Mayor Nickels: Four more years?

It's a strange political culture that can't seem to find a strong opponent to a mayor who has become permanently unpopular. Here are some consoling thoughts.
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Then-Mayor Greg Nickels at a CityClub forum. (Seattle Channel)

It's a strange political culture that can't seem to find a strong opponent to a mayor who has become permanently unpopular. Here are some consoling thoughts.

We're down to the short strokes on the Seattle Mayor's race this fall, with filing deadline only a few weeks away. The next shoe to drop is for City Councilmember Jan Drago to get her poll results, from a telephone poll she paid for and which took place early this week. Drago seems itching to go, but she'll be realistic if the polling is discouraging.

It's puzzling that there are no strong candidates, brimming with Obama-like promises of change, but such is the decline in civic idealism in this city. A candidate like City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who might have filled the bill, quickly backed out when he discovered (how could he not have known?) that Mayor Nickels had a lock on most of the business and interest-group (meaning, doing business with City Hall) money. Wasn't that the point that would have made his case for change? Peter Steinbrueck is, I suspect, looking for the easier race when Nickels finally retires (like when?), and when it fits better with his desire for family life. Green developer Greg Smith started the quest off wrong by taking months to decide not to run, freezing out other possible candidates until it was too late.

But still, what kind of a city is it that can't field a strong opponent to a mayor who hasn't been able to nudge up his very low (in the 30s) approval rating all year? Granted, Nickels has been a quite competent mayor, on top of the job and in synch with conventional Seattle politics. But popular he'll never be, and without that strong public trust the aspiration levels will stay pretty modest. Likewise, he cannot seem to make lasting political friends (with the Council, with Speaker Frank Chopp, with the County, with Olympia), which isolates the city and makes it have to work doubly hard to get funding and favors from others.

What produces the apathy may be a kind of hope that things will be different in the likely third term of the Mayor. His sharp-elbowed deputy mayor, Tim Ceis, may depart for another job. (The very smart, but very abrasive Ceis has seemingly been looking for a suitably important post for the past several years.) If so, Nickels might revert to a kinder, gentler self — as was the case when he operated without Ceis as his aide when Nickels was a King County Councilmember.

Or Nickels might just decide to change his style, — particularly if given an electoral scare (as is likely) — to one that is more collaborative. There have been signs of that with the Governor and the Council. Nickels had a fine moment in bringing the Sound Transit board around to putting the transit bond issue on the ballot in 2008. The Mayor deftly made the trades to get the votes in Snohomish County, and proved to be right about timing when the measure passed by a wide margin.

The other hope is that the City Council will turn into an effective foil to Nickels III. If Sally Bagshaw (disclosure moment: she's a friend and also a member of the Crosscut nonprofit board) were to win, as seems likely, she could join Richard Conlin and Burgess in forming a pretty strong core of the Council, adept at getting other votes on some of the big issues. Mayor Nickels would find that attention must be paid. Government by council can be much messier than government by mayor, but it can also work. That happened in the early 1970s, when a strong council majority moved Mayor Wes Uhlman quickly to the side of urban design and historic preservation.

A last possibility is that Drago, if she runs, could position herself as a transitional mayor, ushering in the next generation of political leadership. That's not exactly Drago's style, for she is pretty combative and not all that open to new ideas. But she does have a name, has worked hard for years in mastering the issues, appeals to women voters and the business community, and might find the best path to the Mayor's office is to be an inclusive, new-coalition kind of leader. As I say, there's a whole lot of wishful thinking going on.


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