Thursday's Seattle Mayoral debate was the first shot Joe Mallahan and Michael McGinn had at beginning to close the deal with post-primary voters. Neither candidate scored a knockout blow but the Cinerama convocation did show some distinctions between the two and the challenges each faces in order to win in November.
After watching how McGinn and Mallahan have progressed (or not) in refining their message, style, and strategy for the general election, I'm ready to pick a horse in the race, make an early, bold (probably foolish) prediction, and offer a warning.
My pick is Mike McGinn. He's shown an ability to manage a campaign well, describe his motivations for running, and master enough policy-wonk detail to tackle complicated subjects. He still needs to show that he can listen to and integrate opposing views effectively, and he still must make the subtle but important transition in style and tone from amiable muckraker to inspiring Mayor. But he has already shown the ability to improve his game immensely.
One example: it was fascinating to see pro-business types in the audience step up afterward and pepper McGinn with lines like "I"ve always supported the tunnel, but now I'm interested in the alternative, how can I drill down and learn more about your proposal on that?" He engaged each of the folks with thoughtful two-way dialog long after Joe Mallahan had headed for the exits.
My early prediction is that barring any real wackiness in the campaign, McGinn is likely to be the next Mayor of Seattle — provided that he successfully attends to the blind spots in his own campaign. Bluntly, McGinn needs to get outta' Greenwood. Looking at the primary electoral map it is clear that a candidate must authentically engage South and Southeast Seattle, along with West Seattle, on the issues that matter to those voters. Those neighborhoods were rock solid Nickelsville in the primary. At the debate McGinn and Mallahan both fumbled their answer to former candidate James Donaldson's question about how best to tackle youth violence and gang problems.
The only part of the debate that approximated fireworks — mere sparklers, really, not the big bang — occurred when it came to the issue of the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Mallahan interrupted to call McGinn's tunnel taxation characterization "disingenuous" and the back and forth on the issue followed the predictable pattern. The tunnel will certainly play a key role in the campaign but it may not unfold as conventional wisdom expects.
The more light that shines on the tunnel project, the more Mallahan will be pressed to explain what is, especially to business types, an untenable project management scenario. What smart businessperson would support a project within their own company that is incompletely designed, with total costs unknown, missing huge chunks of the funding required for completion, and that comes with an open-ended commitment for your company to fund other people's mistakes or mismanagement? McGinn can win that argument easily but that is not enough. He must also answer everyone's next thought: "What the hell else are we supposed to do, then?" with something that doesn't sound like a bucket of leftover bus bolts.
One of the biggest questions, however, and a big reason for my own prediction of the winner, is why doesn't Joe Mallahan seem to be "bringing it" to his campaign. McGinn was more comfortable with the debate format, the questions, the back-and-forth. He made a strong closing argument in form if not substance. McGinn showed a sturdy comfortable demeanor, clear delivery, and detailed knowledge on a range of policy topics. In contrast, Mallahan often looked pained, reddening and interrupting periodically. Mallahan seems uncomfortable in his campaign.
And the difference in campaign management is stark. McGinn actually runs a tight ship — never mind his record-low expenditures per primary vote earned. McGinn's volunteer staff calls and e-mails when they say they will; scheduling is a routine affair. Yet after e-mailing the Mallahan campaign with an interview request and getting no response (again) I walked up to Joe after the debate to request an interview. He attempted to wave off my business card and would only refer me back to the same aide who hasn't returned earlier calls or e-mails. This is now the big leagues and these campaigns should be humming like a well oiled machine.
Mallahan needs to tap into some broader authenticity — quickly. He needs to be able to look voters in the eye and explain, in one or two meaningful sentences, why he wants to be Mayor and why he is the best man for the job. The public wonders, with justification, whether the guy who didn't bother to vote much and who mostly spent his own money launching his campaign is capable of earning diverse support. If Mallahan doesn't up his game, the label (fair or not) as the Rich Guy Who Wants to Spend His Money on Elections Instead of Voting in Them, will stick.
Finally, the warning. Any way it goes we are going to elect a newbie Mayor, so don't be surprised when we get — a newbie Mayor. City Hall will hit bumps in the road and we are likely to see an above average number of slow-motion trainwrecks. Both of these guys are notably green at the governing thing. But that die was already cast in the primary. Voting against Nickels will turn out to have been the easy part.