The mayor’s (disg)race

THE RACE FOR SEATTLE’S most powerful elected job is already excruciating. Three moderate men of the establishment—Greg Nickels, Mark Sidran, and Mayor Paul Schell—are the odds-on favorites to be the top three finishers in September’s mayoral primary.

It won’t get better. Seattle City Council member Jan Drago—another grim possibility—hasn’t ruled out a run. Nor has former council member Charlie Chong, a prospect less grim than embarrassing. Sadly, Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro, the most exciting prospect for people who want to shake up City Hall, bowed out this week (see “Judy won’t run,” p. 10). Among major candidates, that’s it so far. Which brings us back to the Big Three.

As regular readers know, I don’t think Schell or Sidran should hold any political office. West Seattle’s King County Council member Greg Nickels is, policy-wise, more politically palatable—and he will, Gore-style, play that up in coming months—but he has heavy baggage. For years, he’s been a driving force behind Sound Transit’s light-rail disaster; no one bears greater responsibility for that train to nowhere. It’s hard to imagine that a man who can oversee one of the biggest public works fiascoes in state history has room to talk about Schell’s leadership and judgment. Nickels had an impressive campaign kickoff last week, turning out 1,000 people, and he used it to utter some of the most teeth-grinding inanities imaginable. (Paying tribute to “The Seattle Way,” Nickels saluted people “waiting in a crosswalk in the pouring rain until the light changes.” They’re called fools, Greg.) With stump material like that, a distinct lack of accomplishments to match his populist talk, and a reputation as a two-time loser (an unsuccessful run for County Executive plus his 1997 third-place finish for mayor), he has his work cut out for him.

Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran is a much more formidable stump speaker—smart, funny, and personable—and for every person in Seattle who despises him, there’s at least one other who adores him. But when people protest your every appearance, you can only laugh it off so much. In addition, Sidran has weaknesses as a candidate that extend well beyond his reputation. His campaign, so far, is remarkably disorganized. He’s vulnerable to a host of challenges regarding managerial competence and union-busting in the city attorney’s office (see “Dump Darth now!” SW, 1/11). A number of people who know Sidran say that his hatred of Schell is volcanic and that it’s only a matter of time before it erupts with a camera rolling. And political consultant Greg Dewar, in discounting Sidran’s run, cites what he calls the Jane Noland effect—named after the former City Council member who held her seat for a long time without serious opposition, believed as a result that the masses will rush to anoint her as mayor, and found herself soundly drubbed in the 1997 mayoral primary. Sidran has not run a contested race since 1989; Dewar says Sidran will “have to run an ber-campaign, because he’s taking on the mayor.”

Yes, the mayor. Despite his horrific screwups, Paul Schell is, in fact, an incumbent mayor, and the power of incumbency should never be underestimated. It particularly shouldn’t be underestimated in the case of someone like Schell, a pro-business pol who’s in his fourth decade of Seattle politics and who, in a tight race, knows where every $600 contribution in town is buried. He’s got most of them lined up already. Ditto for much of labor; with the municipal employees pushing hard, the King County Labor Council—WTO notwithstanding—is likely to endorse him. He also has a lot of neighborhood activists who supported Chong on his side this time—thanks to “parks, libraries, and community centers,” a phrase Schell will scream every time between now and November that someone starts to utter the phrases “Mardi Gras” or “WTO.” And smart, experienced aides surround him. That’s not a bad place from which to start.

Progressives, sensing an unthinkably awful Sidran/Schell choice in November’s general election, are desperate for a white knight. For many, that was Nicastro, but she’s out. Now attention will turn to Chong. I had one longtime community activist, a generally sane man whose political acumen I greatly respect, outline for me—with complete earnestness—why he thought Chong would not only survive the primary but beat Schell in the general election. I was too polite to laugh—I think—but let’s count the ways in which a Chong campaign is DOA: The neighborhood outrage that carried him to prominence is gone; he’s done nothing visible in the community (except run and lose) since leaving office four years ago; he ran one of the most incompetent and inarticulate mayoral campaigns in modern big city American history in 1997, and that was against a port commissioner—now Schell is the mayor; and the editorial boards of the daily newspapers not only hate but ridicule him. The only thing a Chong campaign would do is draw just enough votes from Greg Nickels to ensure a Sidran/Schell finale. I really, really hope he stays out.

What is the upshot of all this? Progressives will rally behind Greg Nickels, and he is (faint praise alert!) the least worst of the batch, but he does not have the inside track. Neither does Sidran. At this point, if I had to bet, I’d say that legendary, lethal incompetence and all, Paul Schell will still be mayor in a year. Get used to the idea.