Seattle mayoral hunger games: How it got this way

A Mossback take on the 2013 mayoral election, the candidates, and modern urban political history. We could see fierce political ground wars on the isthmus of Seattle.
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Seattle City Hall

A Mossback take on the 2013 mayoral election, the candidates, and modern urban political history. We could see fierce political ground wars on the isthmus of Seattle.

The 2013 Seattle mayor's race promises to be an embarrassment of riches rather than a straight up embarrassment. It's already is proving to be a sharp contrast with the semi-fiasco of 2009 when the incumbent, Greg Nickels, was ousted in the primary by two unknowns who'd never held elective office (Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn). McGinn, the bike advocate, won and rode into office on training wheels.

The field was thin because few thought the powerful Nickels was so vulnerable, but he was. He was hurt by a storm and an electorate made cranky by the recession. Still, no one expected him to get bounced, least of all in the primary; so, many qualified candidates passed on the race assuming Nickels would be a shoe-in. But Seattle voters are sometimes full of surprises.

This time around, no one's waiting on the sidelines. A year out from the election and with the filing deadline in May 2013, hats are filling the ring. Mayor Mike McGinn is in re-election mode; city council member Tim Burgess is in; state Senator and recently deposed majority leader Ed Murray is in; former city council member Peter Steinbrueck is poised to make the leap in the next couple of weeks. That right there would make a hell of a race, but there's more. Former King County exec Ron Sims might get in; council member Bruce Harrell is rumored to be taking the plunge; businessman Albert Shen too, and already running is real estate man Charlie Staadecker.

There could be more or fewer candidates declaring, but no harm done having your name bandied about as mayoral material. One thing missing: people are wondering where the women are. In short, it looks like Seattleites will have a great, if not gender-balanced, crop of candidates — perhaps the most qualified field in years.

There have been crowded races before, like the 1977 race that gave us a young populist insurgent named Charles Royer out of a field that included John Miller, Phyllis Lamphere, Sam Smith, Wayne Larkin and Paul Schell. The first crowded field of the modern era was in 1969, which featured 10 primary candidates vying for the big, open seat in City Hall (Mayor Dorm Braman had left to take a job in the Nixon administration). Mort Frayn, Ludlow Kramer, Fred Dore, Sam Smith and Wes Uhlman were the top five contenders. All but one had Olympia experience in the Legislature (Frayn, Dore, Smith, Uhlman) and Kramer was Secretary of State. All were acknowledged leaders or up-and-commers. A sixth serious vote-getter was a cop named Tex Roddam running a law-and-order campaign, plus four relative unknowns. It was the largest field of candidates in a mayoral primary in 30 years. The Seattle Times' Ross Cunningham dubbed the field "the 10 little Indians" after the Agatha Christie whodunnit. Only one would be left standing in the end.

Some of the hot-button issues of '69 were public safety and public confidence in the police, education and transit funding. Sound familiar? Much of the establishment and downtown support went to businessman Frayn, a Republican of the Rockefeller stripe. He ran on the theme of "maturity and judgment." Seattle, however, went for youth and change. Frayn and Democrat Uhlman survived the primary and the establishment was shocked at how well Uhlman did. In the fall, he was the surprise winner at age 34. Not long after, Seattle magazine wondered if the charismatic, precocious Uhlman would "grow up to become president."

We're a little more sober, perhaps chastened, when it comes to thinking of the mayor's office as a launch pad to higher office, but the last four years have sharpened the focus on what we expect from our mayor here on the ground. The Mallahan-McGinn choice was difficult, and the challenges facing either enormous. But McGinn won and people haven't been happy: His approval rating last checked was in the 30s. An image as a guy who can't get along easily with anyone, even his allies, has taken root. If Mallahan-McGinn lowered the bar and gave anyone with a modicum of greater experience (or less) the idea that they could do the job, McGinn's struggles have also been a magnet for candidates confident that they can do it better — much better. Unlike 1969 or '77, the seat is not open, but some critics would argue that it is still empty.

McGinn now has three years of experience under his belt, so is slimmer in weight and heftier in accomplishments than he was in '09. Early in McGinn's term, former mayor Norm Rice told Crosscut writers that it takes all mayors time to learn the job. Royer, he joked, finally figured it out--two years into his third term. McGinn's outsider persona--an activist at heart--and competitive attitude--established him early on as someone who was willing to throw elbows. McGinn has toned it down some--his pr machine has him doing press conferences and cutting ribbons. He looks more mayoral, sounds more mayoral, and has moved his issues through tough budget times. He can be stubborn still, but seems less angry.

He also has issues to run on: The seawall project passed muster with the voters and is moving ahead, the Families and Eduction levy passed, and his push for more rail in the city is going forward too. McGinn is poised to make progress getting the city closer to broadband by activating the "dark" fiber optic lines underground. He was key to solving the tangle over the Chihuly project at Seattle Center, setting the stage for finding ways to effect more public-private projects. The SoDo basketball/hockey arena is another win in seizing a public-private opportunity.

On the downside, there is still the impression that McGinn flip-flopped on the downtown tunnel (he was against it; then said he wouldn't oppose it, which helped him pick up votes in 2009; then after the election he threw up tunnel roadblocks). Right or wrong, there was a lot of lawyerly shading there and it cemented the impression of the mayor as an obstructionist right out of the gate. Plus, the public sided with the tunnel. He's been pegged as anti-car, proposing fees and parking rates that were too high for public consumption. He was again seen as having to be dragged into an agreement with the Department of Justice over oversight of the Seattle Police Department, a stance that baffled even allies. Early on, his relationship with the city council was rocky, emblematic of a kind of inherent difficulty in getting along.

It's an example of strength as weakness. As an outside environmental activist, McGinn was well-served by being a stubborn, tough advocate and negotiator who ruffled feathers. It's been tougher governing that way. That will be a challenge in the upcoming campaign. His opponents will be coming after his leadership style. McGinn is a tough campaigner, as opponent Ed Murray allowed in speaking to Publicola: "I, for one, think that Mike McGinn is a far stronger contender than some of the chattering classes think he is. I don’t take him lightly. He did defeat an incumbent mayor. That was more than just luck. He has a significant core group of very strong supporters." McGinn's competitiveness is an asset, but only to a point: Can he be tough yet still display the warmer, fuzzier mayor made over in the almost daily press releases? Incumbents are frequently caught in that dilemma, and outsider-as-insider McGinn even more so.

So, while issues like public safety and schools and transportation will be argued, a constant thread will be leadership. Tim Burgess will be able to emphasize his collaborative style and his intellectual approach as a kind of urban sociologist with a policeman's background on public safety and reform — real reform — of the department. Ed Murray will ride the wave of  the triumph of getting same-sex marriage passed in the Legislature and at the ballot box with R-74, the most important piece of civil rights legislation in decades, plus his reputation as a force in Olympia. If Ron Sims dives in, he'll bring his strong, passionate and inspiring persona and his resume from running King County. Peter Steinbrueck would be able to point to his tenure on the city council, his advocacy of planned growth, and a leadership style that enfranchises the neighborhoods. Charlie Staadecker, the bow-tied Rotarian, seems to be using the playbook of the mayoral candidate Roger Morgan in Jim Lynch's recent novel, Truth Like the Sun, running on a theme of traditional civic values with the whiff of the Rainier Club about him, passing out buttons that say, "I Believe in Seattle."

Is Staadecker running for mayor of some misty, fictional Seattle? "They're all running for mayor of a fictional Seattle," observes city council member Jean Godden. Every candidate sees the city in a way that makes them uniquely qualified to answer the call. But the fact that Seattle is ideologically bunched on the left poses another challenge that could make the upcoming campaign either one of the best ever, or one of the nastiest. Or both.

It's a good bet that everyone running for mayor will want an economically prosperous, sustainable, dense city with great schools, transit and quality of life with social justice for all. Fine, but how? A good campaign would demand that the candidates be specific about their plans, but also paint a vision of the city to come. How do the cities of Burgess, McGinn, Murray, Steinbrueck et al differ? What do they offer? How attainable are they, and for how much? Is the election simply a matter of leadership style? Is it a matter of replacing Police Chief John Diaz or not? Of how high the high-rises will go in South Lake Union? With so many big dogs running, the race is a real opportunity to debate something meatier than potholes or snow plows. Besides, Seattle is a sucker for visionaries and idea people: The most idealistic candidates tend to win (Rice over David Stern, Schell over Charlie Chong, Nickels over Mark Sidran). What are the differences in their Google maps to utopia?

On the other hand, the race has the potential to get very negative in the primary, especially one starting in December and lasting into August. With so many good, progressive Seattle liberals raising money, jockeying, and with so few votes to go around, a small percentage of the vote could get a candidate to the general election. The main line of attack will be on the mayor and the crowded ballot suggests we'll be hearing a lot about how McGinn could have done better. Every issue will be framed around the mayor. When he announced, Murray told The Stranger's Dominic Holden, "I think the police department needs new leadership, and I think that leadership is a new mayor."

In some cases, McGinn has left himself wide open. In 2009, McGinn announced his campaign on YouTube with a video that showed a soft-spoken candidate speaking boldly. McGinn said his top priority was improving the school system, and if things weren't significantly better in four years, "you should fire me." Tim Burgess, who thinks the district's problems are a long way from being solved, responded when reminded of the claim, "We should take him up on his offer."

Attorney McGinn will be relentless both in his defense, and also quick to challenge the records of his challengers. The field will have to differentiate among different shades of Democrats, and different resumes, and we know the search for party legislative district endorsements can get ugly. Is Burgess a closet conservative? Is Murray too Olympia-centric? Can Sims focus? Is Steinbrueck hostile to developers? Is Albert Shen shilling for the Chamber of Commerce? Is Bruce Harrell ready for prime time? We also know a number of the candidates can be combative — not just McGinn but Murray, Burgess and Steinbrueck are all capable of the prickly push and push-back. One thing McGinn's opponents should worry about: McGinn-bashing fatigue. The challengers could lose momentum if the campaign devolves into the Seven Dwarves, all named Grumpy.

There will also be a scramble for constituencies. Who'll get The Stranger's endorsement (they seem to have soured on one-time cover-boy McGinn)? Who the South End? Asians? The gay community? Magnolians? Downtown? The nabes? The bicyclists? West Seattle? Foodies? Real Change vendors? One can imagine candidates playing the city like a game of Risk, trying to capture micro-constituencies to get to a 30 percent share of the primary vote. The ground war could get interesting on the complicated isthmus of Seattle.

As it is shaping up, the race is a tribute to ambition, an inherent critique of the incumbent, and an exciting opportunity to have a full-fledged civic debate about Seattle's future, especially key as we emerge from the Great Recession. Have we learned anything from the past, or will we merely hop onto the boom-bust-bandwagon again? This time around, there should be no excuse for complaints about the outcome.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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