YOU CAN'T SWING A dead salmon in Seattle without hitting an environmentalist, and when candidates want to prove their green creds, they line up for the Washington Conservation Voters' seal of approval. They may spend the rest of the year clubbing baby seals, but during election season they're all environmentalists, for one simple reason: WCV has clout.

First of all, getting WCV's nod means that a wide spectrum of treehuggers have your back. This looks good on mailers. More importantly, WCV's "green voter" program targets over 8,000 voting environmentalists in Seattle alone, and WCV calls every last one to tell 'em who to vote for. They can also give money and mobilize scores of volunteers for candidates they really like. In races where five or ten thousand votes may be the margin of victory, this is big juju.

Earlier this week, WCV announced they were endorsing Peter Steinbrueck in Seat 3, Heidi Wills in Seat 7, and Alex Fisken in Seat 9. It's who they didn't endorse, however, that's the real story.

Both contenders for City Council Seat 5, Margaret Pageler and Curt Firestone, sought WCV's stamp last week. On the face of it, you'd expect Pageler to be a shoo-in. She's an incumbent, and WCV emphasizes "viability" -- meaning they don't back people they know are losers. Pageler's oversight of public utilities on the city council makes her the most important vote on many ecological issues, especially salmon recovery. Finally, Pageler proudly calls herself (and runs as) an environmentalist.

But no green calls will be going out in support of Pageler's reelection this year. Pageler and Firestone's WCV supporters gridlocked last week, and neither candidate came away with the nod. Is this another sign of Pageler's crumbling support -- or, more importantly, of Firestone's momentum?

Probably a little of both. Firestone's campaign is definitely kicking a little. He's managed to raise a not-inconsiderable $27,000, and he's pulled in a bunch of volunteers. "Activist Seattle is definitely getting behind this campaign," he says.

Big surprise. Firestone's political resume reads like a composite profile of Nation readers: He's a '60s radical who's devoted decades to social work, and has spent his life agitating around issues like civil liberties and homelessness. I've never seen his car, but I have a sneaking suspicion it might be a vintage Volvo with a "US out of Central America!" sticker peeling off the bumper.

Hey, I'm a tie-dye diaper baby myself, but politically speaking, this old-time lefty crowd is better at swapping Noam Chomsky videos and snacking on one another's young than actually getting their candidates elected. Firestone's been snatching up Seattle Left endorsements -- from big labor to the tiny little Green Party -- but whether these folks will actually go to the mat for him in the six weeks before the September 14 primary is another question. Firestone gets just one chance to make this look like a real race. If Pageler grabs less than 55 percent of the vote, Firestone's a good bet to beat her. But if she scores more than 65 percent, it's over.

What should he be doing now? To find out, I called a bunch of hacks and asked them how they'd run his campaign. They came up with two themes: First, go for broke. Get on the horn and raise more money (at least $25,000 more), then dump it all into the primary. "If he makes it through with good numbers, other money will come his way," one says. "If not, it won't matter whether he has $10,000 left in the bank or not."

More importantly, they said, Firestone's gotta go Columbine on Pageler. "Many voters have a hard time remembering anything at all about city council candidates," said one veteran campaigner. "Firestone should be going negative and making sure voters remember one thing about Margaret: She stinks."

A good start, they suggest, would be making a big deal of Pageler's spotty environmental record. The perception that Pageler has been more interested in protecting Seattle's utilities than its wild salmon helped Firestone's supporters sink her WCV endorsement. Firestone should be dumping that kind of sludge all over Pageler.

Still, Pageler's nobody's fool -- she's raising money like a televangelist, and has lots of favors to call in. And while she's not as well-known as her council colleagues, her opponent's still practically anonymous. "I'm taking this race as seriously as any I've run," she says. "I think you'll see [that] the support I've earned on the council [will] show."

"Margaret's support," Firestone counters, "comes from corporate leaders and the establishment, who are comfortable with the old-guard status quo and are afraid of the change of direction that's going on in this city. I'm part of that change."

Nice one, Curt. But there'd better be a lot more where that came from.

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