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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.

By David Brewster

October 31, 2012.

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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Printed on July 25, 2014