He's Our Only Chance for an Actual Debate

Inside Mike McGinn's Underdog Campaign for Mayor

He's Our Only Chance for an Actual Debate

Let's say you haven't been paying attention. To your credit, this mayor's race isn't phenomenally sexy. There is a former SuperSonics player with name recognition, a deer-in-the-headlights look at debates, and almost no good answers about anything. There is a Seattle City Council member who slurs her words even while speaking slowly and who, even though she has enjoyed that very prominent role leading city government for 16 years, introduces her campaign at public debates with lines like "We need change!" and "I believe Seattle needs new leadership." There is a wealthy T-Mobile executive who touts, as qualifications to be mayor, new lines of T-Mobile businesses he's "ideated" and bringing coworkers together to "ideate" solutions. There's the guy we have now (George W. Bush levels of popularity). And there are three people who, all respect to them, don't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

And there's this guy named Mike McGinn. Only two candidates are going to make it through the primary to the general election—you'll be getting your primary ballot in the mail this week—and by almost every metric he's an underdog. The two SurveyUSA polls conducted this summer put McGinn in fourth or fifth place, along with the T-Mobile executive, Joe Mallahan. (But Mallahan's numbers are sure to jump: He's soaking local airwaves this week with a commercial comparing himself to a cup of coffee—get it? They're both called Joe?) McGinn doesn't have the name recognition that other candidates do, but he's the city's only chance for an awesome mayor's race. Our only chance for a showdown of ideas. Our only chance for an actual debate. Despite his unpopularity, Mayor Greg Nickels has a good shot at getting through the primary (he has name recognition and accomplishments like light rail to point to), and everyone else in the race is basically, on substantive issues, in lockstep with Nickels. Except McGinn.

He's the only one who disagrees about big issues, like the tunnel to replace the viaduct, which he points out has a price tag equal to every property levy we're paying now combined. He's the only one who calls out bullshit nonissues as being bullshit nonissues (like the head tax, which requires businesses to pay $25 for each employee who usually drives solo to work to pay for transportation projects). He's got the strongest environmental record. He used to practice business and employment law. He's mayor-shaped. He's got the strongest civic resume among the candidates who've never held elected office (founded the nonprofit Seattle Great City Initiative, chaired the local Sierra Club).

And he's opposed Mayor Nickels on issues before and won. In 2007, at the Sierra Club, he led the fight against the ballot initiative that bundled light-rail funding with highway funding, arguing that if voters rejected the measure, the light-rail component would come on back to the ballot the next year. (Nickels disagreed but voters didn't: Even though the measure had been polling at 57 percent, the campaign against it worked, and the following year funding for light rail returned on its own and passed by a wide margin.) And in 2008, while running Great City, he chaired the campaign for the parks-improvement levy, which won at the polls, again in spite of opposition from Nickels, who was focusing on economic development, like the Pike Place Market levy. "It's okay in politics for people to disagree. That's the point," McGinn says.

He lives in Greenwood, and his campaign is headquartered in two tiny rooms on Aurora Avenue North—cars whizzing by, home-cooked meals on the table for volunteers, handmade T-shirts, no campaign manager. "We have a campaign tweetergerist," McGinn tells me on a recent Monday evening at campaign headquarters. "We do. She's really good. I made up that word." Though no one in the campaign takes it too seriously, McGinn for Mayor is blowing other campaigns out of the water on Facebook and Twitter. After I ask a couple volunteers how much better they're doing on Facebook, a round of banter erupts about the other campaigns' social-media stats. Eventually McGinn puts an end to it, saying, "This is not normally how we spend our time."

Normally they spend their time working the phones. A core of dedicated volunteers oversees that effort. There are almost 300 volunteers total. Outside in the hallway, a bunch of them sit on the floor or on folding chairs, making calls to likely primary voters. According to one of the most dedicated volunteers, Derek Farmer, 30, a former intelligence officer in the navy who's going UW law school in the fall, "We've contacted 4,700 people, so that's 8,500 or 9,000 voters"—figuring there are roughly two people per household. "And our positive response rate to our message is about 46 percent. We may have earned ourselves 4 to 5 percent just off the phone banks."

Farmer is one of the "jobless skool-kids." On June 29, a commenter named "Jan Supporter" on the politics blog HorsesAss referred to McGinn volunteers as "a bunch of jobless skool-kids roaming the blogs for him." It's been a point of pride for McGinn's core volunteers ever since. High on one wall in the office is a piece of paper for every major endorsement McGinn has won—the 34th District Democrats (a dual endorsement with Nickels, a victory for McGinn in Nickels's home district), the 36th District and 37th District Democrats (dual endorsements with Mallahan), the Metropolitan Democratic Club (dual endorsement with Mallahan), and the Sierra Club (sole endorsement, though that's to be expected). Next to all the rest: a piece of yellow lined notebook paper with the words "The Jobless Skool-Kids" written in block letters and covered in autographs.

Ainsley Close, another of the jobless skool-kids—she's got the summer off from grad school in environmental studies and has agreed to defer enrollment if McGinn makes it through the primary—points to it, smiling. "It was pretty awesome. We're like, yeah, we'll take that." She adds, "Be sure to spell it with a k."

None of the jobless skool-kids (in their 20s and 30s, mostly) seem daunted by their candidate's underdog status—at least they don't when reporters ask. Farmer says, "Nobody's polling. Nobody's polling this race. So no one knows what's going on." He questions the methodology of the SurveyUSA polls, saying, as far as he understands, that respondents were asked if they vote in the primary, and if they said yes, their answer counted—a less accurate picture of primary voters than calling only voters who actually voted in the last primary. (SurveyUSA hasn't responded to a request for comment yet.)

But it has been difficult getting people to care about the mayor's race, Elliott Day, a fellow jobless skool-kid, concedes. "A lot of my friends—even I had a difficult time getting them interested. It's the summer. It's an earlier primary than ever. And, this is just my theory, but maybe people are electioned out after last year."

At a volunteer-appreciation party at McGinn's house in Greenwood on Saturday, July 25, I ask him, for the hundredth time, if he's going to make it through the primary. "We're going to make it, we're going to make it," he says, his face all optimism. "We've dialed 5,000 homes already. That's a lot of personal phone calls compared to other campaigns." His dining-room table is piled with T-shirt-making stencils and paint. One of the shirts is the Guinness logo slightly modified (white letters, gold harp, black background). "Isn't that great?" he says, laughing. "That's working. That's working." recommended

This story has been updated since its original publication.


Comments (31) RSS

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If we get through the primary and it is Greg Nickels versus Gregory Nickels I'm going to puke. There are real challenges facing the city, the economy, the environment and everyone else seems to think that this is a vanity contest. Bravo to McGinn for caring enough for Seattle to talk about these issues.
Posted by Bravissimo on July 29, 2009 at 12:15 PM · Report this
Becky S. 2
Frizzelle really nailed it with the title of this article and descriptions of the mayoral candidates. We need a real debate about where we are as a city and what our priorities should be moving forward.

We aren't going to get that debate from any of the other challengers - we'll just get more of the same.
Posted by Becky S. on July 29, 2009 at 12:40 PM · Report this
What a great article. I totally agree - McGinn is so much more qualified than his opponents, it's not even funny. Drago is the only one who can compete on policy, but, as Christopher says, she has that slurring issue and usually makes no sense. She also has few groundbreaking ideas. Mallahan? Zero policy chops, and the whole "community organizer" thing based on being an Obama delegate is a complete farce. It'd be a real shame to come out of the primary with a Nickels vs. Drago/Mallahan scenario. Go McGinn!
Posted by Gordian on July 29, 2009 at 1:20 PM · Report this
McGinn is willing to both listen to the ideas of others and fight for what he believes in when it comes time to push things forward. That would be a breath of fresh air for stagnant Seattle politics
Posted by calliope on July 29, 2009 at 1:49 PM · Report this
petenice 5
Go McGinn!!!!
Posted by petenice on July 29, 2009 at 2:17 PM · Report this
Great article about local politics at it's finest. Grassroots, fun and real. Go McGinn!
Posted by CMB on July 29, 2009 at 2:39 PM · Report this
How incredibly true. Micheal Mcginn for Mayor.
Posted by Natehc1984 on July 29, 2009 at 3:18 PM · Report this
Yay for a man whose proposal to replace the viaduct (expanding I-5, ha!) would cost 10x the stupid tunnel. And he doesn't even answer direct questions so what makes you you think he can stimulate real debate?
Posted by lolopie on July 29, 2009 at 4:15 PM · Report this
Heck yeah - bring it on, Mike!
Posted by nomadicQ on July 29, 2009 at 4:43 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 10
He's a great guy.
Posted by Will in Seattle on July 29, 2009 at 5:45 PM · Report this
The campaign needs your help - your time, your money, your voice to your friends that Mike's for real and needs your votes. Primary ballots are coming soon - I know it's bloody hot, but time to get involved!
Posted by CDJohnS on July 29, 2009 at 7:56 PM · Report this
Nickels has raised 10 times the money as McGinn. You can't have a debate if one voice isn't heard, so "chances" are pretty slim we'll hear much from McGinn. Why is McGinn having such a hard time raising money?
Posted by Pete on July 29, 2009 at 8:57 PM · Report this
Go McGinn!! Great guy with great ideas!
Posted by brauerh on July 30, 2009 at 8:22 PM · Report this
Greg Nickels is going to eat your children! Then he's going to die and rot and stink up the entire tri-county area with his putrid fumes poisoning the air and water, killing all the land and sea creatures. Then, his vapors will rise and coagulate over the sky and block out the sun forever leaving nothing in the Seattle area left alive. Somebody stop him! Take away his power! Will the ugliness never end!
Posted by Wells on July 30, 2009 at 10:19 PM · Report this
We don't need a debate about a tunnel v. no tunnel. It's been 20 years since this debate has started. McGinn represents more of the gridlock the city's been in for the better part of 3 decades. We need a leader who is centrist and will listen to all sides to determine the best solutions for our city. It's not Mike McGinn. It's not Joe Mallahan.

Greg Nickels will not win. I don't know why we are worrying about him.
Posted by why is the stranger biased? on July 30, 2009 at 11:34 PM · Report this
McGinn is the only candidate that has the vision to lead Seattle towards a truely sustainable future. Vote for Mike McGinn!
Posted by TheGreenNW on July 31, 2009 at 9:58 AM · Report this
Who, oh WHO, will get the Stranger's endorsement today? Shocker: McGinn! This group of 'reporters' is about as biased as it gets. With Erica gone it's extra-obvious.

And why would you do endorsements the same day you are interviewing candidates? That seems a little unfair that you'd have to rush to finish their write-ups while the others have time to soak in.

But I'm guessing the write-up on the soon-to-be-released McGinn endorsement is polished and ready!
Posted by Biased Indeed on July 31, 2009 at 11:02 AM · Report this
He already had my vote, but due to the quote “He's mayor-shaped.” My support has increased 10 times, Why would we vote for a candidate that wasn’t mayor Shaped!
Posted by Digital on July 31, 2009 at 3:12 PM · Report this
Oh my oh my, why do I read comments? Ok, here we go:

@8: First of all, where the hell are you getting your information re: 10x the cost? The last unofficial cost estimate I saw was about $1.6 billion. Oh, and here's yer goddamn straight answers…

@15: 20 years? The Nisqually Earthquake was in 2001. Still, I take your point that we've been stupidly letting the Viaduct stand for 8 years while it's been structurally unsound. That said, we shouldn't let ourselves be so desperate for a solution that we take any old one, even one that will hurt us more in the long run.

@15, 17: Um. You do realize that endorsing *any* candidate is a biased action, right? You're just pissed their bias doesn't line up with yours.

Posted by Zelbinian on August 2, 2009 at 11:09 AM · Report this
@19 The 1989 earthquake in California that leveled the Embarcadero was a similar viaduct on similarly unstable ground. The 1995 Kobe quake destroyed its viaduct. The debate has been occurring for longer than the Nisqually Quake. We can't keep arguing sides just because you don't like the outcome. It reminds me of current conflicts in the middle east and other parts of the world that cannot move forward from their positions. Governing is about compromise, leadership, and creating a mutually agreeable vision.

McGinn does not have concrete proposals for what he would do to solve any of our problems - youth violence, homelessness, low morale within city departments, road repair, including what to do with the Viaduct, how much it would could, and what would be the impact. He says we could use the money from the tunnel to pay for these thing. If we don't use the $3.3B the state and federal gov't have allocated to the viaduct, we CANNOT use it for other things (like housing homeless, repairing roads, etc...). We can only change that by changing the current funding laws.

The Stranger just wants someone to go toe-to-toe with the mayor on their environmental records - to make the mayor look stupid (I don't think he needs much help btw). Heading the Sierra Club is nice but the city has many other issues. Passionate citizens should champion these causes. The leader of a city needs to understand and work on solving many more issues. He also has never managed a budget more than a hundred thousand dollars. I could go on.
Posted by Why is the stranger biased on August 3, 2009 at 11:03 AM · Report this
I would vote for McGinn if he wasn't running a retarded campaign that is so fucking Seattle, I am currently puking. An entire campaign based on arguing against the tunnel? Holy crap. I couldn't agree more with #15, this town is driving me fucking batty.
Posted by jenc01 on August 3, 2009 at 12:06 PM · Report this
@21 word. Not to worry though, given McGinn's poll numbers, 9 out of 10 of his supporters have posted on this blog--nothing to see here.
Posted by Westside forever on August 3, 2009 at 4:21 PM · Report this
gee, just what we need, another esoteric nut ball with no common sense,,,
Posted by Wild Bill on August 3, 2009 at 4:58 PM · Report this
What the hell, I'll vote for McGinn. Wasn't going to, but the others...
Posted by uptown on August 3, 2009 at 5:43 PM · Report this
Wait, @20, please compare the viaduct to the middle east again. That was pretty awesome.
Posted by Garth B on August 3, 2009 at 6:02 PM · Report this
Having lived most of my life in Boston, I understand the frustration of Seattlites when it comes to decision-making. It frustrates me, too. But there are two related problems that are even worse and more frustrating:

1) You people get so angry about the lack of a decision, that any decision will do. It doesn't matter if it's the right one, it just matters that there's a decision. That's a piss-poor way to manage anything.

2) You people are so goddamn afraid of change that you don't have the moral courage to fire the leaders *responsible* for the lack of decision in the first place. In doing so, you reward failure. Both Nickels and Drago have pushed for the tunnel despite what WSDOT and SDOT came up with, and despite what the voters inherently supported when we summarily rejected both another raised viaduct and - wait for it - a tunnel: surface/transit with I-5 improvements. That solution is the greenest, cheapest, and most sustainable for the region. Every single transit/environmental authority in the region is in complete and total agreement on this issue (with the exception of the bullshit Livable Seattle Movement).

So go ahead. Vote for Nickels or Drago, and get 4 more years of our leaders not listening to us (there was that poll that came out in January that said something like 78% of Seattlites don't think their elected officials care about what they think - forgive me, I can't find it at the moment). Or you could vote for Donaldson or Mallahan who, while clearly passionate about the office, have no policy chops whatsoever.

And if you do . . . well, nothing will change. Maybe you're alright with that. I'm not. Sure, McGinn is a bit of a gamble, but he's got plenty of common sense, and I'm gonna put my chips down with him.
Posted by Zelbinian on August 3, 2009 at 6:39 PM · Report this
Posted by viviennewestwood on August 4, 2009 at 7:39 AM · Report this
McGinn does have a perspective against the tunnel. I don't agree with it. But it's different from Nickels. A plus.

But after that I don't think he has a plan. If he wants to stir debate, have him release some other issue statements above and beyond the tunnel to make me think he has ideas.
Posted by downyonder on August 4, 2009 at 12:17 PM · Report this
McGinn's priorities include having the mayor engage in repairing our failing school system--as the Obama administration advocates--as has worked in NYC and many other cities around the country--he is not just about the tunnel.
Posted by calliope on August 4, 2009 at 1:07 PM · Report this
what is the purpose of debate, anyway...

more personal endorsements?

possibly less of the hyperbole.
Posted by dan k. on August 6, 2009 at 3:56 PM · Report this
I agree with that!
Todd DiRoberto…
Posted by amsatpro on August 7, 2009 at 10:17 AM · Report this

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