Lessons from Mayor Greg Nickels' Defeat in Seattle

For shame! I neglected to write about Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' reelection bid leading up to the vote last week and nor have I said ...
by | August 25, 2009

For shame! I neglected to write about Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' reelection bid leading up to the vote last week and nor have I said anything since his shocking defeat.

My only excuse is that most observers didn't think Nickels was in danger in the primary. Just two months ago, Nickels was named to a year-long term as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Now, Nickels will have to give up that office months early because, of course, he won't be a mayor come January.

Nickels sagging approval ratings aren't new, but ahead of the vote Nickels seemed almost certain to be one of the two participants in the general election. Preelection polling showed a close contest, but with Nickels in first in the non-partisan race in Seattle, a very Democratic city.

Instead, Nickels finished third last week, with businessman Joe Mallahan and environmental activist Mike McGinn coming in first and second, respectively. Correction: As of Tuesday afternoon, the most recent returns have McGinn in first and Mallahan in second.

That sets up an interesting contrast for the general election. But, why did Nickels lose?

Like most political events, this one is overdetermined. Nickels, a major national figure as mayors go, seemed close to invincible. Now, with all of the explanations as to why he lost, you might wonder why his defeat wasn't a foregone conclusion.

First off, Seattle government botched a snowstorm response last winter, with major streets remaining impassable for days. Snowstorms have a unique way of undermining the political standing of mayors, from Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic three decades ago to Providence Mayor David Cicilline just a couple of years back. The lesson, it seems, is that national notoriety is alright, but, first and foremost, citizens want their mayors to do the basics well.

The snowstorm, though, wasn't Nickels' only controversy. He also promoted a 20-cent fee on shoppers for plastic bags and paper bags they acquire at supermarkets and convenience stores.

The idea was to encourage Seattle residents to bring their own bags, but it wasn't an idea the people of Seattle liked. As they voted Nickels out of office, they voted down the bag fee in a referendum. The lesson, it seems, is that even progressive voters care more about their pocketbooks than their environmental ideals.

Perhaps Nickels' biggest controversy, however, was over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated roadway that was damaged in a 2001 earthquake. After years of debate, in January Nickels and other local and officials agreed to replace the viaduct with a tunnel, even though Seattle voters had rejected that option two years earlier.

In municipal politics, the views of the left and the right sometimes converge. For example, conservatives don't like public subsidies for sports stadiums because they're expensive, while liberals don't like them because they'd rather see money spent on social programs than corporate welfare. Analogously, conservatives in Seattle were skeptical of an expensive infrastructure project, while liberals preferred more of an emphasis on public transit.

McGinn had success in the primary with an anti-tunnel message. The lesson, it seems, is that the political center often is a tough spot to occupy in big-city politics.

So, arguably, we have three lessons here. One may have had more to do with Nickels defeat than the others, but each probably played some role in the election result. Nickels' defeat, I suppose, was a surprise that we should have seen coming.

--Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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