City council candidate Darryl Smith, who held his official campaign kickoff last Tuesday, has the kind of dynamic presence and powerful message that would make him a clear frontrunner in any ordinary race for city office. But whether he can distinguish himself among the three strong challengers who are vying for Judy Nicastro's council seat is a different question.

Dressed spectacularly (as always) in a loose-fitting brown suit with a jaunty purple iris tucked into the buttonhole, Smith cut a striking figure in front of the 75 supporters who showed up for his party at the Mount Baker Community Club. Smith's speech was equally sharp: Instead of predictably blasting Nicastro for opposing the low-income housing levy because it included too much money for homeownership, as other opponents have done, Smith focused the debate, calling homeownership "a basic, fundamental opportunity that... every Seattleite ought to have an opportunity to be a part of." In a recent interview, Smith explained that he supports homeownership programs precisely because they assist people at every income level, not just the very-low-income folks Nicastro wants to help. "The folks who are leaving Seattle are the sort of folks we used to talk about as middle-class people," Smith said. "We've got to do a better job at planning and creating housing options for them."

As a former chair of the Columbia City Revitalization Committee and a real-estate broker in the neighborhood, Smith has real-world credibility: He's actually worked to widen housing choices in South Seattle, where he and his wife, Andrea, and their daughter live. But there's grunt work and then there's politics--and Smith's opponent Kollin Min may have a firmer grasp of the latter skill. Min, unlike Smith, had the prescience to volunteer on the housing levy campaign months before announcing his bid for office, ensuring him the kind of mainstream housing endorsements that are eluding Smith now. (He's also out-fundraised Smith by a margin of three to one.) And Smith, though he declared his candidacy early, didn't start drumming up support until several other candidates for Nicastro's seat had announced they were running, creating the perception of Smith as a latecomer in a crowded race. Smith's performance over the next couple of months will show whether he's a real contender--or merely a promising candidate for 2005.