Drago and Nickels really are different, despite the Mayor's hug

Nickels won the battle for the opening story-line (Ms. Me-Too), as the challenger finds her real appeal is a difficult horn to toot
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The Seattle Art Museum, with its 'Hammering Man' sculpture, adjoins the 42-story office tower built by now-defunct WaMu bank.

Nickels won the battle for the opening story-line (Ms. Me-Too), as the challenger finds her real appeal is a difficult horn to toot

Jan Drago kicked off her mayoral campaign Tuesday, beneath the Seattle Art Museum's Hammering Man (meant to symbolize the need for blue-collar jobs, Drago explained). She read her rather routine remarks in her patented off-kilter style, and then dodged the media posse after a few mildly evasive answers. Not an impressive start.

It's clear that Mayor Greg Nickels' political Swat team is trying to cut Drago down early in the campaign, before she can get much momentum. There's a press release a day touting Nickels' achievements in his most vulnerable areas: getting stimulus funds, getting favors from Olympia, the pesky snowstorm. The media is peppered with pointed questions to ask Drago: about her absenteeism (code for getting too old), her Nickels-like voting record. Nickels is playing a tough Hillary to Drago's Obama-like message of consensus. It's meant to rattle her (she is eminently rattleable) and to freeze Nickels' supporters from any thought of defection.

So far, it's working, but Nickels has a long way back to public favor. One of the cliches of Seattle politics is that local primaries (ours is August 18) are won by women voters over 55 who live north of the Ship Canal. These are committed voters, who dominate the primaries before the other voters wake up to an election. They like women; they dislike negative campaigning; they like high-minded messages about civility and working together; they don't like machine politics, which Nickels practices. Drago touched on these themes, but her message was probably too hostile and negative to have full impact. Press coverage suggested she's not ready for prime time.

One trap the Nickels campaign is laying, so far fully embraced by the media, is that Drago is a Nickels clone, a "mini-me," as candidate Joe Mallahan calls her. It's a bit odd for the Mayor to be attacking a candidate for agreeing with him so much of the time; you'd think that would be a sign of her wisdom. But it's meant to take away her reason for running — a problem she already faces by being so very late in declaring.

It's also a fairly bogus charge. Who doesn't agree with Nickels on lots of issues, since he has fine instincts for the sweet spot in most Seattle issues? And if Drago starts drawing sharp lines of policy difference, since Nickels straddles the center, she will then be attacked for views out of touch with "our deep Seattle values." She dodged by saying the differences were in style, meaning that she can do partnerships while Nickels excels in making enemies. It's hard to make this case without appearing to be evasive, at least in the eyes of the media, which want sharp contrasts. Her best line, a shot at the friends-and-enemies political style of the Nickels gang: "No one should be afraid to disagree with City Hall!"

In fact, Drago is quite different from Nickels — but in ways that are hard to turn into campaign advantages. She's more conservative, being the one reliably pro-business voice on a City Council that has lots of populist posturing. (In Seattle, you never win by running right, except for some token offices like City Attorney.) Meanwhile, Nickels has locked up (or intimidated) a lot of the business community by doing lots of favors to the bigger players like Vulcan, the University of Washington, and downtown developers. So stressing the pro-business side gets her neither votes nor money.

Another difference is that Drago is an inside dealmaker, a go-to person when you need a big problem fixed. (Examples would be the Convention Center or the central waterfront or downtown gang violence.) She's really very good at this kind of Gordian-knot politics, since she works the problem seriously, doesn't make gratuitious enemies, knows who the key players are and how to get them into a coalition, stays out of the spotlight, has tons of friends to call on for help, and can actually count to five votes on the Council. (Her father was a lobbyist, remember.)

Nickels is much clumsier at this game, owing to a basic shyness and unwillingness to bargain. You run into Drago at all kinds of events around town; she's a classic politician who "shows up." Nickels is oddly invisible even at City Hall. He broods, calls in markers, knee-caps the opposition, leaves bruised feelings, insists on taking credit. (He also can really get things done, as witness the South Lake Union Streetcar.)

The most vivid example was the Viaduct. To his credit, the Mayor put his foot down hard against any new elevated structure. But nearly everything he would propose (cut-and-cover tunnel, skinny tunnel, surface streets only) would stir opposition, particularly from Gov. Gregoire and Speaker Frank Chopp. Drago, steadily working the problem, was way out in front in advocating a deep-bore tunnel, when the idea was being laughed out of court (too expensive, tainted by its origins in the Discovery Institute).

Come crunch time and Nickels was sticking with the unlikely (but most-green) solution of streets only, while Drago, who is quite close to the Governor, did the real work of forging a coalition of labor, the Chamber, the Downtown Seattle Association, and some paler greens to come up with the deep-bore solution — which the Legislature just passed. Through it all, she kept good (if testy) relations with the Mayor, which is part of her political savvy, not her mayor-echoing.

It's a hard horn to toot. The sentimental populism of Seattle and its media quickly assumes that such backstage dealing is corrupt in some vague fashion, since some powerful interests are being served (even if also maneuvered into compromises). Better if, as with the Sonics, you posture that you want to keep the team, but then don't make the deal with an odious owner that would actually make it happen. Drago probably would have made that deal.


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