Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis was flipping burgers and grilling hot dogs in a blue apron. Mayoral Communications Director Marianne Bichsel was working the sign-in table. The mayor was holding court in the parking lot--shaking hands and chatting with donors. This was the scene on South Massachusetts Street and Rainier Avenue at a tidy South Seattle community center where Greg Nickels held his annual barbecue/fundraiser last Saturday, while guests munched potato salad and sipped cans of Sprite at red and white checked tables.

I've skipped the last two or three of these annual barbecues, but felt compelled to attend this year because Nickels is up for reelection. It seemed like a chance to get an early read on his 2005 campaign message. I'd been worried that when Nickels finally draws an opponent, he might tone down his pushy big-city agenda (an urbanist agenda I support) and haul out his "Seattle Way" mantra instead--a voter-friendly sound bite that translates into: inaction by consensus. This polite Seattle Way riff did win the election for him last time.

If Nickels reverted to the Seattle Way mold, I worried, he'd be preventing Seattleites from having the opportunity to send a message this year (once and for all) about two competing visions. There's the urbanist vision of people like Nickels who realize that we need to ruffle feathers to transform Seattle into a vibrant, dense city. And there's the lesser-minded provincial vision of people who oppose change--cherishing a status quo where 75 percent of Seattle is exclusively zoned for single-family housing. (Why these folks don't move to Kirkland is a mystery to me.)

When I got my chance to lock down with Nickels in the parking lot, I was happy to discover he isn't interested in reviving his 2001 Seattle Way shtick. Indeed, I found that he's so antsy to be in an election brawl where he can defend his agenda that, lacking an opponent of his own, he's trying to frame the debate in other races. He slyly singled out incumbent council members who've tried to put the brakes on his sweeping pro-development proposals and are up for reelection this year. The mayor identified Richard Conlin and Nick Licata as folks he doesn't like working with. Both Conlin and Licata have challenged Nickels' agenda, particularly in South Lake Union. Nickels even endorsed Conlin's opponent, Casey Corr. (Licata doesn't have an opponent yet, but the smirk on Nickels' face made it clear the mayor wished otherwise.)

I'm not sure Nickels is right about Conlin and Licata (particularly Licata), but I'm glad Nickels sees the upcoming election in such combative terms. It means he's willing to put his urbanist agenda to a vote. Citing the pro-development land-use changes he pushed in Northgate and South Lake Union, he defiantly told me his new campaign theme was simple: "We're headed in the right direction."

I wish he'd draw an opponent already, so he'd get the chance to prove it.

josh@thestranger.com

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