CHARLIE IS watching you!
This week Charlie Chong unveiled his secret weapon in his campaign to become mayor: eight billboards. The feisty former City Council member from West Seattle has abandoned nearly every other form of campaigning—including leaving his house much. He has forsaken yard signs because, he claims, "We lost hundreds" during an organized labor union campaign to steal them during the last election. He believes mailers get tossed out, he says pursuing endorsements from the Democratic Party's districts is "a waste of time for me," he hasn't recruited a lot of volunteers, and he doesn't have enough money for TV—so he's trying billboards.
Yet Chong denies that he is in the race as a spoiler. "You don't ask your friends for money" to be a spoiler, Chong says, although he does admit a Chong victory is "an outside chance." He has obviously been disappointed by the results of his fund-raising efforts—only $12,000 to date, much of it coming immediately after he announced his intention to run.
Yet Chong is polling well. On Aug. 19, KING 5 News released the second in their series of independent polls in the mayor's race. It showed King County Council member Greg Nickels building momentum and extending his lead to 31 percent of the vote, Mayor Paul Schell with 25 percent, Chong in third place at 14 percent, and Sidran slipping to fourth place with 12 percent. The Nickels campaign says this is consistent with their poll; it is also consistent with all the rumors heard about polls conducted by Schell, Sidran, and City Council member Jan Drago (who was merely testing mayoral waters).
The conventional wisdom is that Chong will fade when the other three "major" candidates spend their six- figure war chests on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. But a significant number of voters may see Chong as a meaningful protest vote or may be hard-core Charlie fans. After all, the man has made it through four straight primaries (1995 and 1996 City Council, 1997 mayoral, 1999 City Council), despite the fact he has always been a lousy campaigner.
Yet I do not believe that he can win this race. So the intriguing question becomes: Who does Chong hurt?
Right after he filed, the buzz was that Chong would hurt Nickels, who represents West Seattle on the County Council, because they share a West Seattle base. In the 1997 mayoral election, Chong edged out Nickels for second place in the primary and cleaned Nickels' clock in West Seattle. As Nickels continues to lead in the polls and tear it up at Democratic districts all around the city, however, that point of view is fading. Not only is Nickels' base of support geographically broad, he has been identified by show-up-at-the-polls liberal Democrats as the alternative to Schell.
At this point, Chong hurts Sidran— the law-and-order tough guy—the most. While Sidran jokes, "I will take both Republican votes in the city," his candidacy does depend on the GOP. Republicans make up around 18 percent of Seattle voters, according to GOP spin doctor Brett Bader. In the crowded primary, Republicans are Sidran's only hope. Sidran would have to broaden his appeal for November's general election, but in September's primary the contest is all about locking up your core voters, and for Sidran, they're Republicans.
Chong has owned Seattle's GOP in recent elections. Chong's blue-collar populism appeals to the lunch-bucket-carrying, tax-revolting, KVI-listening Seattleites who are mad as hell at the liberal establishment that runs this town. Sidran has to convince those Republicans to vote for him instead of Chong. To date, Sidran hasn't done it. As political consultant Christian Sinderman points out, Chong might knock Nickels' vote total down by a few percentage points, but he might end up knocking Sidran out of the race entirely.
If so, it would be Chong's finest political hour, his largest public service to Seattle yet.
Paul Schell unveiled his own secret weapon last week: the Seattle Mariners. Not only did Schell don an M's uniform for another "wacky ad," but ace pitcher Jamie Moyer (13-5, ERA 3.89) will co-host a fund-raiser for Hizzoner in Magnolia on Aug. 26.
But the Mariners figure into this election in a more important way: How are you feeling, Seattle? When the M's win their division, people are going to be feeling very good. If they win the American League pennant, the public will be jubilant. If they win the World Series, and the cops prevent a riot, there will be civic ecstasy. Those good feelings will help Schell. It's irrational, of course, but that's politics.