Mayor Nice redux?

King County Council member Greg Nickels leads on primary night in the mayor's race.

IN SEATTLE, nice guys do finish first.

King County Councilmember Greg Nickels held a razor thin lead in the mayor's race at the end of primary night. As the evening's final returns rolled in, Nickels ended up with 21,575 votes (34.2 percent) to City Attorney Mark Sidran's 20,558 votes (32.6 percent), an edge so small that it may not hold up when the absentee votes are counted later this week. (Sidran held a strong advantage in the absentee votes that were counted on election night.) Meanwhile incumbent Mayor Paul Schell languished in third place with only 13,725 votes (21.7 percent).

Nickels won despite some incredible disadvantages. He started out the campaign with the poorest name recognition among the three major candidates. While Nickels did a boffo job of organizing the grassroots in the early part of the race by picking up support from Democratic district organizations and labor unions, Sidran began to surge in late August when he launched his funny, caustic TV ads lampooning Nickels for his financial stewardship of Sound Transit's light rail.

Nickels was counting on a blitz of TV ads starting two weeks later, but that strategy was upset when the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11. In the wake of the national tragedy no ads whatsoever ran on TV for several days.

Yet, it was that tragedy that Nickels talked about first on primary night when he addressed his supporters. "It's been a remarkable and tragic week," he said. "It's a real testament to our city that the people of Seattle have gone to the polls. This democracy is here to stay."

The sentiment was clearly genuine for Nickels and remarkably it dovetailed perfectly with his campaign strategy. He ran a campaign that was very light on substance, focusing almost entirely on his image as a nice guy from West Seattle. While the pundits and insiders cringed as Nickels proclaimed that he would unite people and get back to the "Seattle way" of doing things, ordinary voters clearly liked his message. "Nice," liberal Democrats have run Seattle for decades, and on primary night voters once again affirmed their comfort with that form of governance.

Nickels' supporters like the math going into the general election against Sidran. Seattle's primary elections have small turnouts and because up to 30 percent of the voters are over the age of 60 skew more conservative than the city's general elections. November's election will feature younger, more liberal voters who will likely prefer Nickels to Sidran.

THE SURPRISE of the evening was the emphatic drubbing Schell received at the hands of his two major opponents. Just four years after he decisively defeated former City Council member Charlie Chong to earn the top job at City Hall, Schell became the first incumbent Seattle mayor in more than four decades to be voted out of office. Chong's own comeback attempt also fell short, netting him just 4,543 votes (7.2 percent) and a distant fourth-place finish.

Sidran campaign consultant Michael Grossman said he wasn't surprised that Schell decided to bypass television advertising. Early opinion surveys set the mayor's support at roughly 22 percent—the same amount he drew at the polls—even though he was easily the best-known candidate. As the mayor had little potential of gaining ground from a TV appeal to undecided voters, he instead chose to concentrate on his support base and hope that either Sidran or Nickels might drop below him on election night. "I can't argue with that strategy," said Grossman. "To [Schell's] credit, he never wavered—he stuck to the things that he wanted to talk about."

At Sidran's campaign party at the Pike Place Market, the candidate made it clear he intends to stay on the train that brought him through the primary. He reprised the theme of his television advertising campaign—that Sound Transit should go back to the drawing board instead of building an incomplete light rail system. "I will fight to give Seattle world class bus service and scrap Sound Transit's light rail train to nowhere," he said.

The mood stayed festive even as Sidran's early lead evaporated over the course of the evening (most supporters probably weren't keeping track—Sidran campaign staffers wisely stopped updating the election results when Nickels made his late run). While Sidran began his speech on a sober note—reflecting on the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. and the death of two supporters and Husky football boosters in a Mexico plane crash—he quickly switched gears to mock Sound Transit's latest proposal, which would terminate the rail line a mile short of Sea-Tac Airport. "[The train] will get you almost to the airport—then you'll have to get off and take the bus," he quipped. He also made his strongest overtures yet to monorail backers, stating that Sound Transit should consider switching from light rail to monorail "if it proves to be a cost-effective alternative."

Grossman credited his candidate's strong showing to public unhappiness over Sound Transit and the prospect of bringing Sidran's "bold leadership" into the mayor's office. Will Sidran unveil a new strategy for the stretch run? "I don't think there is a change," said Grossman. "Mark has laid out a [transportation] plan and we're going to talk to people about that plan."

Former City Council member Tom Weeks, a Nickels supporter, compared the upcoming Sidran-Nickels race to the 1989 mayoral battle between a conservative city attorney, Doug Jewett, and a nice Seattle legislator, Norm Rice. The parallels are eerie. Jewett focused on a single issue, school busing for racial integration, a policy that was clearly failing but still retained the backing of the majority of Seattle. Sidran is focusing on a light rail project that appears to be very close to going off the track entirely, yet still has over 50 percent support in opinion polls in the city. Rice, who went on to earn the moniker Mayor Nice, was Nickels' first political mentor. Sidran was elected to the city attorney's office the same year Jewett stepped down to run for mayor. Of course, despite the fact that history came out on Jewett's side of the issue as busing eventually was eliminated, Rice won election easily.

Nickels is clearly hoping history will repeat itself.

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