Seattle's Snowmageddon defeats incumbent mayor

Post by Mike Klassen in

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Greg Nickels
Seattle goes to the polls in 2 weeks, and Greg Nickels is not on the ballot

The story of Seattle's mayoral race to me has eerie similarities to Vancouver's experience in 2008, and a few other twists that will resonate with voters here. Mayor Greg Nickels wished to run for a third term as mayor, but thanks to a primary vote last August where he placed third, Nickels is not on the ballot on the November 3rd vote.

Instead two new candidates with no political experience are running for the job. Joe Malahan is an executive at cell phone provider T-Mobile, and his opponent Michael McGinn is a community organizer and a left-wing Democrat who would blend right in with Vancouver's Hollyhock crowd. Commentators give the bump to McGinn at this point, only because Malahan has been a poor campaigner. There is an apparent distrust of McGinn because he's seen more as an agitator than a potential mayor.

One local blogger sums up her "confusion" on who to vote for mayor:

Mallahan just might learn on the job and be able to turn his good intentions into a competent administration. On the other hand, he might be in way over his head and will leave office as befuddled as he sometimes appears to be now. McGinn, with his forceful personality and clear agenda could prove to be a transformative leader, or he could spend four years locked in a holy war with state legislators, city council members and the business community and accomplish nothing.

I had started off just assuming I'd be for Mallahan because of McGinn's reputation as a bomb-thrower and the utter frustration and anger that stopping the tunnel would engender. But I find myself liking McGinn more and more at the forums I've been to. I'm frustrated with Mallahan because he's not getting better as he goes along.  At the basic level, he's not learning to present his ideas any better.  Sheesh!  Hire a presentation coach.

It reminds me of the frustration I too often heard about Vancouver's 2008 choices last year. Trust was a big issue with Ladner among voters. You knock off your leader, have no support from caucus members – what's that all about? Robertson for many seemed like a well-intentioned lightweight, and a very poor public speaker. Funny how that label still sticks after a year in office.

What gives me that sinking feeling is how easily voters are swayed by looks. Gregor Robertson indeed "looks" like a mayor in many peoples' eyes. By contrast his wheelchair bound predecessor didn't, and in the end it was probably the single biggest (unspoken) dissatisfaction among traditional centre-right voters here. Nickels faced similar criticism according to Seattle P.I. columnist David Horsey:

Most of what I heard from Nickels' critics was pretty vague. They just seem to dislike him for his looks and political style – too chubby and too tough on those sweetie pies on the city council.

Well, that's all water under a sinking floating bridge. We've booted out a man who could give guided tours to the labyrinth of local government and now must choose between two guys who will need a map to find the men's room on the first day in office.

So Seattleites turfed a competent leader over what would seem like trivial issues, including his looks. Another echo of the Sullivan experience was that Nickels earned a strong reputation outside the city for his leadership on the environmental file (EcoDensity, anyone?). This NY Times story sums it up:

...while the mayor’s profile rose across the country, he was never as popular at home, and he often frustrated voters, particularly in the last year. The city’s poor response to a record snowstorm in December left many residents stranded on unploughed streets and angry with the mayor’s initial lack of contrition.

Ah, Snowmageddon. We all remember Vancouver's stellar handling of that file, don't we? You may recall that Mayor Gregor Robertson was sunning himself in Mexico while Vancouver's streets and sidewalks remained impassable. A silence fell over City Hall for nine dark days, as staff must all take mandatory vacation time from Christmas to New Year's Day. Getting the boys behind the wheel of our snowploughs was a non-starter apparently.

Seattle had lots of snow, but a fraction of what Vancouver experienced, and their mayor has lost his job. Meanwhile our mayor continues to bask in his pre-Olympic honeymoon with the media.

Other issues plagued Nickels as well. His attempt to push for better transportation in the city's core, and attempt higher density in this car-strangled city was viciously attacked by critics. And the loss of the city's NBA franchise the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City was just too much for some. The city refused to invest a dime of public money into a stadium upgrade.

Up here in BC we must understand better that you do not risk the wrath of sports fans like Seattle did. Victoria is now kicking in hundreds of millions into a new BC Place roof – almost the same amount that Seattle balked at.

Politics is a rough and tumble affair here and in the Emerald City. It also shows you that, while still valuable, incumbency sometimes isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

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