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Originally published June 10, 2012 at 8:54 PM | Page modified June 11, 2012 at 8:11 AM

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Corrected version

Nickels faces uphill battle in comeback race for secretary of state

Former Mayor Greg Nickels is attempting a political comeback in the secretary-of-state race, but Democrats are overwhelmingly endorsing Kathleen Drew, one of his primary opponents.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Former Mayor Greg Nickels was considering a political comeback late last year when he met with Dwight Pelz, a longtime friend and chairman of Washington State Democrats.

Over lunch, Pelz urged him to run for secretary of state, where he hoped a well-known candidate like Nickels could help his party win back a position held by Republicans since 1964. Nickels, who suffered a bruising loss in the 2009 mayoral primary, saw a chance to re-enter public life in a lower-profile position.

But since that lunch meeting, every King County Democratic district organization and at least five county Democratic organizations have endorsed Nickels' opponent, former state Sen. Kathleen Drew, in the Aug. 7 primary.

Last weekend, Pelz's own organization, the Washington State Democrats, endorsed Drew in a landslide, with more than 75 percent of the vote.

Those endorsements, along with a fundraising advantage, have given Drew momentum that threatens Nickels' comeback. Retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed has endorsed the only Republican in the race, Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman.

If Drew were to get the Democratic vote, Nickels could find himself on the losing end of another primary.

The other Democrat in the race is state Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup.

Nickels is putting a positive spin on his losses among Democratic organizations, saying voters don't want a secretary of state with close ties to one political party.

"I think this office should be one that needs to be more independent and not adhere to the party line," he said. But he has deep roots in the local Democratic Party. Nickels' standard stump speech is about his introduction to politics as a 16-year-old at a Democratic district meeting. So it's surprising to see him get skunked — even in his home district, the 34th in West Seattle.

"Kathleen's been working the Democrats very hard," Pelz said. "She's driven all across the state and done all the meetings. ... I think Kathleen's been working the Democratic Party harder than Greg has."

Nickels said that's true. He is focused on campaigning in Eastern Washington, where he is less well-known than in Seattle and King County, where he held elected office for 21 years.

Nickels hasn't taken a full-time job since his 2009 loss. He spent an academic year on fellowship at Harvard University, went to New York to take an honorary role at the United Nations, and worked as a distinguished urban fellow for a green-cities group called Living Cities. But he said he missed elected office.

If elected secretary of state, he said, he would safeguard elections and protect the initiative process from corporate interests and Tim Eyman, who, he said, has made a "cottage industry" out of running ballot measures that turn out to have legal challenges.

As she campaigned across the state, Drew bonded with Democrats over their common foe. She won her Senate seat in 1992 by beating Republican Dino Rossi, a failed gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate. (Rossi beat her four years later.)

"The Democrats know me, and have known me for a long time," she said.

She has been an environmental policy adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire for the past six years.

Drew said she campaigned at Democratic organizations because she thinks the people there care about keeping elections fair and impartial. In her stump speech, she promises to increase voter turnout and support legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote when they get their first driver's licenses.

She says she was an underdog at the start of the campaign. But as the only Democratic woman running statewide for a top state government position — and someone with Olympia experience — she said she's steadily gained support.

For his part, Nickels has racked up some big endorsements — from labor unions, in particular. And he's not far behind Drew in campaign contributions, $71,000 compared with her $82,000.

"Independents and moderate voters don't want the secretary of state to be a partisan office," said Tim Ceis, Nickels' former deputy mayor. "I think for Greg it's probably a good thing that he didn't get (the state Democrats' endorsement). I think it will serve him well in the general election to be seen as somebody more independent."

West Seattle Democratic activist Dorsol Plants said there was a lot of anti-Nickels sentiment at the endorsement meeting of the 34th District Democrats in West Seattle on May 9.

Plants urged his fellow Democrats not to endorse Nickels because of his homelessness policies while he was mayor, including moves to crack down on unapproved homeless encampments.

"We still have Nickelsville," Plants told them.

Homelessness is a niche issue for Plants, but he said all kinds of people at the meeting had beefs with the former mayor because of his handling of other things, including his widely criticized response to the December 2008 snowstorm and a defunct proposal to build a jail in the 34th District.

Also, Seattle mayors don't have a great track record in getting elected statewide, said Jeff Upthegrove, a West Seattle political consultant. So even longtime fans of Nickels might think Drew has a better chance.

"People are so concerned about picking up that secretary-of-state slot for the Democrats that it's more about who they think can win," he said.

Despite his political baggage, Nickels said, he's spent the last few years considering what he wants to do next, and elected office is it. He says his experience running a complex organization — the city — has qualified him for the job. Other former mayors have sought to become governors and senators, but Nickels said he's not interested in amassing political power.

The bottom line is, Nickels said, he believes in elections. And then he started again with his familiar story: He's been involved in elections since he was 16, when he went to his first Democratic district meeting.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

Information in this article, originally published June 10, 2012, was corrected June 11, 2012. A previous version of this story said state Rep. Zack Hudgins of Tukwila was still in the race for secretary of state. Hudgins has dropped out.

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