Greg Nickels will be mayor of Seattle again next year, sailing comfortably into a second term. And whether or not you believe he has earned that second term, he would be a better mayor if he had to defend his record against that of a qualified challenger in this fall's election.
Instead, his only challenger so far is one Christal Wood, a young, flaky activist type who has raised only $2,311.23 so far in her quixotic effort to unseat Nickels. Wood has run for office twice before, finishing dismally; she has no experience as an elected official, no name familiarity with voters, and, frankly, no chance of winning.
Nickels, by contrast, has raised a staggering $437,273.15 so far, much of it from the business and development communities that supported Mark Sidran four years ago. Nickels' efforts to remake Seattle as a little Manhattan have endeared him to Paul Allen and other major business interests, but he's far from universally popular. Nickels is vulnerable on the issues. And decisions that will shape the skyline of Seattle for decades to come deserve some sort of public referendum.
There will be more like Woods entering the race before the July 29 filing deadline, but that's not what we need. We need a qualified, well-financed challenger who can provide voters with an alternative to the future Seattle envisaged by Nickels.
In particular, the absence of any sort of progressive or neighborhoods-based challenger is sobering. There have been efforts. An ad hoc group, led by neighborhood activists John Fox, Matt Fox, Cindy Domingo, and others, spent months trying to recruit someone to run against Nickels. They've given up, having been turned down by more than a half-dozen prospects. City Council member Nick Licata said no. So did former gubernatorial candidate and former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge. So did County Council member Bob Ferguson and state Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos, as well as her husband, International District icon Bob Santos.
They turned down candidacy for a variety of reasons, but central to most was money. Particularly at this late date, it would be nearly impossible to raise enough of it to mount a serious, credible challenge to Nickels. Anyone planning to mount such a campaign would have started months ago.
Progressives ought to be wondering in general why they aren't mounting any campaigns for elected office in Seattle this year. Last time around, voter anger elected several new City Council and School Board members, and there's every reason to believe voters have just as much anger, especially at the schools, this time around. Yet for the City Council, beyond Licata's re-election effort, all progressives have are the erratic candidacy of Dwight Pelz, sort of, and the underfunded efforts of Ángel Bolaños and socialist Linda Averill. A slate of four progressive reformers stormed onto the School Board two years ago, but this year, with two open seats, so far nobody from a grassroots background is trying to join them. The same holds true for the Port of Seattle and for the newly shrunken King County Council, where Ferguson is battling another incumbent in a newly created district.
Progressive groups, the wellspring of many Seattle Democratic elected officials and the only logical source of a mayoral challenger this year, seem to be strangely disorganized and quiet. There will be no meaningful way for voters to express displeasure with a mayor who's selling the farm to anyone who promises tall buildings. There will be no opportunity for anyone to throw the bum out. We're stuck with Greg Nickels and his policies, whether voters like them or not. And that's a shame.
As for progressive candidates, one can only wonder. Licata is unopposed, again, in his run for a third term on the council; he's easily one of Seattle's most popular elected officials. Yet nobody seems interested in following in his footsteps as someone who spent years toiling in the anonymity of grassroots organizing and then used those years of contacts to mount a successful campaign. Other Nick Licatas are out there. A run for office this year seems unlikely. But there's still a month before the filing deadline. There are a lot of races, mayor not included, where the money necessary to run a reasonable campaign isn't impossible to raise. There's still time.