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Originally published Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 9:56 PM

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Poll finds McGinn in deep hole

A new poll shows most Seattle voters don't have a favorable view of Mike McGinn, just as he embarks on his biggest political challenge as...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A new poll shows most Seattle voters don't have a favorable view of Mike McGinn, just as he embarks on his biggest political challenge as mayor.

McGinn is helping to lead the effort — now headed to court — to put the planned waterfront tunnel to a citywide vote. But even as he tries to sell voters on the need to break city-state agreements on the project, the poll suggests McGinn also may need to sell his ability to lead.

The poll, by independent pollster Stuart Elway, shows a majority of voters giving McGinn marks of "only fair" and "poor" in areas of leadership, vision, managing government and representing the city to the state and country.

Overall, 4 percent gave the mayor an "excellent" rating, 24 percent "good," 39 percent "only fair" and 27 percent "poor." Six percent said they had no opinion.

Younger voters like the job McGinn is doing more than older voters. Taken as a whole, however, Seattleites appear less happy with a combative mayor than they were with the candidate who promised a new brand of politics.

As mayor, while opposing the tunnel, McGinn has been at odds with the governor, the Legislature and all but one member of the City Council.

Unlike many recent mayors, McGinn had no experience working in city government, noted Bob Watt, deputy to former Mayor Norm Rice and a former Boeing vice president.

Watt said McGinn's background as a trial lawyer seemed to give him an "instinct to counterpunch" rather than to build relationships with other city and state leaders.

McGinn last fall said at a news conference that he didn't believe people could trust Gov. Chris Gregoire when she said Seattle would be protected from tunnel cost overruns. Asked if that was an example of the mayor's instinct to fight back, Watt said, "There's no way around it. He's counterpunched a few times."

The mayor's office would not comment on Elway's survey. The poll of 405 voters, conducted March 22-25, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The poll was not commissioned by a third party. The Seattle Times has hired Elway, who does not poll for political candidates, in the past.

Tunnel supporters offered some of the harshest opinions of the mayor. While respondents weren't asked directly whether McGinn's stance on the tunnel influenced their view of him, 63 percent of those who support the tunnel gave McGinn a "poor" rating.

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But even among those who prefer his favored tunnel alternative — the surface-and-transit option — 37 percent gave him an "only fair," while 17 percent rated him "poor."

"It is a bad sign when even most people who agree with McGinn on his core issues said he is doing a 'poor' or 'only fair' job as mayor," said Stuart Elway, the poll's author.

Put in perspective, though, Elway said Greg Nickels' ratings also were "under water" nine months into his first term, although his numbers were a little better.

Nickels went on to easily win a second term. He lost in the 2009 primary.

McGinn's strongest support in the poll was from voters 35 and younger. Among that group, 46 percent said he is doing an "excellent" or "good" job.

Younger voters, environmentalists and transit advocates helped drive the McGinn campaign, and he won office on the strength of their large volunteer effort.

Elway's poll doesn't capture younger voters fully. Those 18 to 35 made up 11 percent of respondents, but that age group made up 24 percent of Seattle voters in the 2009 election.

McGinn's continued opposition to the tunnel has kept him popular among some environmentalists.

"He is a principled guy who is standing up for what he believes in," said Kathleen Ridihalgh, organizing director for the Northwest region of the Sierra Club who has worked with McGinn for more than a decade.

She sees the mayor, a former Sierra Club leader, as building new coalitions between environmental and transit advocates, young people and fiscal conservatives who share his concern about potential cost overruns on the tunnel. That goes against the grain of the city's traditional alliance of business, labor and politicians that McGinn has labeled "the establishment."

"He's just not your typical politician," said Ridihalgh, adding, "It's just one poll."

McGinn has earned admiration for his handling of other issues.

Watt, the former deputy mayor, worked with McGinn to shape the $231 million Families and Education Levy that will appear on the November ballot. Watt credits McGinn for quickly learning the issues and becoming a skilled advocate for students.

But as long as McGinn is identified with his opposition to the tunnel, and his apparently contradictory 11th-hour campaign promise to "uphold and execute" agreements to build the tunnel, voters will have doubts.

"To survive in a place like Seattle that has high ideals for its politicians," Watt said, "he needs to answer questions in a straightforward manner. He made a flat-out statement that he would not interfere. I don't think voters understand how he got from Statement A to Actions B, C and D."

Former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis remembers when the negative numbers of his boss, Nickels, outweighed the positive. Ceis said Nickels focused on improving city services such as filling potholes and laying sidewalks.

McGinn also is likely to embrace a host of other issues in the coming three years, Ceis said, and voters will reassess his performance to the degree to which the mayor shows leadership.

"Mike's a smart guy, a resilient guy," Ceis said. "We shouldn't write him off yet. He's got a long ways to go."

Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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