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Originally published Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 10:29 PM

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Prospect of McGinn win left state officials uneasy, e-mails show

E-mails sent after Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' loss in the August primary show state officials — including an adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire — worried that anti-tunnel candidate Mike McGinn might win the mayor's race and sink the long-planned project.

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA — The e-mail went out the day after the August primary. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was losing, and Ron Judd, a senior adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire, let the staff know he was worried.

"The Mayor is in big trouble and I am not sure he can pull it out even if he is in the run off. That brings me to the big issue that will be front and center between now and the election ... our tunnel."

The deal to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel had been hard-fought, and it had taken years for the governor and Nickels to negotiate. But now it was possible that Seattle's next mayor could be Mike McGinn, who built his campaign around criticizing the tunnel, calling it "a huge waste of money that's completely indefensible."

Judd's Aug. 19 e-mail set off a sequence of events as officials in Gregoire's office and the state Transportation Department scrambled to take on McGinn's criticism of the tunnel.

Dozens of e-mails obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request illustrate a strategy to portray the tunnel as a done deal that could not be reversed. The e-mails deal with state officials briefing McGinn's general-election opponent, Joe Mallahan, on the project; working with the city of Seattle to push through an agreement on the tunnel; and releasing a video to a TV station depicting the viaduct's collapse in an earthquake.

Looking back, McGinn, who won the election and takes office Jan. 4, said, "I had the sense that there may have been folks affiliated with the governor who were supportive of Mallahan." In fact, Gregoire endorsed Mallahan in mid-October.

While Mallahan spent much of the primary season cutting down Nickels, McGinn became known as the guy who would fight the tunnel.

The former Sierra Club leader didn't like the idea of a massive project to serve cars and raised concerns about Seattle getting stuck with the tab if the state ran into problems drilling the huge, deep-bore tunnel.

Need to respond

In September, Judd sent an e-mail to state Department of Transportation officials saying McGinn "is simply [talking] like a populist to raise the anger of voters and we need to respond in kind. ... Call him out. Folks get lost in all of the facts we deal with everyday on who pays for what. That is what MM (Mike McGinn) is counting on."

In another e-mail, Judd wrote, "Gang, just a heads up that Mike M has been in the field doing a push poll on the Viaduct. I think he will be announcing something about taxes and most interesting polling regarding how voters will be paying for the Viaduct. I would suggest once we know his angle to be prepared to counter his bs."

Judd said in an interview that state officials provided informational material to waterfront businesses and others interested in the project.

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"Many of them wanted questions or information so that when they went to the candidates forums they could ask questions," he said.

At one point, Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond went to a McGinn-Mallahan debate and sent a blow-by-blow account to Judd and others on her BlackBerry. "McGinn is using (KIRO radio host and Gregoire critic) Dori Monson arguments. ... All mega projects come in 30 percent over budget. ... Wild accusations. ... "

Asked about that e-mail, Hammond said she went to the Sept. 10 debate because "I wanted to check those two guys out. I'd never seen either one of them in person."

"Clear the record"

"I can't stand it when politicians make things up in order to win an election," Hammond said. "When people do that, I think it's our responsibility to clear the record. That's my motivation."

State ethics law says public employees must not use public resources to help political campaigns. That includes using public computers and equipment and helping with campaigns during working hours.

Public employees can help with campaigns when they're not at work.

The governor's office says it never crossed the ethical boundary. "I was not, nor anyone else for that matter, even close to crossing the line and working collaboratively and in a stealth way with the campaigns," said Judd, who now works for the Transportation Department, which is overseen by the governor's office.

Judd noted he was on personal leave, to deal with a family medical issue, during much of this time.

Mallahan and his former campaign staff said they had little contact with the state.

Charla Neuman, Mallahan's campaign spokeswoman, said she knows Judd and "begged him" for his help with the campaign. She said Judd declined.

The e-mails show Judd and a state transportation official met in September with Mallahan, at the candidate's request, to give a briefing on the viaduct.

Judd said it was a standard briefing, the same kind he would give to lawmakers. He said he offered the same briefing to McGinn's campaign, although McGinn said he doesn't recall such an offer.

Mallahan said he met again later with Judd for beers. Besides discussing "basic facts," Mallahan said, Judd gave "his two cents on how to run a campaign."

Judd said he had a beer with Mallahan and did the same with McGinn, both times on a Friday after 8 p.m.

Different discussion

But the discussion with McGinn was different.

"One of the reasons I met with Ron," McGinn said, "was to get a sense of where the governor was coming from and just to speak directly with someone from the governor's office about what they were going to do in the race."

What was the answer?

"I don't really recall, which tells me I guess that I didn't get a commitment one way or another," McGinn said.

In September and October, the governor's office worked with city officials to pass a tunnel agreement before Nickels left office.

There was an internal debate about whether Gregoire should sign the document, and Judd weighed in with a Sept. 17 e-mail. Again, McGinn was part of the discussion.

"Don't we want to communicate, through these sort of opportunities that the decision has been made. We are not turning back?" Judd wrote. "My concerns are that if we don't demonstrate, through actions, that we have a plan that is being implemented [then] candidate A will build on his notion that this can be stopped."

City Council President Richard Conlin said he questioned the timing of the council's vote on the tunnel agreement.

"I expressed my concern, because why are we doing this now? Because people are going to think it's an attempt to influence the mayoral election."

Conlin said he was swayed by the argument that it was important to keep the project moving regardless of the outcome of the election. It was important to sign the agreement while Nickels was in office, he said.

But the agenda never was political, he said. It was about the project.

City Council OK

The City Council unanimously passed the agreement Oct. 19. The governor and Nickels signed it.

Once the council approved the agreement, McGinn announced that, as mayor, he would uphold it, but would continue to ask hard questions about possible cost overruns.

As the campaign remained tight, the state released a computer-generated video made in 2007 that shows large parts of the double-deck viaduct collapsing and crushing cars caught under it.

The video had not been released previously because state officials thought it was too sensational, but it aired on KING-TV on Oct. 25.

Timing questioned

McGinn immediately questioned the timing — nine days before the general election.

But Judd and Hammond said the release was in response to a public-disclosure request from an anti-tunnel activist, Elizabeth Campbell.

"As we realized she was going to get this video, we said, 'You know, we've been sitting on this video for two years and have never really shown it to anybody. Shouldn't we not just give to her and let her do what she wants with it?' " Hammond said.

Campbell at the time said she was surprised the video came out when it did because the Department of Transportation had told her it could take up to eight months for her to receive all the records.

Also, the video was released to KING several days before Campbell received her copy.

Asked about that, Hammond said, "We decided we were going to handle how it was released. We weren't going to leave it to Elizabeth Campbell."

Heads-up

Judd noted he called both the McGinn and Mallahan campaigns to give them a heads-up before KING aired the video.

"We've tried to be pretty transparent to all the candidates about any information or data they wanted to see or that we were releasing," he said.

Neuman, Mallahan's former campaign spokeswoman, said Judd called her two hours before the video was scheduled to go on KING.

She said they didn't discuss his political reasons for releasing the video to television.

"I didn't have to ask," she said. "I can figure that one out."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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