Starting on the edges of downtown and cutting northwest over Queen Anne and Magnolia, crossing the Ship Canal, and taking in Ballard and Greenwood, the 36th Legislative District is rich with active Seattle voters. It's Seattle's trademark voting district. Indeed, in the same way that Dan Rather might jet into Peoria, Illinois, to read the national tea leaves during presidential elections, someone could similarly predict the results of citywide contests by gauging the mood of voters in all-important Magnolia and Ballard.

It's no surprise then, that city hall incumbents up for reelection this year made a point of showing up promptly on Thursday, August 9 at 7:00 p.m. for the 36th District Democrats endorsement meeting at the Northwest Senior Activity Center. Shaking hands, decorating the place with yard signs, and humbly thanking the crowd for their support (one candidate even brought a cake), each politician appropriately kissed 36th District booty in the bingo meeting room located next to the Ballard Locks at the west end of Northwest Market Street.

One notable candidate, though, was MIA. Or rather, he arrived an hour and a half late. In fact, by the time the candidate showed up, the room of Democratic voters and activists had already made its endorsement in his race.

The tardy candidate? Incumbent Mayor Paul Schell. The 36th District endorsement? Challenger Greg Nickels.

Schell and his wife, Pam, showed up in the foyer at around 8:35 p.m. However, after quickly learning that the endorsement went to Schell's main opponent--"overwhelmingly"--the pair turned around and left without ever stepping into the meeting room.

Schell's name hadn't even come up during the vote an hour earlier. The 36th District board had recommended a "sole endorsement" for Nickels, and the only opposition came from dissenting board member Janis Traven, who, rather than rushing to the defense of Schell, simply raised concerns about Nickels' screw-up as Sound Transit finance chair. However, 33 members supported the sole endorsement of Nickels. Just four opposed it. Nickels, in a light-blue shirt and khakis (and in attendance, for Pete's sake!), stepped forward and politely thanked the Democrats as they clapped. Chairwoman Judith Hine, wearing an impossibly large pair of granny glasses, banged her gavel and the group went on to the city council races.

All of this doesn't bode well for Schell. Think about it: Mayor Schell, an incumbent Democrat, couldn't even wrestle a dual endorsement from a roomful of Greenwood, Ballard, and Magnolia Democrats. It's also illustrative of his campaign that he didn't even make the effort. Shouldn't an incumbent Democratic mayor who claims his support base is "the neighborhoods" be able to stir up support--or at least challenges to his opponent--in Ballard bingo halls? (Earlier this month, Schell was a half-hour late to the 11th District Democrats endorsement meeting and lost that one, too.)

In fact, so far, Nickels has scooped up four of Seattle's seven Democratic district endorsements, while incumbent Schell managed to wrangle a dual endorsement with Nickels out of the 37th District (Madrona, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley). Schell's camp writes off Nickels' string of wins by citing Nickels' long-term ties to the party machine. "Greg has been a party player all his life," says Schell's campaign manager, Karen Besserman. "He's just calling in some chits. Meanwhile, we're getting the environmentalist and human services business endorsements."

"I'm more into city-building than party-building," Schell says. "That doesn't mean I'm not a Democrat, but I'm a Seattleite first." And Besserman points out that Nickels got most of the Democratic endorsements in the '97 mayoral race, and Schell won that year. "We won without [those endorsements] last time, and we'll win without them this time."

Last time, however, Schell wasn't an incumbent Democratic mayor. More than giving a nod to Nickels, Seattle's neighborhood Democrats seem to be saying no to Schell.

The morning after the 36th District endorsement, Chairwoman Judith Hine asked the Nickels campaign to hand over some Nickels promo literature. The Democratic worker bees had some doorbelling to do.

josh@thestranger.com

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