case, there's only space for one or two more viable candidates and they're probably on this list.

In order for Anne Levinson or any of the other non-traditional candidates on this list to be a factor, they would need to get in the race very quickly and outmanuever the established politicos. I don't think it's likely, but we'll find out very soon if one of them will take a shot.


Posted Mon, Nov 5, 10:57 p.m. Inappropriate

All these people and their dreadful ideas are the reasons Seattle is no longer affordable for middle class people like my partner and I. As of this month we cease to have to deal with the never ending increase in our property taxes, nanny statism, the Seattle "process" and the Seattle "freeze". Good riddance and we will not let the door hit us on the arse on the way out.

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