What went wrong with Mayor Nickels' campaign

A few early observations on what may have been Greg Nickels' last hurrah
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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

A few early observations on what may have been Greg Nickels' last hurrah

What follows is some political shorthand for how Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, with all the advantages of incumbency and powerful backers, did so poorly in the primary. At this writing, Mike McGinn (27%) and Joe Mallahan (26%) have a small lead over the Mayor (25%), with half the votes still to be counted. Since those uncounted votes are the ones cast late, they might be influenced by Nickels' extensive negative ads against his two top challengers — though the effect might be still worse for the Mayor.

Boosting McGinn by attacking him. McGinn, the green candidate, had little money and was basically out of bullets in the final weeks of the campaign. An unknown candidate with little money typically will capitalize on a gut issue that grabs the public's attention and gets media coverage — in this case that hardy perennial, the Viaduct. Nickels' mistake was to attack McGinn, in a complicated message about how not building the tunnel will cost taxpayers more than building it. (Huh?) All those ads put McGinn back in the spotlight, giving him a daily chance to fire back with his message and attacks, thus reminding his core voters why they liked him, and powered him past Nickels.

Ignoring the two key bases for a primary. That would be Northeast Seattle, where primary voters abound, and labor. The Mayor got all tangled up in a Northeast issue, Thornton Creek and Northgate, muddying his reputation there. And while he is a staunch labor Democrat, his secretive style, making decisions in a black box and telling labor afterward, alienated some of the unions, who were feeling plenty unloved already. They got him some money for last-weeks' advertising but didn't turn out voters from union families, as they did in electing Nickels in 2001.

Going national. Being America's greenest mayor turned out to be a curse, for it turned Nickels' head and gave him a version of Potomac fever. This means, like Ron Sims, he started playing on the national stage, turning over the daily running of the city to Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis. Always risky, as the snowstorm demonstrated, and Ceis is such a controlling figure, with all decisions going through his political calculator, that the government grew surly and cautious and distant. Going national is an occupational hazard for Seattle mayors, normally enabled by Bill Stafford of the Chamber, though sometimes the malady is dreaming of statewide office. Voters sense it, combining with a sensible wariness about third-term burnout.

Attacking Jan Drago early. As soon as Drago announced, Team Nickels pounced, hoping to dry up her money early. That worked, and Drago never really recovered, finishing a poor fifth. Two problems. It typecast Nickels early as a bully and a political boss. It also meant that a cash-starved Drago could not help Nickels by attacking McGinn and Mallahan, chopping one of them down so that Nickels would be assured of surviving the primary.

The Hillary syndrome. You would think the Obama victory would have made clear the problems of Nickels' running on experience and his 32 years of political insiderness (since age 17), yet that's what he did. Had he signaled some exciting new directions and stylistic shifts in the coming term, he might have seemed fresh. (For instance, naming a new, fuzzier deputy mayor, rather than coyly hinting, yet again, that Ceis might depart.) Nickels looks and acts like a jowly, uninspiring, blue-suit bureaucrat, not a fresh voice in touch with the people's needs; and he stubbornly stayed with that manner.

Shunning statesmanship. Nearly all mayors are overwhelmed by the job at first, which produces a natural wariness of rivals and critics, a heavy-handed reward-and-punishment style. Then comes the sense, somewhere well into the first term, "Hey, I can do this job!" Amid the relaxation, a new team starts to replace the campaign enforcers, one that reaches out to the City Council and appoints department heads who thrive in freedom, not loyalty tests. The politician evolves into the statesman.

Nickels certainly did get better at the job, and in pulling together regional politicians for the Sound Transit 2 vote, he was very much a statesman. But he didn't really make it across that continental divide, and it showed. Going negative, as he probably had to do in the last weeks of the campaign, sealed the suspicion that you could never really get the politician out of this pol.


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