“Regular Joe” Mallahan’s Stuck in the Bike Lane

Despite a thick wallet, the mayoral candidate’s campaign remains a mystery.

Phyllis Lamphere showed an impressive command of the candidates and their pet issues at a recent mayoral forum at Horizon House. She directed questions about transportation at tunnel opponent Mike McGinn and city-legislation questions to current city council member Jan Drago. She even knew that fringe candidate Kwame Garrett has made overhauling school curricula part of his platform. Then someone in the audience asked a question about the environment."Let's go over to...," she said, pausing at the grey-haired man in a pink button-down."Mallahan," the man in pink said, identifying himself. "Joe Mallahan."Mallahan made a splash last May when he jumped into the mayor's race and immediately wrote himself a $200,000 check to level the fundraising field with Mayor Nickels. The T-Mobile executive had a story about how he managed to keep people's phones working when Hurricane Gustav hit the gulf coast in 2008. At the outset, he had support from well-known Democratic Party insiders, including Obama whiz-kid Rory Steele. But since then, Mallahan's flattened: A recent Survey USA poll has him tied for fourth place in the race to unseat Nickels this fall.Long before Mallahan created waves with his cash-laden entrance into the race, he was looking for a way to get into politics. Steele, who orchestrated the ground game for Obama's Iowa win in 2008, gave a seminar on campaign management during last year's state Democratic convention. Mallahan was one of about 100 people in the class. Some time later, when Mallahan started looking into making his own run for public office, he tracked Steele down and the two met for coffee.Steele says he was impressed by Mallahan. Nonetheless, "There's some small gaps in his knowledge about how the city works, actually," Steele says—but Mallahan struck him as someone smart enough to fill them. Steele agreed to work for him.Mallahan impressed other Democratic insiders as well. Since announcing his intention to run, he's picked up endorsements from two different legislative district Democratic parties and the Metropolitan Democratic Club. And he was the only candidate to get an "outstanding" rating from the Municipal League of King County.King County Democrats Endorsement Chair Dean Willard, who works with Mallahan at T-Mobile, is also a fan. The countywide organization has put off any official endorsements in the mayor's race until after the August primary, but Willard says, "I think that the people that know Joe the best have always seen Joe's potential as a public official."Mallahan's first criticism of Nickels is his response to the snowstorm of last December. But he also faults the mayor for the rise of gang violence after Nickels cut the gang-unit budget in 2002. Furthermore, he's been critical of the mayor's transportation projects, including the South Lake Union Streetcar and the proposed Mercer Street expansion. "All those funds could have been applied elsewhere," says Mallahan.He says he would improve basic city services, like fixing sidewalks, and funnel more money to community and senior centers. His campaign spokesperson, Charla Neuman, says that those kinds of projects can be funded without cuts by making government more efficient. When pressed as to where those inefficiencies lie, Neuman says Mallahan won't know until he gets into office.But Mallahan might have trouble getting into that office. Despite the early support from people like Willard and Steele, and enough personal cash to take on Nickels, his campaign just can't seem to get any traction.Mallahan worked for Washington, D.C., attorney Erich Eiselt after earning a degree in American politics from Catholic University of America, also in D.C. "People think of him as a business guy, which kind of cracks me up," Eiselt says. "I don't think of him as a business guy. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's running for office; I would have expected him to do it earlier."The mayoral aspirant also spent time as a legislative aide to then-congressman Al Swift—as well as to Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, something he doesn't readily volunteer in righty-phobic Seattle. According to Mallahan, Swift suggested business school rather than law, just to have different credentials. But Swift says he doesn't really remember Mallahan. "I don't want this to look badly for him; I've just got a rotten memory," Swift says.After a stop in Seattle to earn a master's degree in East Asian Studies at UW, Mallahan attended the University of Chicago. He got his MBA in 1993 and stayed in the Windy City, working with an auditing firm. He then worked for Century Tile, a flooring company, where Chief Financial Officer Phil Spiewak says they were so impressed with Mallahan's suggestions for improving efficiency that in 1995 they named him president. The first thing Mallahan did was work the graveyard shift for a few weeks, just to get a handle on how the business operated. "To have a president go in and run the third shift is pretty bizarre, but he really felt it was important," Spiewak says.After leaving Century in 1997, Mallahan went to work for the Illinois offices of Voicestream, a Bellevue-based cell-phone service provider, which was eventually purchased by T-Mobile. In 2000, Mallahan moved back to Seattle, and is currently Vice President of Operations Strategy.When Mallahan started talking about running for office, Willard, who also works as a vice president at T-Mobile, pushed him to do it. "I think there are skills that come from business experience, and especially the type of experience that Joe has, that translate quite well to the problems facing the city," he says.On the trail, Mallahan is quick to say he's just a "regular Joe" from Wallingford, and that he had to save money to write that $200,000 check. (His five-bedroom home is valued at $732,000.) He touts his business-management experience as his biggest qualification for holding office. At forums, on his Web site, and on a video produced by his campaign, he tells a story about getting a call over Labor Day weekend in 2008, as Hurricane Gustav built up in the Gulf. Mallahan says he got various department heads on the phone and came up with a plan to keep operational all prepaid phones in the hurricane's projected path regardless of whether or not someone ran out of minutes.The hurricane story is meant to contrast with Mayor Nickels' oft-criticized management of the snowstorm. But emergency personnel in the areas most impacted by Gustav say their problem during the hurricane wasn't so much running out of minutes as making a call in the first place.Joanne Moreau is the Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Gustav killed two people in her city and did $4.3 billion in damage to the state as a whole. Moreau says service outages were their biggest problem in handling the storm. Several cell-phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, sent caches of phones that emergency workers wore on utility belts. As service came and went, they would switch between the phones, trying to get aid where it was most needed. T-Mobile wasn't part of that effort, she says.This story is about the only thing most people know about Mallahan. The only other insight on his campaign video into who Mallahan is is a mention that he has six siblings; the rest of the video features attacks on Nickels. And the campaign's first television ad, released Monday, offers little detail beyond one- or two-word bullet points on Mallahan's bio and issues of emphasis.One person inside the campaign, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, places much of the blame for Mallahan's struggles at Neuman's feet. The source says Neuman has insisted on running a negative campaign, and her attacks culminated in an oddly-framed five-day list of reasons Nickels "has to take the train," pointing to problems with the Seattle Department of Transportation and an allegation that bike lanes are marked with toxic paint. When asked for her source on the paint allegation, Neuman said by e-mail that people in the Department of Transportation complained about it anonymously to the Mallahan campaign. The five reasons were meant to be cute, but were mostly confusing and never caught fire.The campaign insider says it's a mistake to go after such petty things with the mayor's approval ratings circling the drain. "The mayor's numbers are so low that there's no point in attacking him," the source notes. "Everybody already hates the mayor enough—let's talk about Joe."This all might help explain why, of the $90,000 Mallahan has raised outside of his initial donation, less than half of those donors actually live in Seattle. Many are friends and co-workers from T-Mobile, D.C., or Chicago—but none of those people or their friends can vote in the August primary. Three-fourths of Nickels' donors live in Seattle.Still, Neuman defends her strategy. She previously worked for the consulting firm Strategies 360, and was an independent consultant on Republican Shawn Bunney's campaign for the open Pierce County Executive seat last year. (Bunney lost in a close election to Democrat Pat McCarthy.) Before that, Neuman was a spokesperson for Senator Maria Cantwell.Mallahan's campaign, she says, is different from Bunney's because there's an incumbent. "I think that any time someone runs against an incumbent who's made a lot of mistakes, you talk about [the incumbent's] record," Neuman says. "Do you want more of the same or do you want a different approach?"Unfortunately for Mallahan, almost no one seems to know what his different approach will be.lonstot@seattleweekly.com

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