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Originally published May 1, 2013 at 4:49 PM | Page modified May 1, 2013 at 8:31 PM

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Seattle mayoral candidates take on the powerful insider

Can Mayor Mike McGinn show he’s learned from his mistakes? wonders columnist Jonathan Martin.

Times editorial columnist

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn would like to be known as the most progressive mayor in America.

But for a few moments this week, he sounded a bit like George W. Bush.

At a Monday mayoral election forum in Georgetown, McGinn was served a softball question: What is his biggest regret? For a candidate with a dismal poll rating and reputation for throwing sand in the sandbox, he should have taken the moment to ’fess up to a mistake.

McGinn whiffed. He first suggested he most regretted waiting too long to enter politics, an answer that left a trail of ????s in my notes.

He said he’d tried to do too much too quickly, suggesting we as a city weren’t ready for his visionary leadership. Lastly, he said he’d gone to “mayor’s school.”

“I wish I’d climbed the learning curve a little faster,” said McGinn.

We’re used to politicians who spin mistakes. But failing to acknowledge even one recalls Bush and his famous inability to admit gaffes — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — obvious to anyone else.

McGinn, of course, is no Bush, who left the White House worse than he found it. McGinn actually has a reasonable case to make to voters, on the are-you-better-off-now question.

Unemployment in the Seattle metro area is below 6 percent. Construction cranes hover like storks, dropping little bundles of jobs. Home prices are up nearly 9 percent this year.

We have same-sex marriage and legal pot. Except for the police department, which is under federal oversight, the city functions largely without a big scandal.

McGinn, like any incumbent, gets some credit for a rebounding economy. He also evolved into a leader who plucks low-hanging political fruit, ending a police drone program and brokering an end to the annual civic hostage-taking over the Fourth of July fireworks show.

But voters often vote less on a leader’s record than on likability. An expectation of humility is baked into nice Seattle.

Instead, we have a mayor who seems to relish picking political bar fights, only to lose most of them.

McGinn’s flip-flop on the Highway 99 tunnel easily allowed the City Council and ex-Gov. Chris Gregoire to portray him as an obstructionist.

He fought the U.S. Department of Justice on Seattle Police oversight, and did it again recently with City Attorney Pete Holmes, before backing down.

At Monday’s forum, city Councilmember Bruce Harrell pounced. “There is a reason seven people are challenging this mayor. People want to believe again. They want to believe the mayor is not just fighting to be right, but for us,” said Harrell.

In campaigning against an incumbent, a challenger first has to make a case to toss out the status quo. In his 2009 campaign, which I covered as a reporter, McGinn was a skilled insurgent campaigner in his first run for political office.

He energized young voters to believe, as Bill Clinton once did for me. McGinn inveighed against “powerful interests,” even after he was the one sitting behind the 85-year-old desk in the mayor’s office.

But this year, McGinn is defending the status quo against a scrum of well-qualified challengers. It does not wear as well.

When challengers, particularly Harrell, took jabs at Seattle Police on Monday, McGinn stopped the forum to note he “inherited this police force.”

He cited his negotiations with the Department of Justice to create a citizens commission which includes “severe critics” — an accomplishment that the DOJ itself was happy to agree to.

He’s going to have to get used to being a piñata. Monday’s forum was too crowded with candidates for long answers, and challengers usually don’t go negative early on. But Harrell and the host of other credible opponents will be happy to give voters their list of regrettable decisions by McGinn.

In his second campaign for office, McGinn is the powerful interest. Mayor’s school is adjourned. What has he learned?

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com On Twitter @jmartin206

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