What made Burgess blink?

Four hours before deadline, frontrunner Tim Burgess exited the Seattle mayor's race. Those last days were a frantic effort to retool his faltering campaign. Here's why he concluded that it was too late and too difficult to pull it off.
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Tim Burgess Campaign headquarters

Four hours before deadline, frontrunner Tim Burgess exited the Seattle mayor's race. Those last days were a frantic effort to retool his faltering campaign. Here's why he concluded that it was too late and too difficult to pull it off.

When a leading politician, such as Seattle mayoral frontrunner Tim Burgess, suddenly drops out of a campaign, politics turns into a mystery novel. All sorts of clues are inspected, trying to explain the plot twist. Blackmail? Pressure from a big shot? A Hamlet-like personality? Few believe the usual bland explanations (time with family, etc.)

In the case of Burgess, who was leading the fundraising in his campaign for Seattle mayor, the apparent explanation is fairly conventional. His campaign, misguided and flat in the early stages, was in the process of trying to settle on a significant, belated change of direction, one seemingly requiring lots more money. As is his style, Burgess sifted the sophisticated data about the prospects, pondered how badly he wanted the job and the grief, and made a rational call to toss in the towel four hours before the filing deadline last Friday.

What follows is partly speculative, partly based on some off-the-record conversations, partly based on the evidence. One hopes the full story will emerge over time.

One key bit of external evidence was that Burgess was shaking up his campaign staff right up to the last-minute decision to withdraw. On Wednesday, a day before he decided, Burgess replaced his press secretary, Alex Fryer, a veteran of the Nickels administration, with Matt Fikse-Verkerk, a Crosscut contributing writer and former Mayor McGinn staffer who had been informally advising the Burgess campaign for several months. The Burgess team was also making more use of supporter Frank Greer, a veteran political and media consultant who has played a role in several Democratic governors’ races and is active in supporting school reform, a Burgess passion.

Sources say the Burgess campaign had become worried that its cautious early phase, largely devoted to raising money and attacking Mayor Mike McGinn rather than laying out much of a specific case for Burgess, was not going to work.  Burgess was getting relatively little media attention, and his wonky, deeply informed approach to issues was going over poorly in the public panels where there are so many candidates that comments are sharply limited in time.

The criticism of Burgess's lackluster, emotionless campaign had been relentless for months. Some key backers were so frustrated that they were telling Burgess they were about to defect to another candidate. Another problem: since Burgess's campaign was relying heavily on his wife and daughter as staffers, it was hard for impatient supporters to tell the candidate that the staff needed a big shakeup.

Other things were not going Burgess’ way as well. Charlie Staadecker, a commercial real estate broker, was charming business interests into making contributions for his long-shot campaign, and that was money Burgess needed. Former City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck had not been expected to run, but the Sonics Arena issue gave him a way to get attention and he was siphoning off votes that Burgess would otherwise have. City Councilmember Bruce Harrell was proving to be a far more dynamic speaker than his wonky colleague on the council.

Also, Mayor McGinn was riding a small wave of approval, mostly by issuing press releases almost daily touting one small favor or another he was delivering to micro-constituencies, and thanks to the Sonics issue, which was giving Mayor McSchwinn some cred with Joe Sixpack. And Sen. Ed Murray, Burgess’ most serious opponent, had the odd advantage of being tied down in Olympia as the session went into overtime. The paradoxical advantage: Murray’s public image was still mostly a positive story line (enacting gay marriage); meanwhile, by being stuck in Olympia, Murray's volatile personality and limited knowledge of city hall were not being put on stage.

Burgess, according to one close adviser of his campaign, had originally expected a pretty easy coast at least through the primary, with relatively few candidates dividing up the anti-McGinn vote. But the field grew large, Burgess employed a D.C. campaign firm with high fees and relatively little knowledge of Seattle, and the campaign team stuck too long with its original, cautious game plan. One could sense that the candidate was losing confidence, as well as an ability to display emotion.

A just-released KING-TV poll, taken after Burgess's withdrawal, confirms how tight the race is: Undecideds (23 percent) lead the poll, followed by McGinn (22), Steinbrueck (17), Murray (15), and Harrell (11). Earlier polls had Burgess trailing McGinn and former King County Executive Ron Sims (who since dropped out) at 15, with Burgess next at 10 percent.

The other factor in this squeeze play on Burgess was his reluctance to stake out some strong reform positions that would appeal to centrists and moderates, as well as his somewhat disappointed base in the business community, angered by Burgess's stands for mandatory paid sick leave by employers and inclusionary zoning that was costing developers. Staadecker as a larky campaigner could favor reduction in parking meter rates and making life easier for drivers, but Burgess knew that as a front runner if he uttered even mild liberal heresies he would immediately be stigmatized as a scary conservative. Better to embrace most of McGinn’s policies, which are liberal bromides, and criticize McGinn’s bumbling management and abrasive personality.

But being a me-too candidate was producing a bland image. In a low-turnout, hurry-up August primary, candidates need a more compelling profile, a simple, positive "handle." All the others had arresting personal narratives. Murray had enacted gay marriage and was about to marry his longtime husband. Steinbrueck’s father had saved Pike Place Market. Bruce Harrell had led the Huskies to a Rose Bowl victory. McGinn had learned from his rookie mistakes and was now seeemingly loveable. Staadecker has his bow ties and his Rotarian’s sentimental love of the city.

Given these problems, what could Burgess do, and was there still time to do it? One course would have been to dare to be more centrist, following the reform Democratic path that figures like Reps. Reuven Carlyle and Ross Hunter are blazing: solid for education reform even if the unions fume; tough on greater productivity in government; suspicious of programs and taxes that don’t do much good. County Executive Dow Constantine is a milder version of this post-spending-spree liberalism, and his success is indicated by the fact that no serious candidates are challenging his re-election in 2013.

This retooling of progressive politics may be what the city needs, and what Burgess actually does in his quiet, substantive way at city hall. He well understands that effectiveness is directly correlated to avoiding headlines and giving credit to others. But the first reaction to substantive centrism in Seattle — particularly in the degrading beauty contests in the Democratic legislative district caucuses, where hardline activists enforce liberal orthodoxy — would be lethal, adding to Burgess’ problems. He would have had to have started forging this identity, and explaining its wisdom, years ago.

Another way to rescue the Burgess campaign was an image campaign, creating an emotive personal narrative and splashing it over local television screens — a very costly undertaking.  The candidate's life story is very engaging, though Burgess, a shy man, rarely presents much of it. It involves growing up in a very poor family in Seattle and wriggling free from Christian conservative parents; joining the Seattle Police Department at a time when reform of the department attracted idealists like Burgess; working seven years for World Concern to ease global poverty, mostly in East Africa; founding and running for 20 years a successful, multi-city marketing-consulting service for nonprofits; working his way up through Queen Anne community posts; and being a stickler for ethics in government. It’s a classic Seattle story, with deep roots in local values and showing a person very anchored in the real world.

About a year ago, I heard Burgess, now 63, give a talk about his life, off the record to a group of prominent business-folk, and it went over powerfully. But this very compelling story never made it to public forums.  You can't even find it on the Burgess websites. One rare airing of it was in this Publicola interview, and Eli Sanders of The Stranger did the best long profile of the candidate. The Seattle Channel also got him talking about his life-story in this video interview.

At any rate, “going biographical” seems to have been a leading plan to rescue the Burgess campaign. Consultant Frank Greer, a master of soft-focus likeability ad campaigns, confirms that some members of his GMMB firm were talking in the past two weeks about getting involved in the paid media part of a retooled campaign. In a sense, these panicky discussions in the past two weeks were compressed versions of a debate that dogged the Burgess campaign since January.

Three problems with this new image-based approach: Buying all that television time would cost a lot, and Burgess had not raised that kind of money (by the end of April he had raised $231,000 and had $100,000 in the bank); the candidate is himself a very reluctant self-dramatizer; and it is very late in the campaign (primary is August 6, and mail voting begins on July 17).  I suspect another factor is that Burgess, said to be a fairly wealthy individual from the sale of his company, would feel pressure to put in a substantial personal donation or loan. (Election records show Burgess had put in or loaned about $20,000 to his campaign so far.)

The Burgess team was busy in the last week shaking up the campaign possibly to go in these new directions, as well as reviewing the latest research on the prospects for its success. The D.C. consultant, The Mellman Group, a national firm that had worked on Gov. Gregoire and Sen. Cantwell campaigns, was providing polling and the opinion research. I suspect the research showed that Burgess might survive the primary, but at the risk of being turned into a conservative cartoon that would make winning the general election problematic and harm his effectiveness as a city council leader if he lost the mayor's race.

Sources in the campaign say Burgess made a hard-eyed calculation, weighed his family’s reluctance about campaigning, and yanked the plug. Another factor cited by Burgess was his desire to see that Mayor McGinn serves only one term; presumably he felt that a slug-fest among Burgess, Murray, and Steinbrueck would weaken whomever survived the primary to challeng McGinn in November. At any rate, Burgess's decision was last-minute because he, typically, wanted all the data before deciding. Also typically, he went with the data, not with his gut.

It’s probably for the best that a reluctant candidate not become a reluctant mayor. But it’s also a shame, given how much Burgess’s managerial skill and data-based decision making are needed at city hall. That's particularly true for the next four years, laden with big projects such as the deep-bore tunnel, reform of police, 520, Yesler Terrace redevelopment, and designing the central waterfront park.

The likely outcome is another inexperienced mayor with unproven administrative abilities, probably Sen. Murray. Curiously, that may not be much different than our current form of government, a kind of regency with the far more experienced city council serving as default mayor and Burgess as the informal leader of the ruling council coalition. In an ironic twist, Tim Burgess may have decided the best way to run for “mayor” was not to run for mayor.


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