JUST A COUPLE months ago, it looked like we were in for a pretty boring city council election -- there would be one, at most two, open seats, and several veteran politicians were already lining up to run. Now, suddenly, there are three open seats (left warm by Councilwomen Sue Donaldson, Martha Choe, and Tina Podlodowski) and the first viable challenge to an entrenched incumbent in years.

But there's something even bigger moving under the waters of our political Lake Placid -- the prospect of a progressive city council majority. The '97 election, when Nick Licata, Peter Steinbrueck, and Richard Conlin won their races, represented somewhat of a turning point. Progressive former activists all, they were elected promising to protect neighborhoods and the environment, manage growth, and put an end to Sports Welfare. As only three members of a nine-member council, however, their effectiveness has been limited. This election -- loaded with smart, progressive candidates who actually stand a chance -- could change all that.

Curt Firestone, who's opposing Margaret Pageler in her re-election bid for seat 5, is reaping the benefits of an anyone-but-Margaret movement. A founder of the Seattle Progressive Coalition, Firestone is fiery, outspoken, and running a tough campaign. Normally, this wouldn't be enough to make him viable against an incumbent. But Pageler's arrogance has made her an astounding number of enemies. With the scent of blood in the water, Pageler's detractors are starting to circle. Labor has been the first to strike by endorsing Firestone. If Firestone can continue to build momentum, this could turn into a feeding frenzy, with neighborhood activists, environmentalists, housing advocates, and arts people all jumping in to help take Pageler down.

Heidi Wills, a former UW student body president who's as polished as a Franklin Mint product, is making a solid run for seat 7 against West Seattle populist and former Council Member and mayoral candidate Charlie Chong. She's trooped a heavy-hitter endorsement list -- labor to enviros, Gen X progressives to old Democratic Party hacks -- and has raised a ton of green ($56,000 at last count). Wills is the fiercest campaigner this town has seen in decades. She's charismatic, strong on progressive issues -- like fighting poverty and managing growth -- and has fired up a large group of tough-minded young activists. There's one outstanding question, however. Would Wills, who came up as a political insider, stand up to downtown business interests when they inevitably came knocking? (She has said publicly that she would have challenged the sports stadiums, KeyArena, and Pacific Place garage deals.)

Newcomer Judy Nicastro, another former UW student prez, is having a harder go of it in the race for seat 1. Nicastro kicks butt on the stump: She's a smart, no bullshit speaker, and her passion for progressive issues (especially civil liberties, homelessness, housing, and renters' rights) is obvious. However, while she's backed by a core of left-liberal leader clearly still learning how to put together a campaign against former City Councilwoman Cheryl Chow.

Luckily, Chow is one of the least-liked public officials in Seattle. Her political life has rested on her legacy (her mother was a groundbreaking Asian American political leader) and her advocacy for public education (something the Seattle City Council has almost no influence over). Chow doesn't seem to have any reason to be running again, other than a need for a job, and even establishment types who've backed her in the past are balking now. Meanwhile, the other candidate in the race, Daniel Norton, while by all accounts a fine man, seems to have bottomed-out early. If Nicastro can convince the liberal establishment that she is an acceptable alternative to Chow, she can quite possibly overcome Chow's advantages in name familiarity and money.

Finally, there's a rugby scrum in race 9, where three liberals -- African-American former State Rep. Dawn Mason, newsman Jim Compton, and businessman and blueblood Alec Fisken -- are headed into what looks to be a good old-fashioned three-way, eye-gouging, ear-biting political brawl. The race for seat 3 appears to be a non-event, with liberal incumbent Steinbrueck facing only nominal competition.

The odds are good that there will be a political upheaval in this town unlike anything we've seen since the 1970s. With Donaldson stepping down from the council president's seat (and with Licata rumored to be interested in the job), the activist agenda could hit full stride next year. THE RACE IS ON

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