Mayor Mike McGinn at a debate with challenger Sen. Ed Murray during the League of Women Voters/ Allied Arts Forum at the Cornish Playhouse on Sept. 30, 2013. Credit: Allyce Andrew
Here is something you don’t often see in American politics. An incumbent politician with views largely matching his constituents is seeking re-election. Unemployment is low — in fact it’s two points lower than the state average, and two-and-a-half points below the national rate. The city’s fiscal condition is stronger than the day he took office, and his administration has been free of any substantial scandal. On paper he should be cruising to re-election. Instead, Mike McGinn will be lucky to reach 40 percent of the vote.
Last month, Survey USA released a poll showing state Sen. Ed Murray leading Mayor Mike McGinn by more than 20 points, 52-to-30. After a month of furious, energetic campaigning by McGinn, topped by two impressive debate performances, another poll last week showed nearly identical results: 52-to-32 percent. With Election Day about two weeks out, less than a third of the electorate is committed to the mayor’s re-election. A smaller sample by KIRO-TV in early October showed McGinn closer to Murray but with only 29 percent of the electorate committed to him. The Strategies 360 PR firm independently conducted a similar poll in mid-October showing McGinn with 34 percent support. Politicians with re-elect numbers this low are usually under federal indictment. Someone find a bugle and start playing "Taps."
It’s not like opponent Ed Murray is lighting the world on fire. "Murray-mania" is not sweeping the city. Why would it? The state senator’s views are only marginally different than McGinn’s. He’s not flashy, never has been. TV is not his friend. He is articulate but not eloquent. He is a solid but plodding legislator — a classic workhorse rather than a showhorse, who deserves a place in state history for guiding into passage not one but three landmark civil rights laws expanding liberty for gay citizens.
But much of Murray’s appeal seems to come from not being Mike McGinn. And you can’t fault McGinn’s campaign team. They are doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
So, if it ain’t the economy, if the city isn’t cratering fiscally or drowning in scandal, what is it? McGinn’s supporters blame "smears" from jealous, nettled, city council members or business groups. But even if it were true, why are the smears sticking? After all, the mayor has both a clear record to run on and the bully pulpit of his office to generate media coverage and rally supporters. He’s plenty capable of defending himself, with a competent campaign team and some influential backers. So why is he losing so badly?
Because people just don’t like him. Or more precisely, they don’t like him as mayor. They’re put off by the tone of the city’s politics, which was briefly exciting when he first took office but soon grew tiresome.
When he was first elected, people tended to give him the benefit of the doubt when he clashed with the city council. They haven’t felt that way in a long time. On TV, a master politician like Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama can look at the camera and immediately connect with you. When Mike McGinn looks at the camera, it seems like he’s talking in your general vicinity. There’s no connection, no warmth. Certainly no empathy. When he talks to you in person, it seems like he can’t wait to finish the conversation. In the case of his exchanges with me, that may well have been the case. But if you want to be a successful politician in a city like Seattle, it helps to like people and feel comfortable around them.
Activists who care more about causes than people sometimes get elected when lightning strikes, as it did four years ago. But they need to grow once in office, and Mike McGinn hasn’t. The politics of confrontation have to give way to collegiality or at least collaboration once it office. It’s not a sign of caving in; it’s a sign of maturity. That’s what’s missing here, the lack of growth of the city’s chief executive.
The media will continue to cover the race, as they must. Much attention will be paid to issues that are surely important but won’t swing the election. It’s like watching a NASCAR race where one car has been far in front since the opening lap, with the final laps approaching. The votes are yet to be counted but the people have made their decision: Mike McGinn’s skill set doesn’t match the job he holds. It’s over.