WHY WAS THE RACE so close? In one of the tightest mayoral races in Seattle's history, King County Council member Greg Nickels has defeated City Attorney Mark Sidran. The City Attorney graciously conceded on Thursday night. At this writing, Nickels has 86,105 votes (50.9 percent) to Sidran's 83,026 votes (49.09 percent). Based on recent political history, the race should not have been so close.
The liberal Nickels fit the profile of successful Seattle politicians: A truly nice guy from West Seattle, he had the full support of the Democratic party, labor, and environmentalists, enough cash to get his message out, a dynamite field campaign, and strong backing from part of the business community. That should have been enough to sew it up against the conservative tough guy Sidran.
There are at least two schools of thought. City Council member Judy Nicastro, a rowdy renters' advocate, and Sidran, the darling of the landlords' lobby, oddly enough share an analysis of what is going on: Seattle is moving from a small-town mentality to a big-city way of thinking. As Seattle makes this transition, their argument goes, our politics change from a consensus-driven, happy-face liberalism to a more tough-minded, results- oriented law-and-order philosophy.
However, the rest of the election results really don't support this contention. Seattle chose a classic Seattle bleeding heart as our new City Attorney, Tom Carr, and returned prototypical, low-key, hardworking, Northwest-nice incumbent City Council members Richard Conlin, Richard McIver, and Jan Drago to office.
The more plausible theory is very specific: Sidran was a good candidate, and Nickels a lousy one ( whether Nickels will be a good mayor is another question). Sidran brilliantly exploited the widespread dissatisfaction with Sound Transit's management of light rail to propel his effort; Nickels did not inspire confidence on light rail; Sidran has perfected the rhetorical art of sounding plainspoken and coming off as a straight shooter; Nickels talks like a wooden bureaucrat; Sidran created momentum by using key "surprising" endorsements from moderate politicians like Govs. Gary Locke and Booth Gardner, Capitol Hill's gay Representative Ed Murray, and former City Council member and lesbian mom Tina Podlodowski; Nickels' attempt to use endorsements got sidetracked by accusations of race baiting.
No matter the ultimate reason for Nickels' victory, expect many people to try to establish their roles as kingmakers in this squeaker. As City Council member Nick Licata puts it, "This is a race so close that anyone who endorsed [Nickels] can claim credit for the victory by pointing to five of their friends."
Here's an assessment of the real winners and losers in this contest:
The King County Labor Council, under its new, activist chief Steve Williamson, deployed an innovative labor-to-labor approach in which unions run their own campaigns aimed exclusively at their own members. Its success will not go unnoticed by candidates contemplating future races.
What does labor want in return?
Light rail, for one thing. Labor believes light rail is an important down payment for our transportation future—plus it will generate a bunch of good union jobs, no small matter in a recession, once it breaks ground. This will only calcify Nickels' rock-solid support for light rail.
There's a siege mentality at the Apartment Association of King County [AASK], the landlords' powerful lobby. AASK feels apartment owners are under assault from a regulation-happy bunch of do-gooders at City Hall. In recent years, they threw good money after bad as they unsuccessfully tried to block the election of Nicastro, stop the parks levy, and elect one of their own—Sidran—as mayor. Nickels will likely back the cautious rental regulations that pass City Council.
As the mayor in the middle of a recession, look for Nickels to try to assist business early and often. He has good relations in and out of office with many important Seattle business leaders. Sure, there were some high profile business leaders who backed Sidran, but it was hardly unanimous. Even Sidran backers are unlikely to feel much fallout: Nickels is a decent fellow who doesn't hold grudges, political or otherwise—and he's smart enough to know how important business is to a successful mayoralty.
Loser: City Council President Margaret Pageler
The most senior member of the council is one of the closest philosophically to Sidran on issues of law and order. It was no surprise, then, when she endorsed the city attorney. It is not public safety, though, that really rouses Pageler's passions, but rather the mundane topic of water. Pageler and the head of Seattle's water department, Diana Gale, have worked closely together for years to both block significant reform by enviros and safeguard our water supply from the burbs. They were the biggest obstacles to the end of logging in Seattle's Cedar River watershed and the strongest fighters against King County government seeking more control over our water. Gale has already announced her resignation. Now Nickels, who is close both to environmental activists and county officials, will appoint Gale's successor. As Pageler ends her term serving her colleagues as City Council president, she still has two years before facing the voters again. Look for her to fight some fierce battles with Nickels in her methodical, behind-the-scenes fashion.
Winner: grassroots politics
There were many hearty activists who contributed to the Nickels effort: The neighborhood-based Democratic Party organizations, the Sidran Truth Squad of homeless advocates and other malcontents, the Washington Conservation voters' green captains, and rock 'n' rollers gathered by JAMPAC. Future candidates must respect these activists' clout. Each of these groups can expect some support from the Nickels' administration. But the sheer number of them will make it difficult for Nickels to please them all.
Loser: Seattle Times editorial page
In 1997, the Times anointed Paul Schell mayor, and the voters followed loyally. The Times tried it again this year with Sidran and failed. Hostile unsigned editorials poured down like icy November rain on Nickels, and no fewer than four Times columnists-Mindy Cameron, Joni Balter, Bruce Ramsey, and Lynn Varner-whacked the mayor-elect hard. Is Nickels' victory a sign that Fairview Fanny is losing its touch with the Seattle electorate? Probably not, but we can always hope.