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So, while issues like public safety and schools and transportation will be argued, a constant thread will be leadership. Tim Burgess will be able to emphasize his collaborative style and his intellectual approach as a kind of urban sociologist with a policeman's background on public safety and reform — real reform — of the department. Ed Murray will ride the wave of the triumph of getting same-sex marriage passed in the Legislature and at the ballot box with R-74, the most important piece of civil rights legislation in decades, plus his reputation as a force in Olympia. If Ron Sims dives in, he'll bring his strong, passionate and inspiring persona and his resume from running King County. Peter Steinbrueck would be able to point to his tenure on the city council, his advocacy of planned growth, and a leadership style that enfranchises the neighborhoods. Charlie Staadecker, the bow-tied Rotarian, seems to be using the playbook of the mayoral candidate Roger Morgan in Jim Lynch's recent novel, Truth Like the Sun, running on a theme of traditional civic values with the whiff of the Rainier Club about him, passing out buttons that say, "I Believe in Seattle."
Is Staadecker running for mayor of some misty, fictional Seattle? "They're all running for mayor of a fictional Seattle," observes city council member Jean Godden. Every candidate sees the city in a way that makes them uniquely qualified to answer the call. But the fact that Seattle is ideologically bunched on the left poses another challenge that could make the upcoming campaign either one of the best ever, or one of the nastiest. Or both.
It's a good bet that everyone running for mayor will want an economically prosperous, sustainable, dense city with great schools, transit and quality of life with social justice for all. Fine, but how? A good campaign would demand that the candidates be specific about their plans, but also paint a vision of the city to come. How do the cities of Burgess, McGinn, Murray, Steinbrueck et al differ? What do they offer? How attainable are they, and for how much? Is the election simply a matter of leadership style? Is it a matter of replacing Police Chief John Diaz or not? Of how high the high-rises will go in South Lake Union? With so many big dogs running, the race is a real opportunity to debate something meatier than potholes or snow plows. Besides, Seattle is a sucker for visionaries and idea people: The most idealistic candidates tend to win (Rice over David Stern, Schell over Charlie Chong, Nickels over Mark Sidran). What are the differences in their Google maps to utopia?
On the other hand, the race has the potential to get very negative in the primary, especially one starting in December and lasting into August. With so many good, progressive Seattle liberals raising money, jockeying, and with so few votes to go around, a small percentage of the vote could get a candidate to the general election. The main line of attack will be on the mayor and the crowded ballot suggests we'll be hearing a lot about how McGinn could have done better. Every issue will be framed around the mayor. When he announced, Murray told The Stranger's Dominic Holden, "I think the police department needs new leadership, and I think that leadership is a new mayor."
In some cases, McGinn has left himself wide open. In 2009, McGinn announced his campaign on YouTube with a video that showed a soft-spoken candidate speaking boldly. McGinn said his top priority was improving the school system, and if things weren't significantly better in four years, "you should fire me." Tim Burgess, who thinks the district's problems are a long way from being solved, responded when reminded of the claim, "We should take him up on his offer."
Attorney McGinn will be relentless both in his defense, and also quick to challenge the records of his challengers. The field will have to differentiate among different shades of Democrats, and different resumes, and we know the search for party legislative district endorsements can get ugly. Is Burgess a closet conservative? Is Murray too Olympia-centric? Can Sims focus? Is Steinbrueck hostile to developers? Is Albert Shen shilling for the Chamber of Commerce? Is Bruce Harrell ready for prime time? We also know a number of the candidates can be combative — not just McGinn but Murray, Burgess and Steinbrueck are all capable of the prickly push and push-back. One thing McGinn's opponents should worry about: McGinn-bashing fatigue. The challengers could lose momentum if the campaign devolves into the Seven Dwarves, all named Grumpy.
There will also be a scramble for constituencies. Who'll get The Stranger's endorsement (they seem to have soured on one-time cover-boy McGinn)? Who the South End? Asians? The gay community? Magnolians? Downtown? The nabes? The bicyclists? West Seattle? Foodies? Real Change vendors? One can imagine candidates playing the city like a game of Risk, trying to capture micro-constituencies to get to a 30 percent share of the primary vote. The ground war could get interesting on the complicated isthmus of Seattle.
As it is shaping up, the race is a tribute to ambition, an inherent critique of the incumbent, and an exciting opportunity to have a full-fledged civic debate about Seattle's future, especially key as we emerge from the Great Recession. Have we learned anything from the past, or will we merely hop onto the boom-bust-bandwagon again? This time around, there should be no excuse for complaints about the outcome.
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