Joe Who? and Mike Who-Dat?

The public had long ago soured on Mayor Nickels, but we ended up with two very unknown challengers. Here's how the political cards might be reshuffled.
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Joe Mallahan, a candidate out of nowhere

The public had long ago soured on Mayor Nickels, but we ended up with two very unknown challengers. Here's how the political cards might be reshuffled.

Earlier this summer, Seattleites worried whether or not there were any qualified candidates to take on a vulnerable Greg Nickels. Tim Burgess, Peter Steinbrueck, Richard Conlin, Greg Smith, and others passed on the challenge this time around, leaving the campaign so bereft that sex columnist Dan Savage threatened the city with electoral extortion: If no one else better qualified runs against Nickels, I will.

Staring into that abyss, the dynamic of the race changed when Jan Drago jumped in. She might be Nickels-in-a-skirt from a policy standpoint, but she was credible and willing to make the challenge. Nickels had coasted to his first re-election four years ago by scaring out the talent. This time around, the retiring-from-the-City-Council Drago had nothing to lose by taking on Boss Hoss' machine (and Tim Ceis' glare).

This mayor's race has been a case of the people being way ahead of the politicians: Nickels has been unpopular for a long while, and the citizens are restless. As the field shaped up with Drago, Mike McGinn, and Joe Mallahan, the question wasn't superstar status, but could any of these candidates offer a credible alternative to the status quo? Drago ran a poor campaign and faded, though she may have shaved off some votes that otherwise might have gone to Nickels. Mallahan and McGinn became not the perfect candidates, but the good-enough candidates.

Few expected Nickels to be "Schelled" in the top-two primary, an ignominious fate reserved for the likes of WTO mayor Paul Schell and Mt. St. Helens governor Dixy Lee Ray. But it looks like that's what's happened, if Nickels late numbers don't unexpectedly surge in a new direction. So far, his opponents are solidifying their positions in the top slots.

So the city is shifting from having one experienced, though disliked, mayor, to the possibility of choosing between two better liked, but very much unknown quantities who are the products of the voters' own disenchantment. It's not just new over the old, it's the very much unknown over the known. A case of the devils we don't know being better than the one we do.

The mayorship may be a poisoned chalice, looking a bit more like the King County Executive office which presides over a rapidly collapsing bureaucratic empire. The city is faced with a massive budget hole &mdash: the newest number is $72.5 million. Terrible news for the city, sobering news for the growth-at-any-cost crowd, and a figure that will help frame the debate over the downtown bored-tunnel project. Can we really afford the damn thing after all? Is it an over-priced boondoggle that resulted from too many compromises and too much stakeholder appeasing? Could it be the tunnel version of the Green Line monorail, a fancy flub dub with a very high price-tag? McGinn based his campaign on being the tunnel monkey-wrencher, bringing together an odd coalition of urban greens and fiscal conservatives. There's something almost Charlie Chongish about that coalition.

McGinn is a big thinker himself, a guy who talks about making Seattle a "great city," which I hear as "watch out for this guy." Greatness is not what we need; how about the basics, please? Yet he's more in tune with the immediate times, an adjustment of the Nickels era sense that Seattle's pockets are bottomless, that every almost project can get the nod (trollies, rail, roads, Mercer, tunnel...). One thing old-school environmentalists and sustainability advocates used to be about was conservation of resources and doing more with less. The Great Recession may force us to scale back our appetites, especially since there's so much expensive stuff in the pipelines already (the next phase of Sound Transit, the 520 Bridge replacement).

I read the bag tax defeat as an indication that the people want to slow down the flow of cash from their pockets these days. It's easy to blame the big bad chemical industry, but the bag tax from the very beginning was opposed by a majority who felt it was all stick and no carrot, both trivial and painful, like a bee sting. Proponents will argue that eventually, from a policy standpoint, fees like the bag tax make sense because they make transparent and charge the user the true cost of dealing with the bags in the waste stream. Interesting policy theory, but an irritating, even alienating, way to make a point.

From folks I talked to, Joe Mallahan is an unknown, but seems like a stand-up guy, one who comes with less baggage than a Sierra Club populist. Business interests might well coalesce around him as more acceptable to the powers that be: a corporate executive with real management experience, someone who's not going to unmake the Alaska Way Viaduct replacement compromise. If McGinn is working the trick of creating new oddball urban coalitions, Mallahan seems more like a real "Seattle Way" kind of guy. I expect mainstream supporters like the Seattle Times editorial board which mildly endorsed Mallahan in the primary along with Nickels, to warm up to his approach over McGinn's. That "Outstanding" Mallahan received from the Municipal League is a badge of normalcy that says to the Chamber and the Alki Foundation types, "he's not too out there."

Mallahan also has an opportunity with small business and the neighborhoods, some of whom fret about the idealism and, yes, even self-righteousness, of the extreme greens. McGinn could be just as big a shill for development as Nickels, and maybe in some ways even more effective, by giving it all a good green-wash with density arguments and scolding folks about their auto dependence. That's likely to meet grassroots resistance around the city where single family homes are still the norm and the need for autos is a fact of life. He might be the kind of green who can preach about the benefits of Manhattanizing South Lake Union, but does he really get neighborhood diversity and affordability, or is he mostly Big Green theory?

McGinn does have some solid neighborhood experience in Greenwood, and is already setting himself up as a proponent of things like sidewalks, which, politically speaking, might be the new potholes. Meaning that instead of pleasing the masses as a Pothole Ranger, like Nickels tried to do and Paul Schell before him, McGinn can promise to make the neighbs more walkable by putting in the long-neglected basics. From pothole to sidewalk is a symbolic sea change. But folks are still going want their potholes filled, even if it's evil autos that make them.

It'll be interesting to see who each candidate can bring under his umbrella, especially often feuding groups. Mallahan might get NIMBYs and business, McGinn greens, labor, and fiscal conservatives.(Labor won't like McGinn, but it will shun Mallahan because of his anti-union employer, T-Mobile.) Both will try for neighborhood appeal, and both will have to assure voters that they can run a huge bureaucracy and satisfy the citizenry with substantive and stylistic changes that fit the economic times and our progressive self-image. Both will also have to address fiscal realities: Mallahan wants to postpone the Mercer Street project and promises to help bring the Viaduct replacement project in on budget; McGinn thinks the bored-tunnel will sink us financially.

But either of these rookies is likely to discover that running a city is a lot harder than beating an unpopular incumbent.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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