Editor's note: A version of this story ran yesterday on the Crosscut Blog and received several reader comments there.
Some Seattle voters seem proud to announce to you that they've already voted, like smug students who turned in their homework assignment early for extra credit. In an election like this, I don't see why an early vote has any upside: There's a long way to go before election day with Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan running for mayor. The next two weeks could be a political eternity.
Case in point: McGinn's long-anticipated pivot on the Viaduct tunnel. Political watchers have expected, and some McGinn supporters encouraged, a softening of his tunnel stance. Tunnel-hater McGinn started out with "an over-my-dead body" message on the tunnel, and in fact built his campaign identity on that. When Crosscut met with McGinn after the primary, he indicated that if the people of Seattle insisted on a tunnel, say by voting for it again, he'd go along. Now, with the City Council's vote, he's moved even further: He won't sabotage what he thinks is a terrible idea, but will continue to "ask tough questions" about it. In other words, in a John Kerry-like moment, McGinn was against the tunnel before he was, begrudgingly, for it.
This undercuts one of McGinn's primary arguments against the tunnel, which is that city voters already held a referendum on it and voted against it. This has always been arguable, but now McGinn is essentially saying that the voter mandate (which he believes in) has been overturned by the council vote, and that he will accept that outcome. Is McGinn admitting that a central premise of the centerpiece of his campaign was wrong? Is his wriggle on the tunnel an admission that, in fact, more voters want a tunnel than not? Is a visionary one who has misread his city?
The upside of the switch for McGinn is that it might win him votes, and observers (like the pro-McGinn folks at Publicola) think he looked at his polling numbers and realized he had less to lose by flip-flopping than by sticking to his guns. And it's true that McGinn was leaving a lot of votes on the table with his tunnel opposition. McGinn supporters can spin this that their candidate is a pragmatist, not an obstructionist, and that his positions are more nuanced than they appear, his understanding of the job more realistic.
But it's worrisome that McGinn has been shedding core positions that have been cornerstones of his campaign: Tunnel opposition was one, taking over Seattle schools was another.
In his campaign announcement, McGinn emphasized making Seattle schools a priority, and there's much a mayor can and should do to help make that happen. But McGinn later went further suggesting the city could take over the schools, then that if they did not improve within two years, it would be time for a "governance change." In his Chamber of Commerce debate with Joe Mallahan, he chided Mallahan for not being eager to expand the mayor's portfolio to include the school district.
But the effect of McGinn's stance was that one, he didn't seem to realize that there were significant changes already underway at the school district, with a new regime and revamped board. This infuriated some folks deeply involved in improving the Seattle school system. The time marker he put down didn't make sense, plus two, his bluster made him look naive and power-hungry. Supporting schools is one thing, running them is another. McGinn seems to have softened, then dropped a schools takeover from his talking points.
If Mike McGinn is a conviction candidate — as contrasted with Mallahan, who seems to be an avatar (or is it shill?) of Seattle's power establishment — he's undercutting his main strength, which is to take bold, challenging stands against the conventional wisdom. You can say this is smart politics, and I suppose it would be if he were running as a conventional politician, but everything about his campaign's appeal — the low budget, the accessibility of the candidate, the insurgent tactics, even the beard — have pointed in a different direction. Are we going to discover that McGinn is now just a more rumpled, perhaps more articulate but also more lawyerly version of Joe Mallahan?
One reason not to decide yet in this election is that these two mayoral candidates are still telling us fundamental things about themselves, what they believe and how they do politics. For undecideds like me, there's nothing to lose by waiting a little longer before I mark my ballot.