A money machine without an engineer

With the surprising defeat of Greg Nickels, a powerful political coalition of labor, greens, and developers is up for grabs. If it doesn't settle on one candidate, local politics could be scrambled.
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State Sen. Ed Murray

With the surprising defeat of Greg Nickels, a powerful political coalition of labor, greens, and developers is up for grabs. If it doesn't settle on one candidate, local politics could be scrambled.

The best thing about local politics is that it's usually difficult to look at it through a strictly partisan lens: there's nothing left or right about fixing potholes. Seattle, being close to a one-party town, has candidates who vie for the endorsement of Democratic district regulars, so candidates are often jammed up in a "left and lefter" competition, but it often becomes meaningless. No matter how many times some people stamp their feet and snort, there's nothing particularly left or right wing about any of the Alaska Way Viaduct solutions: tunnel, rebuild, street option, retrofit. And competence with a snowplow? That transcends all labels.

Partisans are sometimes left in a quandary when the world doesn't align into a neat Horsesass vs. Sound Politics kind of split. In the Seattle mayor's race, it's complicated. By any definition Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn are green and liberal, and there's no ideologically pure way to make a decision on either. Throw possible write-in candidate Sen. Ed Murray, and it complicates the mayoral picture, and it doesn't clarify who to support based on a purity test. Three Democrats: a onetime community organizer, a green activist, and a champion of gay rights.

This difficulty is good for us, I suggest, because we can't take short cuts and vote for a ticket. It forces us to look at the pros and cons of each, and take some guidance by the forces that tend to back each candidate. Unless you're a one issue voter, there's a lot to like and dislike about all the candidates, and that's even before you get into personality.

The Ed Murray possibility is intriguing, one because he'd be an excellent, well-qualified candidate, and two because a three-way race could complicate things even further. We could wind-up with a heavily divided decision in the final, not unlike the primary where McGinn, Mallahan, and Nickels were locked in a nearly three-way tie which Nickels narrowly lost. At the very least, the Murray look keeps many people open-minded for a while longer.

I don't know about you, but I'm undecided about who I'm going to vote for in November, with or without Murray in the race. Depending on what happens, that could be the case for a lot of voters who are still trying to get to know the unknowns. Polls suggest voters are open-minded.

The Murray trial balloon and buzz are powerful because it's less about ideology than it is about preserving the powerful, three-prongled coalition that did so much to make Greg Nickels successful. It's a money machine without an engineer.

Nickels' three-legged stool was labor, greens, and business, especially developers. He raised a lot of money and forged a powerful base with that group, and all of a sudden it's up for grabs. Labor is skeptical of both Mallahan and McGinn; greens are divided to the extent that McGinn is uber green, but for many, Mallahan is green enough. Business doesn't like McGinn's anti-tunnel stance, but neither does Mallahan toe the line. His desire to delay the Mercer project, for instance, puts him at odds with the Vulcan agenda. And everyone worries about McGinn's and Mallahan's lack of experience. Instead of one rookie underdog challenging Goliath, we wound up with two Davids throwing rocks at each other, but the big man went down in the first round.

If the race is between Mallahan and McGinn, some of the big money seems to want to lean to Mallahan as a less risky bet. And he may give them what they want to keep Murray out of the race. Nickels' super fundraiser, Colby Underwood, might find himself in the Mallahan camp if someone more attractive and more Nickels-like doesn't come along, and that would be Murray.

But Murray is a long-shot, as write-in candidates rarely win. And to win, he'll need big money to overcome not having his name on the ballot. It could also give him some leverage if he decides not to get in. Who will he back? Can he help turn on the tap for the next-best guy, and get something in return?

Nickels big stool will try and coalesce around a candidate if it can. Its main advantage is money and ground troops. If it can't find someone who can really carry the banner, it'll have to split up and make do. The disassembly of the machine will be interesting, but it will likely leave the winning mayor candidate weaker than Nickels was.

How weak? Pundits seem to expect then that the City Council will step in to a leadership vacuum, but I wouldn't count on it. The council is chock full of mayoral wannabes who, perhaps foolishly, passed this time around, in part because they wanted to inherit the Nickels funding machine rather than go up against it.

Dick Cheney once bragged that Barrack Obama would like the powerful executive office he was being bequeathed. I don't see Obama exactly rushing to give all that power back. That's the nature of reshaping institutions. Once a president starts issuing signing statements, well the next fellow just can't help himself.

Now that the strongman executive is an established figure in Seattle, it might be more likely that the winner of the mayor's race will simply seek to be a better strongman, not give up meekly to a council too weak (or Nickels-friendly) to take on Nickels themselves.

Does Mike McGinn really strike anyone as someone who is shy about taking charge? This is a guy whose campaign announcement included running things (schools, the bus system) that even Nickels didn't control. Just because Nickels will be gone doesn't mean the era of the strongman is over.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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