Assessments of 7'2" ex-Sonic James Donaldson's mayoral campaign have ranged from "quixotic" to "sputtering" since the onetime city council candidate decided to up the ante and challenge Greg Nickels in late March. Since then, Donaldson's fund-raising ledger has consistently bled red, and the gentle giant has been outshone in the press by more moneyed and seasoned challengers like Joe Mallahan and Jan Drago.
But while Donaldson might be down, his celebrity status ensures that he's definitely not out: A SurveyUSA poll released last week put Donaldson in a statistical dead heat with Drago to emerge, along with the mayor, from the August 18 primary. (Nickels garnered 24 percent to Drago's 15 and Donaldson's 14, with Mike McGinn and Mallahan trailing them with 8 and 7 percent support, respectively. "Undecided" still leads the pack with 26 percent.) And with campaign manager Cindi Laws, who's also helming City Attorney Tom Carr's reelection effort, now calling the shots, Donaldson is finally primed to trade on his NBA connections to rake in some cash as well.Last week, Laws provided Seattle Weekly with a list of individuals who have collectively committed to raising upward of $80,000 for Donaldson's campaign. Among them, Sonic legends Fred Brown and Spencer Haywood have each pledged to drum up $10,000, while Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a former standout point guard with Phoenix, has also promised to raise $10,000.
These all-star money men point to an element of Donaldson's past that his previous consultant, Blair Butterworth, encouraged him to downplay. "We told him that he needed to be more than his basketball," says Butterworth, who jumped ship to work for Drago. "The press would always refer to it, but if he didn't put out his small business and involvement in the community, the press would single-label him--and that would be all he'd be known for." But since assuming the reins of Donaldson's campaign in late May, Laws has encouraged Donaldson to trumpet his Sonic pedigree, which she feels will strike a warmly nostalgic chord among voters of a certain age, as well as bolster him financially.
Of the former Sonics who've pledged to make it rain for Donaldson, Brown has long been a fixture in the local business community. But Haywood, who now lives in the Detroit area (where he attended high school and college), was pro basketball's poster child for the ultra-decadent cocaine-and-mink-coat '70s. He eventually got clean, but his off-court collaboration with Donaldson--a vegetarian and health-club owner who's never consumed alcohol--nevertheless remains an unexpected alliance.
"I think a lot of the common ground is we're both former professional athletes and African-American men who are in a stage of our lives where we want to be role models," explains Donaldson. "We help each other to accomplish things."
Donaldson has also gotten more aggressive on issues unrelated to money. While officially announcing his candidacy outside KeyArena early this month, he released a detailed plan for how he'd run the city, and has been conducting daily walk-throughs of various commercial districts, where he meets with business owners (he just toured West Seattle, and will stroll through Belltown on Thursday). He's also expressed concern over the beating of a Haitian-born Special Olympian named Hannah Geiger, who lives across the street from Donaldson in Magnolia.
"I see them all through the week and Sunday as I'm running off to church," Donaldson says of the 19-year-old Geiger and her family. "The last six to 12 months in Seattle have seen so many incidents, be it youth or gang related. When it happens right across the street, it really causes you to take action."
An interesting side note: Donaldson's former Sonic teammate, Wally Walker, has given the maximum of $700 to both Drago and Donaldson. Walker, who later served as general manager and president of the woebegone local NBA franchise, is reviled in Sonic circles for his perceived role in letting the team skip town. By contributing to the incumbent mayor's top two rivals, it's not hard to glean that Walker holds Boss Nickels responsible for the Supes' move to Oklahoma.
Says Donaldson of his former teammate: "I know for a fact that he tried his darndest to work out a deal that would keep the team in Seattle. He probably gets an unfair amount of criticism--there was a lot of blame to go around."