MR. AND MRS. MOXIE Lisa MacLean and John Wyble. Annie Marie Musselman
Five months before November 4, it's far too soon for most Seattleites to realize there's an election going on. But behind the curtains, the half-dozen insiders who make up Seattle's tightly woven political consulting scene have already spent months jockeying for clients--from sure-thing incumbents like Seattle City Council Member Heidi Wills to scrappy challengers like Columbia City activist Darryl Smith. The work of creating a candidate's image through campaign planning, speechwriting, targeted mailings, and ad campaigns isn't glamorous, but it is an increasingly important part of a winning campaign strategy. Hiring a consultant can be a costly proposition--between $10,000 and $20,000 for a major citywide campaign--but most candidates consider it a necessary evil.

Consultants weren't always so indispensable. When Blair Butterworth, consultant to Governor Gary Locke and former Mayor Paul Schell, first hung out his shingle in 1981, he and his then-partner "spent a year wondering whether we could make a living being full-time political consultants." It would be eight more years before Butterworth gained a professional rival in his onetime protégé Cathy Allen. Allen, now considered a seasoned veteran in Seattle's consulting scene, has a client roster that includes two current city council members, Margaret Pageler and Jim Compton, along with candidates in countless other Seattle races. But the supremacy of those two local institutions has been upset in recent years by a new crop of young, hungry upstarts.

Among those, none has burst onto the scene with more energy and savoir-faire than Moxie Media, the six-person Eastlake consulting shop started by 34-year-old prodigy Lisa MacLean (then Lisa Collins) in 1999. MacLean, a left-brained strategy whiz who excels, in her words, at "making the trains run on time," earned her reputation the hard way, doing time in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area before founding Moxie from her Central Area home. She was joined by 37-year-old John Wyble, a lifelong campaigner and the former political director for the Washington Conservation Voters, in 2001. The powerhouse team has gone on to win dozens of high-profile campaigns, including City Council President Peter Steinbrueck's first bid for reelection, the monorail campaign, and Greg Nickels' successful mayoral race. This year, Moxie is representing several local incumbents--including Steinbrueck and his colleague Heidi Wills--and a hotshot challenger, Kollin Min, who's vying to take Judy Nicastro's city council seat. (Allen is working with incumbents Compton and Pageler, and Butterworth has sat out the local races so far.)

Stylistically, Moxie's campaign materials are simple, stark, and often iconic. In a judicial race against Jeanette Burrage--the judge who famously insisted that female attorneys wear dresses in her courtroom--Moxie used pop art to deliver its anti-"dress code" message. And in a mailer for Heidi Wills' first campaign, Wills' image was juxtaposed with a "We Can Do It!" poster of Rosie the Riveter, the female icon of World War II.

Moxie is selling, more than anything, an image. Its light-filled, breezy Eastlake office--with its futons, open layout, and big-screen TV--feels more like a mid-'90s dot-com than the wood-paneled headquarters of Moxie's downtown counterparts. Even its name suggests a firm that's young, scrappy, politically astute. "Clearly, they're building something that's larger than just a political consulting firm," says Christian Sinderman, another thirtysomething consultant who worked on last year's housing levy campaign. "They're branding Moxie Media as business."

So what kind of candidates buy the Moxie brand? Think moderate, Prius-driving Seattle environmentalists--like Heidi Wills, Richard Conlin, and Kollin Min. (Wyble knows Wills through his work at WCV, which endorsed Wills in 1999, and met Min when Moxie was working for House Speaker Frank Chopp, Min's former boss.) MacLean says Moxie doesn't take on divisive candidates, candidates who refuse to take positions, or people who run for office "because they have a pet peeve."

Moxie's swift ascension to the top of Seattle's small consulting world has had a downside for old-guard politicos like Allen and Butterworth, who've had to shift strategies and scramble to keep up in a shifting political field. "Clearly, Moxie's focus on municipal races has hurt Cathy more than anyone else, because that was Cathy's stock-in-trade," Sinderman says. With a client list that includes heavy-hitting incumbents like Nickels and Wills and credible challengers like Min, Moxie has evolved in just four years from the new kid on the block to the centerpiece of Seattle's political world.

barnett@thestranger.com