Mallahan or McGinn? That is the question.

I have no answer yet about how to vote in the Seattle mayor's race. Like a lot of people, I'm still working it out.
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Beware the ravens of Odin

I have no answer yet about how to vote in the Seattle mayor's race. Like a lot of people, I'm still working it out.

I'm ambivalent about Seattle's two mayoral candidates, as are many people I respect. I don't think there's an absolute right or wrong this election, and despite diligently watching candidate debates, meeting the candidates and their backers, and querying respected colleagues on how they're voting, I know I'll be casting my vote with misgivings.

In many respects, Joe Mallahan has qualities I'd like to see in a mayor. He has an every-guy, blue-collar, local-boy aspect that I like. And I like pragmatism, which he claims to embody. Mayors Greg Nickels, Paul Schell, Norm Rice, and Charles Royer were all at their best at their most pragmatic: filling potholes, fixing roads, helping schools, expanding libraries and community centers. OK, snowplowing not so much. But their visionary qualities were often weak points: urban villages, laser sculptures on Elliott Bay, "Seattle is a Kids Place," world-class-city-building, Kyotoing. These painted vivid pictures, but they were the political equivalent of refrigerator art. Joe Mallahan, like his ordinary Joe name, seems like he'd skip the finger-painting for something more concrete, like building a tunnel.

Mallahan also has a passion for charitable works and involvement, a laudable social conscience. He was inspired to volunteer for Barack Obama, awakened by the last election in a way that millions of Americans were. I don't fault him, as some of McGinn's supporters do, for self-funding some of his primary campaign. Indeed, I find it admirable that he put his money where his values are. Some are troubled by his voting record, and it is bad, but voting is voluntary — not a duty but a right to be exercised, or not. That he has awakened from a political slumber and become motivated for local public service should be applauded as a virtue, not a vice. If not for his own money, he never would have been taken seriously as a threat to Mayor Nickels. As it was, it got him second place in the primary. It was a smart, gutsy move.

The downside of Mallahan isn't his vision, or lack of it. It's that, despite his focus on pragmatism, he has so little actual experience with politics and government. Even more concerning is his learning curve. Watching him in his debates with Mike McGinn, it has been painful to see a man so unable to make his own best case. Listening to him defend the tunnel, talk about incentive zoning, or discuss the "Africans" who support him was troubling. It's as if he has a kind of Bush-style verbal dyslexia. Mallahan has sometimes sent surrogates out in his place to meet with some influential Seattleites. Charming as she is, sending Tina Podlodowski on Joe's behalf reinforces the sense that she might be better mayoral material than the candidate.

Mallahan's last televised debate on KOMO was his best yet, and he finally connected with a pitch or two, but more often he's been like a Mariners batter who couldn't even see his favorite pitch coming. Even Mallahan's aides admit his learning curve will be steep if elected, as it has been for some other mayors, like Royer, our last three-termer. But Royer was politically informed and had communications skills from his days at KING-TV, skills that are essential for leaders. That Mallahan has neither is cause for pause.

Another concern is where he does have experience. I've never been enamored of business candidates because generally it is poor preparation for running a government, which must function on non-business principles and often stand up to the demands of business itself. A city is more than an engine for driving profits, there's more to it than efficiency, and citizens aren't customers, consumers, or shareholders. The last thing Seattle needs is a CEO.

Another worry is how Mallahan is backed by the largely reassembled Nickels money machine. He's got the business community behind him. No one can credibly deny that Mallahan's main political advice is coming from people like Tayloe Washburn and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He's also got a lot of labor backing because of his support of the tunnel, which is a massive public works project. Labor, business; all he lacks are the greens, though he has some. With the notable exception of support from Vulcan, Mallahan is clearly the choice of Seattle power brokers. To me, this growth-at-all-cost crowd is responsible for some of the worst excess and stupidity of the city's boom years, and the thought of them whispering in the rookie Mallahan's ear like the ravens of Odin does not bode well.

As to Mike McGinn, he is a very appealing, un-mayoral candidate, not conventionally telegenic, a bearded guy who wears a blazer like it's a foreign object. Here's passionate, rumpled Seattle, the guy from Greenwood who fought for sidewalks, the Sierra Club activist who challenged the road builders and helped get more light rail passed. He answers his own phone, eschews handlers, comes to meetings on his electric bike.

McGinn has been described as a "bomb-thrower," a guy who will mess with the status quo to get something done. In a green city, he's greener-than-thou. He doesn't want more roads, but wants streetcars, light rail and buses in abundance. He even wants them more aggressively than the agencies that provide the service. One big concern: He's running a true-believer campaign stocked with young greens who will do somersaults to prove he walks on water or is the second-coming of Obama. Yes, he's a big-vision guy who, some say, is a kind of Trojan candidate: That rumpled Seattle exterior masks ambition, arrogance, an embrace of growth that matches his "Great City" notion that Seattle has a Big City destiny. Despite his neighborhood activism, he's greeted with lots of skepticism by many neighborhood activists who think he's too pro-density, pro-high-rise.

Many of his backers embraced his tunnel opposition and his support of a surface option the way they previously backed the Monorail's Green Line: as a moral, planet-saving crusade, an example of Manichaean good and evil. It's hard to see that in the McGinn-Mallahan choice, but there's definitely an eco-echo chamber on that wing of city politics.

McGinn rudely disabused some with his tunnel flip-flop, a classic case of trying to have something both ways. McGinn is still opposed to the tunnel, he says, but will not stop it because the Seattle City Council wants to go ahead (9-0 vote). However, he will ask tough questions, he reassures, and he continues to outline what a bad idea the tunnel is. His problem now is that for those who knew him as a tunnel opponent, he seems like a traitor to his cause, an opportunist; worse, a lawyer. For those who support the tunnel, they must ask, who will build a better one? A man who hates it and will likely undermine it while claiming to be "mayoral" in supporting the will of the people, or a man who really believes in the thing? Scarily, his true-believer supporters seem undeterred by his changed position, acting as if it is simply further proof of his infallibility. What is in that McGinn Kool-Aid?

But here's the thing about McGinn: While his tunnel switch showed a lack of political skill and conviction, while McGinn engineered a tunnel weasel that, we hope, is not indicative of the engineering skills of the actual tunnel builders (if it happens), McGinn's tunnel skepticism is exactly right on. It is likely to be a boondoggle, expensive, a mess. Hard questions do have to be asked, and the option reeks of the classic kind of win-win Seattle solution that is overpriced and not well thought out. He's also right about the dangerous shoals of moving ahead with a hostile Olympia and tight budgets all around.

It's worrisome that Mallahan maintains an oblivious stance on the tunnel, a kind of Pollyannish belief that he'll bring it in on time and on budget, with the idea that Seattle won't have to pay for the extras. How is it possibly good politics to announce publicly that Olympia's legislation is simply symbolic, i.e., to be ignored? How is it good politics to imply that Seattle can spend whatever it wants on the tunnel and that taxpayers can afford to? Mallahan the pragmatist is an unrealistic tunnel idealist; McGinn the tunnel cynic is the truth-teller who lied about swearing to stop the tunnel. He seemed to surrender his principles when the City Council squeaked. Oh, my.

While McGinn is direct about tunnel costs and overruns, he is less skeptical about his own big plans. The surface option and I-5 project would likely be a budget buster too, especially when all of its flaws, complications and delays are dealt with. Not necessarily on the tunnel scale, but still. It would take a lot of mitigation money to get something acceptable in the final details: any surface solution would be battled and compromised block by block. That's the kind of insurgency Seattle excels at. But McGinn also wants to expand light rail to Ballard and other neighborhoods, expand the streetcar system, and put light rail on SR 520. Start totaling the tab and McGinn's case for fiscal prudence is vaporized by his own vision. McGinn puts it off by talking about drawing up plans and putting them to public votes. But McGinn is not Mr. Austerity.

McGinn's chief positive, and it's a big plus, is his intelligence and environmental campaign experience (transportation, parks). People who have worked with McGinn have felt the sharp elbows of his ambition, but he knows something about city shaping and urban policy, and when you talk to McGinn on substance, there's a real there there. For those Seattleites who were tired of Nickels' opacity or are worried about Mallahan's sentence structures and non sequiturs, McGinn is refreshing: informed in the details, ready to argue, but also a man who asks intelligent questions. In this respect he reminds me of Mark Sidran, who ran and lost narrowly to Nickels in 2001. Sidran clearly had the sharper intellect, and it somewhat made up for his edges. You found that even when you disagreed on policy, you could respect him.

One small example of policy engagement that means something to me: Historic Seattle asked all the candidates to respond to a questionnaire about their positions on preservation, which is a key part of any city planning and environmental strategy. Mallahan hasn't responded; McGinn provided specifics. McGinn has insisted that his campaign is an exemplar of how he would run the city: open, personal, direct. Mallahan's operation, quite frankly, has been something of a mess internally. Is that a deciding factor? No, but it does mean something. Of course, nothing means as much as winning.

McGinn's visions are very urbanist, and they contrast with the older, more middle-brow Seattle. They hint at where Seattle has been trending: childless, young, driven by the "creative class," not the middle or working class. Hard greens have been dubbed as elitist, out of touch with the people on things like carless days, widespread road tolling, bag taxes. McGinn's list of backers is stocked with people who push these policies, conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill, still strange in South or West or even much of North Seattle. My hunch is that you'll be able to correlate the election results with density: The higher it is, the more they like McGinn.

Despite his first-place win in the primary, McGinn is clearly the anti-establishment candidate, the one people are afraid of. While he's a dealmaker, he's a tough negotiator and enough of an outsider that he can shake things up. He's also a potential fly in the ointment of the City Council's planned takeover of city government. They have to work with whomever wins, but Mallahan seems so much more malleable — and much more in tune with the council status quo, which was pretty hard to distinguish from Nickels himself. Only one retiring council member chose to challenge Nickels, when everyone else wanted to. Now, they'll be jockeying to reassert power and set themselves up for 2013 on the bet that the next mayor is a one-termer.

For those suffering from Nickels nostalgia, Mallahan is your best bet; he's Nickels-lite. If you want a visionary lawyer to shake things up and build a denser city, McGinn is your guy. If you don't want either, you — I mean we — have a tough choice to make on Tuesday.

If you want to make your case to a still-undecided voter, please do so in the comments below.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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