I hereby declare I am not running for mayor

How to mount a serious challenge to Mayor Greg Nickels, by one who almost talked himself into it
Crosscut archive image.

Mayor Nickels bolted together a powerful political and financial coalition.

How to mount a serious challenge to Mayor Greg Nickels, by one who almost talked himself into it

It's time to come out of the closet. I, too, was tempted to run for Mayor of Seattle. Tempted to the point of building a campaign plan, a website, lists of donors and staffers, and an overall strategy. What drove me — an unknown local native with a pun of a last name and a career in business and nonprofits — to indulge such egotistic reverie was pure frustration. Seattle deserves a far more visionary, far more competent campaign challenge to Mayor Nickels than we've seen so far. And if you want something done right, I whispered to myself,...

Planning to run for Mayor is a thought experiment I highly recommend. Gathering friends and experts to plot, map, and strategize a what-if campaign reveals the ways in which the current candidates don't yet have a grip on how to beat, much less campaign against, Mayor Nickels.

Seattle yearns for a vibrant, bracing, rollicking onslaught of a campaign by someone who breaks from conventional wisdom and who doesn't let up. A daily thrust and parry by a challenger who will unmask Nickels' supposed savvy for what it really is: a bland middling knack for backroom maneuvering and an obsession with self promotion, backed by management skills that are decidedly modest.

Since it now may be revealed that I'm not running* I'd like to offer advice to Mike, Joe, Jan, and the rest in the hope that they actually start campaigning soon.

Vision Trumps Money. The media will obsess about the fundraising horserace as long as there remains a vacuum in the ideas race. If a candidate forms compelling ideas and fields them constantly, Nickels will begin to sound smaller every time he gives another long-winded speech and sends Sandeep Kaushik and Robert Mak out for another round of defensive spin.

Why not launch "100 Great Ideas for Seattle," one a day on the campaign website? Folks will loathe some and like others, but it will demonstrate the ability to think, inspire, get people talking. If you aren't able to come up with 100 good things (big and small) for Seattle to do, try, fix, stop, think about, or change, well, you probably shouldn't be running for Mayor.

About money. Memo to what's left of the local media: when tempted to re-hash the who-has-the-biggest-money-pile angle, reflect instead on the concrete wisdom of my proto-campaign manager, a field organizer for Paul Wellstone's 1991 campaign. A little-known candidate can be outspent 7 to 1 and still win if his ideas resonate. Cheesy attack ads only work against a candidate who suffers from a weak message.

Moreover, as anyone in business will tell you, how much money you have is only part of the equation. What you do with it is actually more important. Squander it on ineffective consultants, bad ads, and laughable direct mail and you'll be wasting it. Notwithstanding all of the above, keep dialing for dollars every day. Just do it from the road instead of being camped out in your headquarters.

Management Talent Matters, more than you think. How you manage a campaign transmits a powerful signal about how you will manage almost everything else. This is an "Obama effect" in action. Show it, don't say it. "I'm trusted!" "I'm tested!" If you rely on those hackneyed bits you'll be toast in this era of change.

A strong campaign should emanate effectiveness, efficiency, friendliness, and clarity. Websites must be kickass, not clueless-looking (gregnickels.com). YouTube footage should appear to be shot in Seattle, not amid cinderblocks. Send individual high-res soundbite files directly to reporters in advance of their deadlines. Have your rapid responses on the web within the hour. Focus on Seattle-owned media first and throw some meaty bones to the blogs to keep your messages moving micro-locally. Your advance crew should make every event razor sharp instead of ad hoc. And speaking of razors: shave.

It's the Neighborhoods. Start at the edges and work you way towards the center: It's the neighborhoods, stupid. To administer some blows to Nickels' achilles, get to the neighborhoods every single day. Meet, greet, walk and talk, work out, scooter, cycle, and meetup in all 38 neighborhoods. Without declaring so yourself, the contrast in style and engagement will be plainly obvious.

While you're out there, make sure to listen more than you talk. Connect with the people who've been waiting since World War II for a sidewalk. What do the families whose living rooms (or worse) have taken a stray bullet have to say about "average crime rates are at record lows"? What do the folks in Othello really want in their "neighborhood plan"? (Groceries. So they don't have to ride a train to get to a store.)

Do all this right now because Mayor Nickels is very busy downtown and very very busy in South Lake Union right now. Rather than harangue on the point, just be everywhere else all the time and the point will make itself nicely.

Run Your Own Race. Break free of the embedded political claque and liberate yourself from conventional wisdom. Fire the consultants, all of them. Run a 100 percent hack-free campaign and let your own voice prevail. Show us what you can do without having to pay someone to tell you what to do. Break some rules along the way. Seattle is ready for an authentic candidate, warts and all. In contrast, the more Greg Nickels talks, the more he cannot help but sound like the lifetime politician that he is, which is the point after all.

Deconstructing Greg. If you openly deconstruct Nickels' political tactics his ability to deploy them relentlessly will break down. Nickels will try to run on his record, to be sure. It will be tarted up in elisionary press releases by his well-paid (and well-snowplowed) fleet of minions. But it will only take constant gentle pressure to puncture the veneer of hype and spin and see what's behind the headlines.

Keep in mind the advice of a sitting city councilmember: "You have to double, triple-check everything that comes out of the Mayor's office. The man is 100 percent pure politician." Then, teach your crowds to shout out a few pithy questions each time a new press release arrives: "What did he say about this before?" "What does the rest of the data really show?" "Why didn't he do that before the dung hit the fan, instead of backpedaling afterward?"

Have a Hook. Despite our belief that Seattle voters like to dive deep and make decisions based on thoughtful sifting of the relevant information, this is more urban self-image than actual reality. You're going to need a hook, a messaging idea, a tagline that works. For my proto-campaign, I chose "Seattle for All," the implication being obvious. (Don't touch that URL, by the way.) When a voter thinks of Mayor Nickels, what's the first phrase that comes to mind? Chances are its something negative. For a fresh candidate, there's a huge opportunity to fill that mental thoughtspace in voters' minds that occurs right after mention of your name . Craft something powerful to put there and you'll be halfway to the finish line already.

In the end, what stopped me in my quixotic urge to run for Mayor as a feisty unknown is the same thing stopping most people at everything now: a violent economic downdraft that creates a fairly compelling desire to hang on to one's day job.

For the sake of Seattle, Someone has got to mount a creative, aggressive, no holds-barred campaign challenge to Mayor Nickels. Any of the current crop of candidates could do it. One wonders if they ever will.



Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.