This year’s mayor’s race has attracted a large group of challengers; at least eight candidates want to replace Mayor Mike McGinn, who is running for reelection. That number reflects a sense that McGinn is vulnerable, and that should come as no surprise. He began the campaign with low approval ratings. And, historically, Seattleites have shown they are not in the least bit afraid to toss out an incumbent. That’s how Mike McGinn got his job. In 2009, voters defeated incumbent Greg Nickels in the summer primary. Nickels himself was first elected after Mayor Paul Schell was defeated in the primary of 2001. Sometimes incumbency at city hall is a disadvantage. For one thing, as candidates campaign, they pledge to fill potholes, yet the pits keep forming, jarring reminders of failed promises.
Still, the job itself must be filled, and it’s an important one. The mayor runs the city departments, can set policy direction (bikes or cars) and is conductor of the urban orchestra, literally in charge of music (pushing for expanded club hours or not) and fireworks (raising funds for the Fourth of July display). Being mayor is also a political end in itself, or rather, a dead end. The last Seattle mayor to move on to higher office was Art
Langlie, who was elected governor—in 1940. Since then, former mayors have failed to move up, though some have continued to be civically engaged. Yet, if you want the post, you have to demonstrate hometown ambition and promise to fulfill Seattle’s destiny as the best “progressive” city in America.
One “progressive” mystery has been the relative absence of major women mayoral candidates, especially odd in this campaign when there are so many powerful and savvy women everywhere else: on the City Council (Sally Clark, Sally Bagshaw, Jean Godden), at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (Maud Daudon), running Sound Transit (Joni Earl), in the U.S. Senate (Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell), even in President Obama’s cabinet (Sally Jewell). Here’s the awkward fact: Seattle elected the first female mayor of a major U.S. city, and she served one two-year term starting in 1926, then was defeated for reelection. Her name was Bertha Knight Landes, and 85 years later she remains our only woman mayor.
Kate Martin, a Greenwood activist, Mary Martin (no relation), a Socialist with a capital “S,” and Joey Gray, an enviro activist and Ultimate Frisbee pioneer, are in this race, but are considered long shots. It’s sad, because Seattle also has one of the worst gender income gaps in the country. How progressive a city we are is called into question by the facts on the ground. Several theories have been proposed, one being that women are smart enough to see what a dead-end job being mayor is. Earlier this year on her blog, council member and former newspaper columnist Jean Godden speculated on the absence of women in the Seattle mayor’s office and many local boardrooms. She traced one of the key reasons to high heels. Godden quipped: “I believe it was Gloria Steinem who once said, ‘Women won’t be truly equal until they can wear comfortable shoes.’”
It’s true you won’t likely see McGinn, Ed Murray, Bruce Harrell, Peter Steinbrueck or the bow-tied Charlie Staadecker in high heels, though that might win them points at The Stranger. Still, they all must do a political balancing act. Since Seattle’s skyline is growing and its economy is recovering, the focus will be on fixing major systemic problems, such as reforming a police department that is under the scrutiny of the Justice Department, and trying to get us a school system that people actually want to send their kids to.
Most of the challengers are making “leadership” a campaign focus, which is an implied critique of McGinn, who made himself unpopular by opposing the waterfront tunnel. Council member Harrell, the only minority candidate, pledges to listen to the people. Former council member Steinbrueck, an architect, says he can do a better job of steering us to a fairer, more socially just form of urbanism that is not enslaved to condo developers. And state Senator Ed Murray points to his leadership efforts to legalize gay marriage and pass Referendum 74. McGinn points to a recovering economy, skyline cranes and budget surpluses, and can say, “I did that.” Ideologically, the candidates’ differences aren’t huge, but their styles and experience contrast meaningfully.
The primary in August will winnow the field to two. Voters should tune in now, because this is the time when we have the most choice on the ballot. We can hear candidates lay out their visions for the future, and have a chance to genuinely help pick the path we’ll be following—for the next four years, anyway.