He's Our Only Chance for an Actual Debate
Inside Mike McGinn's Underdog Campaign for Mayor
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."
This story has been updated since its original publication.