Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Seattle mayor's race: the A-listers who didn't run
The turning point in the Seattle mayor's race may have occurred before the race began when three top-level candidates opted not to run. Imagine the race if Mark Sidran, Peter Steinbrueck or Tim Burgess were in the mix.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
If Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels pulls off the near-miracle of getting elected to a third term this fall — and he just might — the game changer will have occurred not so much during election season but before the official campaign began.
The key to Election 2009 probably lies in what didn't happen — or more precisely, the candidates who didn't run.
Nickels may win by default because three A-list challengers, who would have given him a hold-your-breath-close race by now, opted not to run. Their actions may be more decisive than all the forums and campaigning currently taking place.
If Nickels had drawn a more-compelling challenger he would be in deep compost right now. He may be anyway. Recent poll numbers show his support ranging from 18 percent to 30 percent.
Some malaise about Nickels is his own making; some is garden-variety fatigue with a mayor concluding eight years in office.
Seattle has only had one three-term, 12-year mayor — Charles Royer — for good reason. Third terms are hard to come by and Royer possessed unique political skills.
But who on the list of current challengers is ready to replace Nickels? That's the tougher call. There is no obvious choice, only maybes. Maybe T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan, maybe Councilmember Jan Drago. Maybe someone else.
No candidate stands out as the clear replacement. Mallahan is an affable exec who speaks in the unfortunate jargon of business-ese. He has minimal public-sector experience as a student aide to a former congressman. He was a Chicago community organizer with all the bells that résumé item rings. But how does he climb the mountain from newcomer businessman to the top public-sector job in the city?
Drago spent 16 mostly unremarkable years as a councilwoman. Dog folks love her for her signature accomplishment of off-leash dog parks. But she lacks a strong brand and message beyond, "Hey, look at me, I'm not Nickels."
Mallahan, Drago and the others deserve time to develop as seasoned candidates during the next few months.
Still, at this point in the election, think about what might have been. A relatively unpopular mayor seeking a third term would be swimming upstream next to his beloved salmon if he were challenged by former City Attorney Mark Sidran. Sidran was Nickels' opponent in 2001 who touted himself as the more decisive leader.
Same, too, if Nickels were facing former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck with his big family name and record of service — or even Councilmember Tim Burgess, a rising star in city politics.
I'm not saying Nickels will be re-elected or should relax. This is no time to push back on the Barcalounger.
But the mayor's challenge is easier because Sidran, Steinbrueck and Burgess are not in the mix. In other words, victory, if it comes, will reflect the power of Nickels' early fundraising and connections as a defensive strategy.
I caught up with Sidran this week. He decided last spring not to challenge Nickels in part because he does not feel passionate about running this time. He also candidly concedes he viewed the incumbent as formidable. Even if the public is weary of Nickels, Sidran figured, the mayor still has strong ties to four pillars of Seattle politics: environmentalists, business, labor and the Democratic Party.
Steinbrueck weighed a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University against a difficult run against Nickels and life in the fishbowl that would follow. When Harvard came through, he opted for that public-policy experience.
Burgess, too, thought Nickels would win, and with only one and a half years on the council, he was too new to challenge an incumbent he agreed with 85 percent of the time.
Nickels is taking the race against the candidates currently running very seriously — and he should.
If he wins in November, he should write heartfelt thank-you notes to the A-listers who sat out. Their decisions to stay away have huge impact on the election and the city.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.