Will he or won't he?

Momentum is building for Peter Steinbrueck to challenge Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, but the former city council member is going to decide his way.
Crosscut archive image.

Former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck. (Seattle Channel)

Momentum is building for Peter Steinbrueck to challenge Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, but the former city council member is going to decide his way.

When Peter Steinbrueck had his Seattle City Council going-away party in late 2007, he compared his council career to a water slide at Wild Waves, and his mid-life career change — he chose not to run for re-election — to a dream he had about floating peacefully on a quiet stream through a beautiful forest. Steinbrueck was ready for a break from politics, and wanted to indulge his interests in sustainability and city planning. He is an architect, after all.

As promised, he's done some writing (on Crosscut for one) and teaching at the University of Washington. He's been a consultant to clients like Children's Orthopedic Hospital on their master plan, and given speeches in Europe on sustainable cities. He's advised Philadelphia and San Diego on urban planning. He's been able to think, to be creative, to work at his passions without being a harried elected official. He's also had more time for family. It's tough to take a mid-life plunge from a steady job into the unknown, but Steinbrueck's done it and seems to be happy.

Now he's facing another test, and he offers another forest metaphor. Only this time, it's the dense, dark wood of politics that has his attention, he says. The mojo wires are humming with the news that Steinbrueck is thinking about running against incumbent Greg Nickels this year, and fans have created a Facebook page that's already signing up hundreds of grassroots supporters encouraging him to make the leap back into the Wild Waves politics.

Steinbrueck says he had no intention of running for mayor when he left the council. Recent events (the snow storm political debacle, Nickels' poor polling, a paucity of other candidates) opened him to the idea of listening to people clamoring for a Nickels challenger. More recent polling and the Facebook fans have moved him from "passive listening" to "active listening," meaning he's really thinking about it and asking people what their major issues are. He's seeking advice and counsel. One recent poll picked up by The Slog had Steinbrueck leading Nickels 47% to 24% in a two-way race.

Steinbrueck won't be hurried into making a decision, however. He tells me it could be June before he makes up his mind. He doesn't want his decision-making process to back anyone else out of the race. "Don't wait for me to decide," he says. He'll get in if he gets in when he's ready. He does hope that Nickels will have strong opponents, whether he's one of them or not. And he's personally not afraid to face other possible challengers.

He's got to weigh everything, especially what he really wants and when. It's not just a decision for this year, but how he'll spend the next eight years at least. So, he says his internal process is like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno: "Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost." Steinbrueck's peaceful forest float trip gets complicated when he considers plunging into the tangle of city politics again. The path to an answer lies in finding his way through the woods of his own ambitions and life goals.

Political moments don't wait for people. It's Steinbrueck's choice whether or not to jump in, but the temptation must be great. Nickels, even with his mighty machine, is unpopular and vulnerable. While he has dominated with the big-money support of greens, labor and developers, parts of the Nickels coalition are ripe for picking apart, and there are many unaffiliated voters and constituent groups across the spectrum who are ready to be rallied for a change.

Part of this is less on policy, Steinbrueck and Nickels have large areas of agreement, but on style. Nickels' my-way-or-the-highway treatment of the council and the neighborhoods has made enduring enemies; his centralization of power has seemed less inspired by "the Seattle Way" than Chicago. Nickels rubs people the wrong way and a credible opponent, as the polls indicate, will have a leg up. He's had failures too, on the waterfront tunnel, the snow response (or lack of it) made worse by Nickels' taking a victory lap before the citizens had dug out from the storm. More recently, there's heavy-handedness over the Mercer street (or is it Vulcan beautification?) project and Seattle being stiffed by Olympia on transportation stimulus money.

Also, these tough economic times could play into the hand of sustainability advocates like Steinbrueck. It's a strategy that can make great progress without boom: adaptive re-use, green retro-fitting, working out the details of shaping neighborhoods at the street level, new opportunities for historic preservation, finding alternatives to big mega-redevelopment projects, reinvigorating the neighborhoods. If Steinbrueck ever wants to be mayor, to drive the public apparatus and implement policies that can really reshape the city toward sustainability, the pathway is about as open as it gets.

Which is not to say, despite the early polling, that the campaign would be a walk for Steinbrueck or anyone else. Nickels is a tough, resourceful campaigner, as his narrow victory over former city attorney Mark Sidran showed. He's had two terms and has the power of incumbency and a national reputation. Against a serious candidate of Steinbrueck's caliber, the race would would likely turn negative too, with the challenger attacking hizzoner's record and Nickels firing back, Chicago-style. One of Nickels most effective tactics has been getting potential challengers to back down before they get in. Nickels polls poorly, but he wins.

Whether it's a good idea for Peter Steinbrueck personally, and it must be the right thing for him to be successful, is another question, one that Steinbrueck is trying to answer in his own way. He swears his indecision is not a strategy, it's about whether this is the right thing at the right time in his life. "I'm not being coy," he insists. But that doesn't mean a lot of people aren't waiting for his answer.

EVENT NOTE:This Friday, March 13, I will be moderating a panel at City Club as part of their Environment & Sustainability series. The topic: "Tough Times in the Livable City." I'll be leading a discussion with local experts who are on the front line of re-shaping the city, and we'll be looking at what livability is and what the opportunities are for making progress even during down times. The panel includes: Justin Carder of the Capitol Hill Community Council; Michael McGinn, executive Director of the Seattle Great City Initiative, Denny Onslow, Chief Development officer for Harbor Properties, Michael Patten, executive director of the New Century Theatre Company; and Tony To, executive director of HomeSight of Washington. The event is at Noon (registration at 11:30 am), at Rainier Square's Third Floor Atrium. $20 for CityClub members, $30 for the general public.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.