The Mayor's race: not making it easy for us undecideds

Someone who almost ran for mayor ponders the field, and the oddly meek campaigns so far.
Crosscut archive image.

Greg Nickels and Jan Drago, lookalike political allies

Someone who almost ran for mayor ponders the field, and the oddly meek campaigns so far.

I've been interviewing the four major challengers to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. The exercise has done little to dislodge me from the gaggle of undecided voters. And it has led to the sobering conclusion Nickels is loping to re-election owing to the narrow focus of the campaigns of the challengers, none of whom has broken from the pack.

Michael McGinn, Joe Mallahan, James Donaldson, and Jan Drago all appear to be trying to slip through the primary on a single strength instead of working their butts off to demonstrate the multiple qualities needed to win against Nickels in the general election. I wonder how much momentum the un-Nickels will really have the day after the August 18 primary.

The most remarkable thing about the race so far is its complete absence of energy. The prevailing sound from the campaign trail is... crickets. I suspect this only helps Nickels get reelected. Absent other issues, Nickels has been relentlessly appearing to get things done on the surface. I've never seen so many freshly painted lines on streets as those that have appeared this summer. City crews were recently observed feverishly installing bright, white new crosswalk markings in Mt. Baker. On a Sunday.

Each of the four major challengers has a singular, quite different, strength. The problem is that in order to win against Nickels each will need to broaden campaign competencies in several ways. A successful challenger needs four things: First is to hold positions that attract classic Seattle voters, those regular voters who predominate in primaries. Second is to demonstrate that they can run something as big as the city by running their own campaign (or having run something) really, really well. Third is to show the public that they have the interpersonal skills, natural demeanor, and temperament that gathers people round them. Finally, they need to make a convincing case that they could get the sausage made in the City Hall governance factory rife with City Council members, fleets of staffers, and layers of Nickels' famous "Strategic Advisors."

The number of days that a challenger has to execute such a compelling campaign are dwindling. Now that the mail-in voting is taking place, media are paying more attention, so there is opportunity to grab the public by bullhorn every single day. Candidates need to get louder. And busier. On the whole, however, the campaigns are mild and shy. By playing it meek now, all four of them reveal weakness for the bruising kneecapping-with-a-smile fest that will be needed to beat Nickels in the general election. It is time to see which candidate can truly get their Chicago on — in some smart Seattle way — to assess who has what it will take after August 18th.

Michael McGinn is a true believer — about loathing the deep-bore tunnel. It is the deep-core of his platform; he'll do everything to stop it. Polling in the context of the tunnel puts him in a strong position, but most voters don't actually cast votes in the context of just one issue. They strike a balance among things they care about and then go with their gut instinct. McGinn's politics are Seattle-voter-friendly and he is arguably the greenest guy in the race. His challenge is how to transcend his rumpled, grizzled, slightly hot-headed aura and convince us he has skills enough (managerial talent, ability to listen to opposing views and actually work the levers of City Hall) to actually run a 10,000-person organization. It's a crapshoot as to whether he would be effective or quickly alienate those he disagrees with. To the question, "How should we reorganize Seattle's Department of Transportation?" his response was "Great question. Let me win first and then we will do something about that."

McGinn is working the grass roots hard, as he must since he doesn't have much money. He has volunteers running nightly phone banks and conducting "push polls" to get feedback and sell his point about the tunnel, which he thinks is too risky financially and too car-friendly. Working politics at street-level will carry him for awhile. At some point either a major advertising wave will be needed to scale up or, lacking resources for that, some robust onslaught of earned media attention. His problems: not much money, a late start, relatively low name familiarity, and a message and style that don't appeal to the matrons of Ballard who view him as too brash, or to the multicultural corners of Seattle where he may be perceived as an environmental purist at a time of economic panic.

Joe Mallahan is a moderately passionate, very smart guy who somehow manages to radiate confidence and reluctance all at once. He's got the funding lead among the challengers (thanks to his injection of $200,000 of his own money), but his strategy and demeanor are oddly reserved. His campaign appears disorganized. A simple question during his interview with the Crosscut editorial cabal, "How can we call you directly?" elicited an arcing response about which number, which staffer, and various other excuses you wouldn't expect from a T-Mobile executive. A followup call to his press liaison hasn't been returned.

Yet, listening to him discuss his business approach and compelling life experience, one gets the sense that he probably could manage the City bureaucracy. His observation that the current administration "has a culture of tolerating lack of progress" is spot on. (Some friendly advice: Stop mentioning "T-Mobile" by name at this point, since the iPhone/Verizon/Sprint/Credo Mobile crowd will be more turned off by that than anything else he says.)

The bigger question is why he wants to do it at all. He can be flustered by a question about his personal motivation, the tipping point at which each candidate makes the highly personal decision that "hey, I can do this better than anyone, so I'm going to go for it." His answer seemed to be: I've always wanted to do something like this and we'd been saving money up to do it sometime, so we finally decided to go for it. So then, why enter so late in the campaign?

Mallahan says he's "all in" but that he "has no plans to contribute more" to his own campaign than the initial $200,000. He has continued to work half-time at That Wireless Company during the campaign, which also seems somewhat less than "all in." He says his strategy will be "media-driven," which he can afford, but which is dangerously scattershot for a primary where the general voter doesn't bother. His prospects come down to the quality of the ads he runs, and how many Democratic Party activists he's been able to mobilize to help him. (Those activists served him in good stead in getting endorsements out of Democratic legislative district clubhouses, where Nickels oddly chose not to fight and so did poorly, and that got him some media traction.) Mallahan appeals to the social-justice side of the Democratic Party, just as McGinn appeals to the Green side, with its more upscale and moderate voters.

Jan Drago has been in city government for so long she has a hard time escaping the fact, much less the memories. In her Crosscut interview, answers to nearly any question tended to start with an historic monologue on the role she played in the past on the issue at hand. (Those rambling answers drive crazy some in the business community, a natural base of support.) With 16 years on City Council she can reasonably claim to have played a hand in almost everything, and she looked back fondly on the Norm Rice administration, 1991-97, as her model of the kind of empowering, high-delegation mayor she would want to be. (Nickels is a controlling, low-delegation manager.)

Drago's experience advantage is meant to give voters an alternative to Nickels — someone who is not a rookie, as Mallahan, Donaldson, and McGinn would be. (Economic hard times may not be the best time for on-the-job training.) And, since she wants to scoop up the rest of the anti-Nickels voters after the primary, she says very little, and nothing critical, about them: "Nope, not gonna go there. This isn't about them, this is about me." She's basically sitting on her lead, even if it's only a lead for second place in the primary. At one level, this makes sense. It's hard to get much media attention in the summer doldrums, so why not hold your fire to the fall? Lots of people have voted for Drago in the past, so she can count on that base. Primary voters skew to women over 55 living north of the ship canal, and that's the foks Drago is working and mailing. After all, she doesn't have much money, due to the late start and all her past financial supporters who are fearful of the Mayor.

Drago is well regarded as a go-to person who can get everyone in a room, close the doors, and work through the problem to actually get something done. That's an incredibly useful skill for a mayor to have, but not enough to win by itself. Drago says that the mayoral campaign has turned out to be "very different" than a City Council campaign. No surprise there. Mayors need to be able to relate broadly to everyone, work a room no matter who's in it and effectively connect with all kinds of people. Drago's challenge is that, in person, she comes across as a bit of a prickly porcupine. Like the Mayor, she's a political person, not a policy person, so she's not particularly open to new ideas. Those aspects, along with her awkward speaking style, won't help when it comes to lofting an inspiring vision of our civic future and then rallying a broad group of voters to coalesce behind her.

James Donaldson would win the election for Most Likable. The former basketball center for the Sonics and fitness guy, Donaldson has the most naturally winning interpersonal style of the bunch. He can walk into a room or down a neighborhood street and effortlessly work the crowd. Speaking to a large group in public is another story, and he even has to read his stump speech from notes. A Big Guy who cares about the Little Guy is about all he really says. At least his newest campaign manager is getting things more organized.

Donaldson talks a good game about his years of small business experience, 30 years in Seattle, and the many community organizations he's been involved with. One wonders about his management talent beyond his mantra of "Teamwork." If he can develop detailed-enough positions and a management critique of Nickels that sticks, he will gain traction in the race. He'll need to do more than simply issue press releases on whatever the media reported that morning. He'll get some African American votes and probably some of the angry Sonics fans, who blame the Mayor for losing the team. And he has a secret weapon: his name might get some voters who fondly remember City Councilwoman Sue Donaldson.

How does it all play out from here? Drago has a known name and a base of supporters who tend to vote in primaries, but I wouldn't call her any more likely to emerge (along with Nickels) than the other challengers. If Mallahan hires a brilliant ad guy, he could make it through the primary. If McGinn transforms his image from "grumpy rumpled guy" to Savvy Urban Sustainable Man, he could make it. If Donaldson gets enough media attention to showcase his winning personality and displays a meatier policy cred, he could cash in on his well-known name.

If one of the newcomers survives the primary, he will be the media story and might well topple a wounded Nickels in November. If Drago does make it through the primary, Nickels will probably win the general election, since Drago doesn't offer much of a contrast, being older than Nickels and serving even longer at City Hall. Ready for the wildest card? That would be if Nickels gets squeezed out in the primary and comes in third, as happened to one-term Mayor Paul Schell in 2001. In that case, Drago could occupy the political center that would otherwise be massively defended by Mayor Nickels.


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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.