A bullying, headstrong executive is on his way out. He departs with his approval ratings down around his ankles, with his political capital all used up on a controversial project that we'll be paying for long after he's gone, and with the economy in the tank. Everywhere, voters are clamoring for change.
Sound familiar? It continues. As the election cycle kicks off, an unlikely candidate emerges to replace the departing executive. This candidate doesn't look like your typical politician. He's less polished than the others in the field, more willing to take risks, more... authentic. He has a community-organizing background, a couple of successful populist crusades under his belt, and a humble, transparent style. He talks of running an "egoless campaign." Younger voters get him immediately. Eventually, people of all demographics begin to see a man who possesses an unusual, powerful quality.
It's a quality that has nothing to do with well-defined policy positions—though he does have those—and everything to do with gooey matters like disposition, idealism, and hope. This new candidate, it turns out, is the right kind of mirror. He reflects back to the people an image of what's best about the place they love (and also what's worst, weirdest, and worth protecting). He is them.
On the stump, this candidate insists that we can do what others say is too hard, too impractical. He is audacious: Alone among the candidates, he repudiates the central, controversial project of the man he now wants to replace—pledges to end the project, reverse it, erase its stain. He does this despite many respected political elders intoning that it's too late, the die is cast, this project cannot be undone. With his gutsy denunciation, this candidate gives voice to a latent civic anger, becomes a vehicle for its venting.
It is, of course, an old story. It is the story of Barack Obama, sure. But he's only the most recent and well-known iteration of an ancient narrative—the story of the heroic savior. In Seattle, in the race for mayor, it has become the story of Mike McGinn: A surprising leader steps onto the scene and finds that he is perfectly matched for a defining time.
On primary night, in a close race where he was considered vastly outmatched by the other candidates—the two front- runners had been running television ads for weeks, whereas McGinn hadn't run a single one—McGinn won. Joe Mallahan, the T-Mobile executive with personal wealth and lots of wealthy contributors, came in second. Greg Nickels, the incumbent, who'd been in contests like this many times before, came in third. Which means he's now out of the picture.
That makes the race for mayor a contest without an incumbent, a face-off between two untested men, a choice that is, either way, a gamble.
But it's also a choice between stark stylistic differences. Mallahan's main political accomplishment thus far has been to figure out how much it costs to buy one's way into a Seattle mayoral race. (Over $230,000 of his own money and counting.) He wears suits, employs tested political hands, brags about having the support of the city's "insiders." Then there's McGinn, who is no neophyte—he's been a lawyer, a neighborhood activist, and president of the local Sierra Club—but has shrewdly embraced the chance to run as an outsider, as the leader of an insurgent campaign. He says "grassroots" whenever possible. He refuses to have an official spokesperson (he does the speaking or simply allows the conduct of the campaign to speak for itself). And as he bikes around town in shirt and jeans, he smiles through an only somewhat trimmed, I-don't-give-a-fuck, logger-chic beard.
McGinn is the happy warrior, and the data shows him closing in. A September 30 poll by SurveyUSA had McGinn and Mallahan tied, with McGinn up two points from a poll conducted a couple weeks previous. Most important, the September 30 poll showed McGinn grabbing younger voters, middle-aged voters, and female voters from Mallahan. Quite a coup for the candidate who spent only $2.03 per vote in the primary (Mallahan spent $12.28 per vote), and an obvious sign of momentum. McGinn has almost five times as many Facebook supporters as Mallahan and more than three times as many Twitter followers—despite the fact that Mallahan has raised nearly four times as much money as McGinn (almost half of it, of course, from Mallahan's own checking account).
Many political observers have complained that this is a choice between two men with far more hubris than experience. True, in the sense that neither has held a serious elected office before. But in this, the 2008 presidential campaign is again instructive. Back then, a major concern about both Obama and John McCain was that neither man had ever run anything larger or more complicated than his own campaign for president. As a result, the execution of each man's run for office became the most important data point that voters had to assess how he might govern. The style became the substance.
McGinn is, quite simply, running the better campaign. He plays offense almost every day (last month, when Mallahan was quietly preparing to announce a new addition to his advisory team, McGinn scooped Mallahan by making his announcement for him). He offers idea after new idea (a plan for a new light-rail line along the west side of Seattle, a plan for dealing with gang violence, a plan for fixing the crumbling South Park bridge). He has a core conviction—that digging a new tunnel through downtown Seattle is a costly mistake that doesn't fit with the character or future of this city—and even as events seem to be making it harder and harder for him to turn his conviction into action (the city council is expected to sign an agreement later this month with the state on funding for the tunnel), his willingness to stand up and call it a mistake is energizing to a significant portion of his base.
Mallahan, by contrast, is running a cookie-cutter campaign designed not to ruffle or offend. He's selling himself as more of the same at a time when Seattle wants change.
As an idea, as a promise, and as a person, he's simply wrong for this civic moment. Picture both candidates in your mind and ask this simple question: Which of these guys feels like the mayor of the Seattle I want to live in?
The answer is obvious.