AS SEATTLE’S closely contested mayor’s race draws into the homestretch, the strengths of the two major candidates can be expressed in a few words.
For King County Council member Greg Nickels, those words are “Democrats, environmentalists, and unions;” City Attorney Mark Sidran’s are “television” and “money.”
Win or lose, Sidran has brought Seattle into the television age. His unprecedented $205,000 television advertising campaign helped him complete a one-month jump from poll showings in the midteens to almost 34 percent of the election-day totals. Sidran, the last major candidate to enter the race, has erased the early fund-raising advantage of his major opponents (Nickels and outgoing incumbent Paul Schell), including an amazing $119,964 September intake, compared to Nickels’ $39,636 and Schell’s $23,624 September tallies.
“Anytime you don’t have the ground forces, you can make it up with TV,” says Brett Bader, an Eastside political consultant. “[Sidran] definitely was very smart in the primary.”
But those “ground forces”—the volunteer power and sophisticated voter-contact programs of labor and environmental groups—will be brought to bear for Nickels. Ed Zuckerman of the Washington Conservation Voters (WCV) says his group’s co-endorsement of Schell and Nickels largely kept the WCV on the sidelines during the primary campaign. Not so in the final. The WCV plans to contact the 18,000 city voters on its “Green Voter” list. The King County Labor Council plans a similar outreach effort to union members.
To match this effort, Sidran will need money—and plenty of it. He’s already pledged to his campaign a $100,000 line of credit secured by his personal fortune (and did such an effective job on his pre-primary fund-raising that he never had to tap it). He was also the beneficiary of a fund-raising letter aimed at Schell supporters signed by a dozen prominent campaign donors, including venture capitalist Tom Alberg, construction czar Howard Wright, and City Council President Margaret Pageler. Although the letter hardly proves any shift to Sidran of Schell’s support (two of the signatories never supported Schell; four others, including Wright, had given at least $500 to both the Schell and Sidran campaigns), it is a sign that the city’s elite may be willing to dig deep for the Sidran campaign.
Although the three major campaigns combined have already passed 1997’s $1.1 million total mayor’s race spending (and are sure to eclipse the $1.5 million spent in the 1989 race), the totals could be further swelled by the use of independent expenditures. One union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77, already spent $13,663 on pro-Nickels newspaper ads and mailers in the primary. Under state law, monies contributed to independent expenditure campaigns aren’t considered donations to candidates, so affluent donors who have already given the $600 maximum to the official campaign can continue to spend, spend, spend.
Still, a campaign is only as effective as its message, and even Nickels’ backers can’t deny the effectiveness of Sidran’s attacks on the Sound Transit light-rail program. Campaign consultants say Sidran needs to expand his message without losing Sound Transit as a cornerstone issue. Primary voting patterns showed Sidran capturing Seattle’s affluent neighborhoods and traditional Republican strongholds, but, as the turnout traditionally doubles in the final election, he needs to engage the more casual voters (who would tend to support the more liberal Nickels). “If you’re going to win in a city like Seattle, you’ve got to get a decent Democratic vote,” says Bader.
If Sidran needs more Democrats, Nickels needs more backbone. “Greg Nickels doesn’t have an image as a fighter—that’s his problem,” says Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who says he plans to vote for Nickels, although he probably won’t make an endorsement in the race. Campaign observers gave a collective groan over the new television ad posted on Nickels’ Web site, a soft-sell piece featuring Nickels, a tow truck filled with sign-waving kids, and references to his proposal to post tow trucks at major traffic choke points to clear away disabled vehicles. Despite the factors in his favor, including the higher turnout and a 10-point lead in a recent KING-TV poll, Nickels needs to expand the issues discussed in the race, not simply respond to Sidran’s damaging shots at his transportation record.
Can Nickels get tougher? “He has to,” says Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen. “These times are not getting any softer. People are in a state of high agitation. They are looking for stability; they are looking for tough.”
So, unless Nickels’ “Seattle Way” can be broadened to include throwing a punch or two, don’t count out the tough guy.