The Seattle Mayor's race finally kindled this week when Mayor Greg Nickels' campaign started attacking Mike McGinn. Up to now, all the attacks had been aimed at Nickels, who seems to have grown tired (or worried) at just taking the punishment and assuming his incumbency and money advantage would get him safely through the primary. Candidates always hope someone else would throw the low blows, since the puncher usually drives up his or her negatives. After you, Jan, Nickels' backers used to goad Jan Drago, but she preferred to keep her positives up and figure her name familiarity would get her through the primary August 18. You go, Greg!
Polls and general impressions on the hustings suggest that Nickels is in real trouble, possibly even in danger of getting Schell-shocked, as happened to incumbent Mayor Paul Schell in 2001 when he failed to survive the top-two primary. Nothing the Mayor has done has helped his ratings in the polls much, and his recent TV spots may have even dropped him a point or two.
Meanwhile, Joe Mallahan used his money to get an early start as the most likely un-Nickels. He may now be ahead in the polls. McGinn, artfully tapping "Big Dig" anxieties about the tunnel on the waterfront, has appealed to the deeper shades of greens, young activists, and some independents and conservatives who figure he's the taxpayer's friend. Both have momentum, while Nickels, Drago, and James Donaldson have reverse-mo.
The Mayor has been slow to start, peevish and distracted in his campaign appearances, looking like he's not all that excited about a third term. That only confirmed the voters' sense that Nickels seems to think he's entitled to the job for as long as he and his coalition of the usual powers at City Hall want it that way. In recent interviews, he's stuck to his "I am what I am" defense of his stubborn, frownful approach to governing. It reminds people of how the Mayor got all haughty when the big snowstorm put him to the test.
Mallahan, something of an Irish charmer, put up $200,000 of his own money (he's a well-paid executive at T-Mobile), took aim at the Democratic caucuses to get some early (if bogus) attention, and gathered up a lot of the elderly voters who don't want four more years of Nickels. He's stayed clear unconventional stands on most issues, letting voters project their hopes on him. He's had the money to run television ads, matching Nickels. Business and labor are still wary of him, since he's untested and would take some years to master City Hall. But he has a message: New, New, New. (And I may know how to manage big organizations.)
The main victim of Mallahan's surge has been Drago, the four-term City Councilwoman, who got in way late and unprepared, found that her natural money supply was already co-opted by Nickels, and tried to skate by as the double-negative candidate: not Nickels and not a rookie. (Shades of Al Gore in 2000: Clintonism without Clinton?) She didn't get enough money to have television ads (except on cable), and has mostly spent her time out of media sight working the retirement homes, often five a day. Only lately has she taken many positions, but they are pretty wan (a regional summit, more money for neighborhood matching grants. opposing the bag fee). She ended up being sandwiched between Nickels and the newcomers, status-quo with a smile, and got dragged down by the general weariness with Nickels' service-the-insiders approach to government. Still, she might surprise. She appeals to older and women voters (who dominate primaries), and if more attacks on McGinn and Mallahan peel off the momentarily entranced, and they don't revert to Nickels, they might rediscover good old comfortable Jan.
McGinn, with little money but a lawyer's combative instincts, has stuck with one issue: the tunnel. It's awfully one-note for an unknown, and a lot of voters really don't want to reopen the Viaduct debate now that the state has finally approved a plan. (Besides, if the Legislature, Speaker Frank Chopp, and Gov. Gregoire were told by Mayor McGinn to forget the eight-years-a-making Viaduct compromise, imagine what they would do to Seattle in return.) But at least McGinn has a big issue to ride and an anti-car message for the idealistic greens, even if this youthful pitch is aimed at a low-primary-voting segment.
A big remaining question in these closing days is what labor unions may do. Some like Publicola's Erica Barnett expect an attack on Mallahan, in part because of T-Mobile's anti-union stance. But it's pretty late, and labor may be calculating that Mallahan will survive the primary, making him the likely next mayor, so why make an enemy? Better in that case to sit on the money or just support labor-loyal Nickels.
With the anti-Nickels vote still uncertain where to go, the race will probably tighten in the coming days. But after the primary verdict (and it may be weeks before we know), there will be a strong sense of Nickels' vulnerability. He's built his following on serving interest groups, not personal affection, so he may find that such expedient alliances quickly fray. I'd think he could beat James Donaldson and McGinn in the final, since Donaldson is so unready and McGinn would easily be pushed out of the center. Conceivably Drago could cobble together a Greg's-gotta-go coalition, and almost certainly Mallahan could, unless he somehow blows himself up under closer inspection.