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With the primary election looming, mayoral candidates are out waving signs at the Pike Place Market or glad-handing at South Lake Union. At this point in a campaign, the chief opponent is usually time. In the midst of Seattle's amazing California summer, however, the biggest obstacle is getting people's attention.
A campaign volunteer I talked to door-belled her assigned neighborhood over the weekend. It wasn't the "undecided" voter who dominated, she said, but the "Not at home." And even those who are at home have to swim toward clarity in murky waters. Some say trying to pick the best-out-of-nine is too hard. One voter complained to Peter Steinbrueck that she hadn't received "enough" junk mail from him. Some say they still need to do their "homework," but on Seafair weekend, who wants to do something as indoorsy as slogging through the Voter's Pamphlet? Serious politics in the summer just seems so un-Seattle.
On Monday, Peter Steinbrueck spent the noon hour at the Whole Foods at Westlake and Denny. The choice was simple: a place with a semi-public stairway mobbed with young South Lake Union workers and a backdrop to highlight his disagreement with Mayor Mike McGinn over using the street vacation process to encourage rejection of a new Whole Foods in West Seattle.
This particular Whole Foods seems designed to be less a grocery store than a cafeteria for Amazon workers. The setting is classic New Seattle: sunshine and streetcars, Amazonians and bio-tech "knowledge workers" by the scores being served sushi or steak by happy-seeming, non-union Whole Foods workers. Income inequality? Problems with growth? Too little affordable housing? A rogue police department? Such problems seem worlds away. This is the city density dreams of.
Those familiar with the West Seattle controversy— mainly Whole Foods employees — seemed tickled by Steinbrueck's presence. He showed his support with gusto by buying and eating a sloppy New York steak sandwich at an outdoor grill while being photographed with a couple of Whole Foods staffers. The deliciously messy meal rendered his hands temporarily gooey and un-gladhandable.
Supporters held signs and passed out campaign brochures while the candidate searched for "undecideds," or at the very least people who had yet to vote. He was asked about drones and city surveillance, his environmental credentials, basic questions about how he would be different from the mayor. Steinbrueck's short answer to the last is to say that he's an architect while the mayor is a lawyer — "a litigator." People seemed to understand that answer.
An Amazon software developer from Wedgwood wanted to know why Steinbrueck opposed the SoDo arena deal, and listened to his answer about how the location could jeopardize jobs in a key freight corridor. When asked how he's voting, the young man replied "I'm rooting for anyone but McGinn."
It was unclear if Steinbrueck had converted that "root" to a "vote," but it captured a weird dynamic that one feels talking about this primary election with people: Many speak as if they're spectators, not deciders. Outside of Whole Foods there is an art installation consisting of an over-sized group of Asian-looking people standing stolidly and impassively with blank looks on their faces. Will these be the symbol of the primary's voters, or non-voters? The unreachable undecideds on the sidelines?
"Rooting Man" could be good news for McGinn, of course, because rooting isn't voting and if the anti-McGinn votes splits too many ways, the mayor with his dedicated supporters, union-and-Sonics-fans turn-out effort could get him through the primary. Voter apathy, if that turns out to be a key factor, could help the incumbent too. Still, that spells trouble for him in the fall even if he survives August. But narrowing things down to a choice between two candidates — whoever they are — should reinvigorate the race and the debate.
The conventional wisdom has moved over the course of the campaign. Last fall, it was that McGinn was toast, period. Then it shifted to predictions of a Tim Burgess-McGinn race in the finals. Burgess unexpectedly dropped out, Sen. Ed Murray ramped up his campaign as the chief "Not McGinn" establishment-choice guy, and the wisdom shifted to a McGinn-Murray final. The latest guesses seem to be Murray getting through and a toss-up between McGinn and Steinbrueck for second place, even the possibility of a Bruce Harrell boost.
The only real wisdom, of course, is that none of us knows, with reporters and pundits shaking their heads about the unpredictability of the crowded field and turnout. Unfortunately, Nate Silver, the polling whiz, is busy with ESPN and has shown no signs of being interested in reading Seattle's political tea leaves. No matter. We'll know something soon enough.