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Originally published September 21, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified October 10, 2009 at 4:34 PM

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Minority leaders eye 'complete strangers' in Mallahan and McGinn

Activists in Seattle's minority communities are lamenting Mayor Greg Nickels' loss in the primary election. In last month's primary, the only part of the city Nickels won was Southeast Seattle, the city's most racially diverse area. Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn didn't talk much about race and social justice during the primary campaign, but now say they're eager to talk about issues minorities face in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Video | Joe Mallahan in his own words

Video | Mike McGinn in his own words

Activists in Seattle's minority communities are lamenting Mayor Greg Nickels' loss in the primary election.

Nickels appointed minorities to head some of the city's biggest departments: police, fire, City Light, Seattle Center, planning and neighborhoods. He increased city spending on women and minority contractors. He pushed a Race and Social Justice Initiative inside City Hall and a $50 million community fund to help businesses in Rainier Valley survive the disruptive construction of light rail.

In last month's primary, the only part of the city Nickels won was Southeast Seattle, the city's most racially diverse area.

"I put my personal endorsement behind Mayor Nickels," said Hyeok Kim, executive director of InterIm Community Development Agency in the Chinatown International District. "Having a mayor who publicly talked about race and social justice was very important."

To Kim and Roberto Maestas, the two guys from North Seattle who defeated Nickels are a mystery.

"I don't know either one," Kim said of Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn.

"They are complete strangers," said Maestas, longtime head of El Centro de la Raza, a Latino civil-rights organization.

Kim, Maestas and others want to know basics about Mallahan and McGinn. Do they believe racial disparities exist and government should try to redress them? Will they support this fall's $145 million affordable-housing levy proposed by Nickels? Should city employees check the immigration status of residents? And should the city translate its communications for immigrants?

Mallahan and McGinn didn't talk much about race and social justice during the primary campaign. The focus then was more on introducing themselves to voters and bashing Nickels.

But Mallahan and McGinn now say they're eager to talk about issues minorities face in Seattle. Really eager.

McGinn cried while talking about his parents, now deceased, and how their compassion and community service inspired him. Mallahan talked about how his social conscience drove him to the street to rally support for a women's shelter trying to move to his wealthy Chicago neighborhood.

Both say their Cabinets would mirror Seattle's population. Both say they'll back the affordable-housing tax levy. Both support the existing city policy of not having police officers ask about the immigration status of people they contact, unless they believe the person has committed a crime.

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Mallahan and McGinn revealed a few differences in recent interviews.

Mallahan said he would use incentives, including financial ones, to attract jobs to Southeast Seattle. McGinn said he would use incentives for developers to create affordable housing.

Mallahan's second priority is adding 100 police officers to help make minority neighborhoods safer. "Public safety is a key element of quality of life, and where public-safety institutions typically fall down is in areas of economic distress," he said.

Hiring more officers isn't necessarily the solution, McGinn said. Treating minorities fairly is also key. "It's important we have a sufficient police force to do all that needs to be done. But it's so much more about tone and approach and connecting people to real opportunities and jobs."

Obama organizer

Mallahan, 46, calls himself a "social justice Democrat." There's been a lapse, though, in his activism until recently.

"I'm new to the city political scene," he said. "But I've cultivated a number of relationships through my organizing on the Obama campaign."

In the 1990s, Mallahan studied, worked and was trained as a community activist in Chicago — by the same organization, United Power for Action and Justice, he said, that trained Barack Obama.

When Mallahan returned to Seattle in 2000, he focused on his children and his job as a T-Mobile executive, he said.

Obama's presidential campaign then rekindled his interest in politics, he said.

Mallahan, a Wallingford resident, said he's been misunderstood by some since he criticized Nickels for pursuing a "racial agenda" in the Department of Neighborhoods, which awards funds for community-building projects. (Nickels had established a new "race and social justice criteria" for granting neighborhood funds.)

After Mallahan knocked Nickels, Pramila Jayapal, an advocate for immigrants, interpreted that as race-baiting. It "sounds like code aimed at the same conservative voters who are afraid of immigrants overrunning our town," wrote Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, on the Web site seattlepi.com.

Mallahan said he meant that Nickels tried to use the Department of Neighborhoods to address racial inequities. But Mallahan said he saw no "cogent" results from that effort. So far in 2009, the city has given eight such grants, totaling $103,379, out of $2 million in awards.

Mallahan said his business expertise could help the city bring jobs to Southeast Seattle, particularly near the new light-rail line. And he would aim for more than the retail jobs he said city officials have trumpeted.

New retail stores circulate consumer dollars already in the community, he explained. "But if you're doing office work, technical support, bill processing, customer service — those sorts of jobs — then you have employees receiving paychecks from organizations outside the neighborhood, so it's an inflow of cash."

To attract those jobs, Mallahan said he would be willing to offer economic incentives, such as city funding for employee child-care services.

Peter Masundire is a Rainier Beach activist who criticized Nickels as not forthcoming about crime problems in Southeast Seattle. Masundire worked with Mallahan on the Obama campaign and was impressed by his humility and effort.

"His values pretty much resonated with mine," Masundire said. "He's been criticized because he doesn't know much about the city. But being open and willing to learn isn't a weakness."

Veteran activist

McGinn, 49, a Greenwood neighborhood and Sierra Club activist, points to his credentials on race and social justice.

He chaired the city search committee that recommended Nickels hire Chinatown International District activist Stella Chao to head the Department of Neighborhoods.

McGinn helped lead the campaign for last year's parks levy, which included new and renovated green spaces in Southeast Seattle, Beacon Hill and the Chinatown International District.

Inside the Sierra Club, he fought a dissident movement that sought to restrict immigration to protect the environment. He was the local spokesman for Groundswell Sierra, which crushed the anti-immigrant faction in a 2004 Sierra Club vote.

McGinn said he sees housing as key in addressing economic disparities.

"We produce more jobs than housing in this city," he said. "You have a situation where those with means out-compete those without for available housing."

More affordable housing, particularly near light rail, would save blue-collar workers — including minorities and immigrants — from moving outside of the city.

As an incentive, McGinn said he would relax development rules he considers too expensive, such as parking requirements for apartment buildings. "I hope we wouldn't need one parking space for every unit" built near stations, he said.

McGinn said last week he would meet regularly with immigrant communities and increase city services for them, including translation and technical business help.

McGinn, a lawyer, says his parents were the greatest influence in his life.

His father was the son of Irish immigrants, became a school administrator on Long Island, N.Y., took inner-city children to summer camps in the New England woods and ran adult-education programs, McGinn said. His mother, a principal, created a preschool program for disadvantaged kids so they could enter kindergarten on more equal footing.

"I miss them a lot now in the midst of one of the hardest things I've done," he said, his eyes welling with tears.

Darryl Smith, former president of the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce, said McGinn is sensitive to issues of race, in part because his wife is half Japanese, half Irish American, and their three children look different from a lot of children in Seattle.

Smith, a McGinn supporter, said he is in a biracial marriage and has a sense of the McGinn family's experience. "You don't raise kids who don't look like everybody else without being sensitive. This is something you think about."

James Kelly, executive director of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, said he's undecided on Mallahan and McGinn. And that's after he talked to both.

"I have not heard enough about who they are," Kelly said. "It's great about their fathers and Chicago and New York. But I don't know that much about them and their vision for the city — how'd they make neighborhoods safe without over-policing, how they're going to create jobs. I'm still one of those undecideds."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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