A highly savvy Seattle political figure observed with a sly smile the other day — noting three recent episodes of Mayor Mike McGinn's ability to get under everybody's skin — that he's starting to think that the McGinn reelection strategy for 2013 is to behave badly enough to induce a swarm of candidates to get into the race. That way the incumbent mayor easily survives the primary and, given some luck, draws a marginal candidate for the final. Could be a smart strategy.
At any rate, the maverick mayor, who seemed lately to be trying to give less offense (while staying firm on his opposition to the waterfront tunnel), was back in his element this past week. He drew expected criticism for hiring the controversial bike activist, David Hiller, to his staff (peddling pedaling). Hiller's wife, Candace Inagi, formerly worked handling labor negotiations for McGinn; her new job, funding by a grant rather than the City, is focused on education and community engagement issues. Hiring Hiller adds to the mayor's quotient of confrontationalists, and the timing, amid more budget cuts, also rankles.
Then the mayor's assistant press secretary drew flack by lecturing reporters about approaching too close to Hizzoner or calling him up at 9 pm. A week before, McGinn was quoted by an Atlanta reporter in telling a visiting Atlanta business delegation that much of the Seattle business community is behind the times.
At some point, McGinn is going to shade over into the lost-cause category for many voters. That could make the rest of his term a study in ineffectiveness, as power brokers and City Hall leaders start writing him off and making side deals with the City Council. That path leads straight to one-term mayors. Likewise, the city's patience is going to wear thin faster than usual, owing to the recession, our Third World rock-and-roll streets, and tunnel fatigue.
The joker in this deck could be that slew of challengers, each smelling blood. I suspect the City Council will exercise discipline and settle on Tim Burgess as their choice. Key will be inducing Bruce Harrell to put aside his mayoral longings this time, and the council is trying to induce this by coming to his support in the current City Council re-election, and probably promising a choice committee assignment. Harrell is getting more skilled at the job and now looks likely to win a new term. Sally Clark is the possible back-up candidate for mayor, if Burgess somehow demurs.
There are at least two candidates who could also jump in. One is State. Sen. Ed Murray, who has had a good session in Olympia, scored points with transportation and education forces, and would have the backing of the gay community, a significant voting bloc in a city with few large voting blocs left. Murray is an effective, sometimes very direct figure, who would probably punch McGinn a lot harder than Burgess would. Another possibility is King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, still smarting from his poor showing in the 2009 race for county executive and said to be feeling a little undervalued on the County Council, now that the action has shifted so decisively to the Executive's office.
The Great Mentioner has four other names for your consideration, though each is unlikely. One would be a reprise by Greg Nickels, who is showing signs of wanting to get back into the political game and says the only office he rules out is Congress (Nickels hates to fly). Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck would probably cut most deeply into the McGinn base if he ran, but he seems intent on building his architectural and urban planning career. State Rep. Reuven Carlyle is eager to move up, though his main focus is on state issues such as education; Carlyle is one of the new wave of urban Democrats who have a few degrees of separation from unions.
The fourth name is Dow Constantine, now King County Executive and earning high marks, and whose original career plan was to succeed fellow West Seattleite Greg Nickels as mayor. Constantine is an urban kind of politician, and he would have strong support if he wanted to migrate over from the County. Still that's a surprising kind of "demotion."
Could there be room for a back-to-basics, fix-those-damn-potholes, get-business-rolling-again candidate? Theoretically, yes. Numerous cities, such as Chicago, are realizing how deeply in debt they are to pension obligations, neglected infrastructure, and all kinds of mini-departments set up to babysit small constituencies. (To his credit, McGinn has put a few of those flush-times departments on the block, at least for merger.) Sometimes these candidates also weigh in for more radical school reforms, such as charters, a very tough sell in Seattle.
I know of one affable business leader who's exploring such a campaign, but with little name recognition or political experience. I doubt there will be this kind of challenger for two reasons. One is that the natural backers of such a candidate will be claimed early, particularly by Burgess. The other is the absence of any kind of an urban Republican Party that could provide some institutional support to such a challenger. The business community would probably try to dissuade such a candidate, fearing the votes she or he would siphon off from Burgess.
So we're likely to get reform-light, assuming McGinn can be knocked off. Of course, a worsening economy could change the mood and break up our current consensus that the first order of local business is "to keep the government family together."
As for predictions, let me just underscore what the last six changes of office have made into a kind of local pattern. One is that the candidates from the City Council don't win (Norm Rice in 1989 was the one exception, though he lost in his first challenge to a sitting mayor). The other rule is that the more liberal candidate prevails in the general. (Wes Uhlman over Mort Frayn, Charles Royer over Paul Schell, Norm Rice over Doug Jewett, Schell over Charley Chong, Greg Nickels over Mark Sidran, and McGinn over Joe Malahan.) Getting to the left of Mayor McGinn will take some artful framing of the issues, however, mostly involving a shift of the debate from greener-than-thou to social justice and jobs and decent schools for working class folks.
Lastly, if the primary race can boil down to McGinn, Burgess, and Murray, with marginal other candidates, you have a situation, as happened with Schell and Nickels, where the incumbent gets squeezed out in the primary. That's the real risk in any McGinn strategy of looking goofy enough that you goad in lots of challengers. You meanwhile erode your own support and could end up with only one or two strong challengers, meaning a fatally bad showing in the primary. Oops.