Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Mallahan or McGinn: What it will take to win"

Jim Brunner and Emily Heffter (Seattle Times):
Dear Seattle voters: That must have felt good.

You finally took out your long-simmering resentment of Mayor Greg Nickels by shoving him aside in last week's primary.

Now, what will a November matchup look like between Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn?
At first glance, this year might look a lot like 2001, when Mayor Paul Schell lost in the primary.

But both of Schell's opponents that year were elected leaders with lengthy records to examine. Nickels had been a King County councilman for 14 years; Mark Sidran had been city attorney for 12.

This year, Nickels lost to two guys who have never run for public office. Not much is known about how they would govern, or even about their stands on some big issues.

"It's confounding," said David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council. "By the time they find the bathroom in City Hall ... there could be a crisis."

With Nickels out of the way, scrutiny of Mallahan and McGinn will intensify, both in the media and among influential business and labor groups — like the labor council — that had backed Nickels in the primary.

To win, Mallahan must fight any sense he's more opportunistic than civically engaged — a corporate executive who failed to vote in 10 elections then bought his way into the mayor's race with a $200,000 check to his own campaign.

McGinn will have to shake an image of him as a one-issue candidate, an anti-car crusader determined to halt the $4.2 billion plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a waterfront tunnel.

"We need to get to know both candidates better, and we need to understand what their hopes and dreams are for the city of Seattle," said Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago, who finished fifth in the mayoral primary.

"McGinn knows the city better than Mallahan does. He's got a jump-start there. But he has been limited in the issues he's talked about," Drago said.

Nickels' defeat means Mallahan, in particular, will have to find some new talking points.

"I don't think McGinn repositions much. I think Mallahan has to either tighten his message or be more specific about policy details," said John Wyble, a Seattle political consultant.

Mallahan focuses on business experience

A vice president at the Bellevue-based wireless company T-Mobile USA, Mallahan, 46, spent most of his primary campaign ripping Nickels for every bit of bad news to come out of City Hall. He even tried to exploit Nickels' good news — sending out a weeklong series of e-mails mocking the mayor when Sound Transit's long-awaited light-rail line opened.

Before he jumped into the mayor's race, Mallahan was virtually unknown in local politics. His biggest claim to civic involvement was helping with the Great Wallingford Wurst Festival.

Mallahan has sometimes shown a lack of knowledge about city issues. He has preferred to talk up his business experience, vowing to cut waste at City Hall and make decisions driven by good management principles instead of political considerations.

At a brief news conference Friday, Mallahan told supporters he didn't think he needed to differentiate himself from McGinn. "My message is going to remain the same," he said.

Ironically, Mallahan may inherit one big piece of the mayor's baggage in a matchup with McGinn: the controversial $4.2 billion plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a waterfront tunnel.

Mallahan has said he supports the tunnel, which McGinn has criticized at every opportunity as a wasteful mega-project.

"I believe it's the role of the next mayor of Seattle to ensure that the viaduct replacement comes in on time and on budget," Mallahan said Friday.

Will tunnel focus help

or hurt McGinn?

McGinn, 49, is an attorney and former local Sierra Club chairman who rode his opposition to the tunnel through the primary. (As of Friday, he was the leading vote-getter.)

He did talk about other issues, vowing to fight for better bus service and schools — even though the mayor's office doesn't directly control either — and to create a citywide broadband network.

With Nickels out of the race, the general-election campaign will be a dialogue with the public "about the vision for the future of Seattle," McGinn said.

"The public is really interested in the type of person they're going to get as mayor," he said. "Having the candidates together talking in depth about the issues, there's an opportunity for the public to really have a chance to evaluate" them.

Unlike Mallahan, McGinn has been involved in local politics for years.

He was a Nickels supporter as a Greenwood neighborhood leader but parted ways with the mayor in recent years.

McGinn helped lead opposition to a multibillion-dollar roads-and-transit ballot proposal in 2007. The measure failed and a transit-only plan to extend light rail to the suburbs came back to the ballot and passed in 2008. The nonprofit that McGinn founded, now called Great City, worked on last year's successful parks-levy campaign, a measure Nickels opposed.

While the tunnel issue may have gotten McGinn through the primary, it could be turned around on him in coming months.

McGinn favors a so-called surface-transit option for the viaduct, which means tearing down the elevated highway and handling its traffic with improvements to Interstate 5 and downtown streets, plus improved transit.

Critics say that plan will only make traffic worse and hinder freight movement. They've also called McGinn misleading for not mentioning that the state estimates his viaduct alternative would cost more than $3 billion.

Who will get thumbs-up from labor, business?

One crucial test for Mallahan and McGinn will be to pick up the support of labor and business groups that had backed the mayor.

Some of those groups are in a particularly odd position because they spent the last week before the primary bashing McGinn's tunnel stance and attacking Mallahan as unqualified and anti-union.

In the final days of the campaign, some influential business and labor groups teamed up for thousands of phone calls trying to persuade voters Mallahan didn't deserve to be mayor. Meanwhile, downtown business leaders said McGinn's tunnel opposition was dangerous to the economy.

The attacks didn't work, and now the groups will have to decide which of the two relatively unknown candidates to back.

During the primary, Mallahan drew the most public criticism from labor because of T-Mobile's record of opposing unionization of its workers and lobbying against an increase in unemployment benefits.

But Freiboth said unions have problems with McGinn, too. His anti-tunnel talk could kill his chances of support from construction and maritime unions. And Freiboth said McGinn was standoffish once he learned unions wouldn't endorse him in the primary.

By contrast, Mallahan continued to talk to union leaders and make his case even after it was clear they'd back Nickels, Freiboth said.
At his news conference Friday, Mallahan said he had again reached out to union officials: "I've told them I'm not a vindictive guy, and I'd like to get to know them better."

In an interview, McGinn said he, too, is reaching out to unions, along with business and neighborhood organizations. His opposition to the tunnel could cost him some endorsements, he acknowledged, but "labor is not monolithic. Neither is business... we're talking to everybody. We'd love their support."
Howie P.S.: The Seattle Times has profiles of Mallahan and McGinn, too.

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