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With Sims out, how does the mayor’s race stack up?

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn talks to the crush of media who came to witness the first same sex marriages. Credit: Photo: Jennifer Jones

Ron Sims’ announcement that he would not, after all, be running for Seattle mayor was particularly rich, even for this self-dramatizing politician. After describing the kind of charismatic mayor the town desperately needs (namely Sims), he said that he was looking for a higher calling. Too bad, Seattle!

Sims, the former King County executive, had loomed over the race, throwing the major contenders off stride and forcing some big money interests, especially labor unions, to keep their wallets in reserve. Now we can get down to the real race, with filing closing on May 17.

With Sims out, my canvas of observers produces this consensus forecast: State Sen. Ed Murray, Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmember Tim Burgess could each survive the August 6 primary. Either challenger would probably defeat McGinn in the November election, while Murray, more attuned with mainstream liberal Seattle, would probably best Burgess if they are the two finalists.  

In a crowded race — eight at the moment — it won’t take many votes (or sudden developments) to tip the outcome in the primary. The role of the “spoilers” will also be enhanced, given these slight margins.

One way to look at the race is to consider that there are two primaries going on. One is for the moderate and conservative votes, and here there are just two candidates: Burgess and marginal candidate Charlie Staadecker. Burgess will get the bulk of the “moderate primary,” advancing to the general election on Nov. 5. Over on the left, McGinn, Murray, Peter Steinbrueck, Bruce Harrell and Kate Martin will divide up the “liberal primary,” with none getting enough votes to push out Burgess, though one will get enough to advance to the general election. McGinn would be too bloodied to go on to win the general against Burgess. Murray, if he makes it to the general, would have the liberals’ vote advantage in the bigger-turnout November election.

Another analysis would show Murray with the most momentum, now that Sims has departed. Murray signaled to his supporters on Thursday by shifting his campaign from exploratory to officially in the race. He has an emotional issue, gay marriage, which will turn him into a national figure and draw many young volunteers energized by the recent statewide referendum. As a powerful state senator, Murray will raise money from grateful special interests, particularly unions. He’s got the A-team of local political consultants. (“I don’t bet on horses,” says one local business leader, “I go with the jockey.”)

McGinn continues to trip himself up, as this past week over the police reform issue, where "the bad McGinn" suddenly reappeared. Burgess has the usual problems of running from the city council, where few can stand out in the eyes of the voters and differing with the mayor comes off as envy or sour grapes. Advantage Murray, start to finish.

A third sway to assess the contest is to look at the insider/outsider contrast. McGinn, who ran as an outsider and a bomb-thrower, has put that part of Seattle politics under a cloud. That means that those candidates working that alienated side of the field — particularly McGinn, Peter Steinbrueck and Bruce Harrell — will look less attractive than someone like Murray, who combines mainstream liberal values (civil liberties, gay rights, transportation) with insider effectiveness. He will fare better in the primary than in normal mayoral races, where voters indulge themselves with an outsider, at least in the primary. So if Burgess has an inside track on his moderate side of the primary, Murray has the inside track in the liberal primary.

Meanwhile, as regards fundraising by the candidates, the figures as of the end of January are: Burgess, $133,000; Murray, $124,000 (raised in December before the legislative moratorium); McGinn, $120,000; Staadecker, $94,000; Steinbrueck, $18,000, and Harrell, $11,000.

Mayor McGinn had been doing better, buoyed by his seeming success in bringing back the Sonics and his two-year charm offensive. Then he had another bad week in his public tiff with City Attorney Pete Holmes over that court-appointed monitor trying to reform the Seattle Police Department. McGinn has been trying hard to appear reasonable and effective, even getting along with others at City Hall, so this reminder of his combative and isolated style hurts him. And once again, after his bluster, he had to fold his hand and retreat, enduring a pretty firm tongue-lashing by the federal judge in the bargain. All this is a reminder of McGinn’s monumental toe-stubbing over the waterfront tunnel.

For insiders, the McGinn-Holmes smackdown points up the weakness of McGinn’s staff. His staff attorney, Carl Marquardt, eagerly tears into Holmes, who seems unfortunately happy to goad him on. Had McGinn a strong deputy mayor and other good topsiders who knew much about police, they would sit on Marquardt and force the parties to work out differences behind closed doors.

Another problem for McGinn, who is abysmally low in the polls for an incumbent (The Survey USA Poll had McGinn at 15 percent, followed by Burgess at 10, Murray at 9, Steinbrueck at 7 and Harrell at 5), is the absence of a strong political base. His main appeal is to urbanist elites like bike commuters and green energy advocates, and this fickle group can be easily won over by other candidates. McGinn’s other base, minorities and some social service agencies, is under attack from City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, a Japanese-African American, and former city councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, an urban planner with appeal to poverty and homeless advocates and neighborhood activists.

Burgess, who radiates competence, substance and reform themes, such as data-driven, outcome-based policies, has run citywide, getting strong support (Murray is mostly known in his 43rd district, Seattle’s liberal bastion). Burgess stresses three issues: school reform (he is a stalwart, which will cause teacher-union push-back), police reforms (he’s an ex cop), public safety and jobs (he managed a successful national firm advising non profits on marketing issues).

All this will appeal to moderate, older, good-government North End voters, who tend to dominate in a low-turnout primary. But Burgess has had trouble getting much attention, or rallying passionate supporters, who can be critical in a primary. He’s stiff, a bit condescending and a shade too conservative for the ever-more-liberal city. His hope is that after all the clumsiness of the McGinn era, voters will not want to take a chance on another outsider like Murray or one with little managerial experience.

When you think about it, the table is pretty much set for the next mayor with a lot of daunting challenges: the Big Bore waterfront tunnel, finishing SR 520, the Department of Justice supervision of police reforms, the Sodo Arena and industrial zoning issues, the central waterfront park, Yesler Terrace redevelopment, decaying streets, unfunded parks and regional issues like Metro. No time for on-the-job training, Burgess could well argue, as would Murray..

As a senator, Ed Murray is precluded from raising money during the legislative session. If the session drags on beyond its scheduled April 28 adjournment, Murray may be forced to make a tough decision about resigning his seat so he can raise money and turn full attention to the mayor’s race. He did raise more than $100,000 before the session and has been able to assemble a top team of campaign advisers, including Burgess’s former campaign consultant, Christian Sinderman.

Murray will ride the national tide of the gay marriage issue, drawing national money and endorsements and appealing to Seattle’s sense of itself as a national leader. As a longtime big player in Olympia, adept at aisle-crossing coalitions, Murray has a lot of indebted interest groups who will be generous to his campaign, particularly if he doesn’t have to resign his Senate seat. And he has a compelling issue, even if he overstates his role.

Murray will likely run on his leadership style, contrasting it with the combative McGinn and citing the ways he has forged major deals on trasnportation, breaking partisan logjams in the process. He will also stress his key relationships, particularly in Olympia, where the city has long been a feeble player. Spokesman Sandeep Kaushik says Murray will put police accountability and the city's crisis in transportation funding and infrastructure at the top of his priorities.

Murray is a famously volatile politician who has burned a lot of bridges, but those interests who do a lot of business at City Hall (law firms, unions, developers, major companies, UW) and have been frustrated by how hard McGinn is to read or to make deals with are likely to remember that Murray is a person with legislatively honed dealmaking skills. (He was a key Olympia player in making the waterfront tunnel happen and that’s still a powerful labor/business/urban design/environmentalist coalition.) Some of these interests may calculate that jumping on the Murray bandwagon early, earning his warm gratitude, is good politics.

Peter Steinbrueck as a city councilman was mavericky and moralistic, but he has matured since leaving the council. He is something of a nostalgia candidate, which could have real appeal in a city reeling from new wealth and blockbuster redevelopment. His backing comes from neighborhoods, wary about growth and the Density Dogmatists; from people who care about the poor and homeless; from urban design professionals (Steinbrueck being an architect) and the preservation community (Steinbrueck’s father, Victor, more than anyone saved the Pike Place Market in 1970).

Steinbrueck doesn’t have much money, and he hasn’t really run a tough citywide campaign before. His one significant issue, opposing the SODO location for a basketball arena, makes him stand out in a crowded field (as McGinn did in 2009, opposing the waterfront tunnel), and this issue gains him support from affected industrial interests. But it seems like a lose-lose gamble. If the team is lassoed, the issue washes away in civic euphoria, but if Sacramento holds onto the Kings, the issue seems less threatening.

So Steinbrueck, if he stays in the race, is important as a spoiler, in part because he is a compelling campaigner well-known across the city. He could well carve away enough liberal votes from Murray to enable McGinn to squeak through the primary. Alternatively, he might grab enough urbanist and social-services backers to sink McGinn or even to survive the “liberal primary” by riding a tide of the disaffected.

Bruce Harrell is easy to underestimate, since his colleagues on the City Council tend to treat him dismissively, but he is a strong motivational speaker who can really raise money, thanks to his ties to the sports community (he was a star Husky linebacker), minority interests, UW supporters (his wife is a regent) and some business contacts (he was a phone company lawyer). Harrell is positioned to take chunks of minority votes away from the diminishing McGinn base. He too could cause McGinn to lose in the primary, and he could be positioning himself well to run for mayor in 2016, a job he has coveted from the day he first ran for City Council.

Charlie Staadecker is a charming, arts-loving commercial real estate broker; a lovable uncle, surprisingly able to raise money. Like Steinbrueck, he is a nostalgia candidate, in this case harking back to the days of unembarrassed civic boosterism. Each vote and each dollar he gets would likely come from Burgess’s hide, but there won’t be many.

Finally, might there be a surprise candidate? Two names still float out there: Anne Levinson, a former deputy mayor under Norm Rice and a key player in police reform; and City Councilmember Sally Clark, a highly deliberative consensus seeker with an engaging campaign style. Both are lesbians, a factor that is both a political plus in Seattle and one that would mean that the gay forces would put huge pressure on them not to run and siphon off votes from Murray, a gay man. Clark, a close ally of Burgess, would not run unless Burgess withdraws or shows little likelihood of surviving the primary.

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