The Mayor's race ain't over yet

Nickels' approval ratings are so dismal that some candidates are bound to jump in, probably at the last minute.
Nickels' approval ratings are so dismal that some candidates are bound to jump in, probably at the last minute.

Conventional wisdom is saluting Richard Conlin's decision not to run for Mayor in 2009 as a sign that the race is now pretty much over. Greg Nickels has money, the support of unions, big business, downtown Seattle, and the greens, leaving only the ragtag neighborhood groups for some late-entering challenger to pick up.

Not so fast. A new SurveyUSA poll, taken among 500 Seattle residents (not voters) just after the snowstorms, shows Nickels with Bush-level ratings of 28 percent approving of the job he's doing as Mayor (61 percent disapprove). A month before the gap between approval and disapproval was minus 20; now it's minus 33. The only area where a majority approved Nickels' handling of city matters was parks — an irony, since it was the City Council that just pushed for a successful parks levy that Nickels opposed!

Secondly, remember the tradition in Seattle politics where a candidate gets into the race in June, at the last minute, thus capitalizing on the surprise factor and a burst of media attention. Norm Rice did that in 1989, and Paul Schell was a late entrant in 1997, and both got elected. And some candidates could overcome the money disadvantage of a late start by self-financing the race, as green developer Greg Smith has said he would largely do. Others prefer this approach because it keeps the campaigning mercifully short.

A third factor is the third term factor. Mayors wear out their welcome, accumulate enemies, build sharp-elbowed "machines," and get cynical as third terms approach. Mayor Charles Royer, the last third-term mayor in Seattle, readily concedes it was a mistake (forced on him by staffers wanting to keep their jobs) to serve a third term. Shortly into it he realized how tired he was, and that his real achievements were in the second term.

All of which leads me to suspect that there will be several last-minute entrants into the race. I'd expect either Nick Licata (keeping the populist issues in front of the voters) or Peter Steinbrueck to give it a try. Another City Councilmember positioning for 2013, such as Tim Burgess, might try a warm-up race to round up supporters and gain a post position. And, if not Smith, somebody in the business community might write out a few big checks and run on a platform of getting the local economy moving again and reining in governmental programs conceived in rosy times. An example of an ideal candidate of this type is Martha Choe, former City Councilmember and economic development expert now with the Gates Foundation. (She's emphatically not going to do it, though, so calm down.)

Those Nickels popularity numbers are just too low, too tempting. And the times are too ripe for change and Obama-like appeals from newcomers. And did I forget to mention the snow?? We're going to have a doozy.


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