Upset In Seattle Mayoral Contest : It's All Politics Seattle has a new mayor, and it's the one who was given the slightest chance to win.

Upset In Seattle Mayoral Contest

Seattle has coffee, Ken Griffey Jr. and rain. It also, finally, has a new mayor. But why haven't we talked about that race? That's what Carl Malmstrom of Chicago wants to know:

As always, I love both your blog and "It's All Politics", which continues to be the highlight of my podcast-downloading week. I noticed last week amongst all the sturm und drang over N.J., Va., NY-23 and the NYC mayoral race, that almost nothing got said about the Seattle mayoral race, which I think is one of the more interesting races of 2009.

It looks like Mike McGinn will likely eke out a victory over Joe Mallahan, and McGinn wasn't even expected to survive the primary this year. As you're probably aware, the current mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, came in third in the nonpartisan primary, and McGinn, who's been underfunded, recently switched sides on an important-to-Seattle road-building issue. What makes this the most interesting to me is that, while there was certainly an anti-incumbent mood in Seattle this year, it manifested in electing the most liberal of the three top contenders, none of whom would be mistaken for moderates, much less conservatives. In any event, everything I've heard about the race has been fascinating, especially given that Seattle, while certainly more liberal than it was when I lived there in the 1980s, still has a greater bipartisan recent history than, say, Chicago or San Francisco.

It was an interesting race indeed. As you surmised, Mallahan conceded the race on Monday evening, making McGinn the next mayor. He won by 4,939 votes out of about 190,000 cast, a landslide when you compare the numbers to what it looked like on Wednesday, when the difference was just 462 votes. Seattle holds mail-in elections, one reason for the slow count.

Mallahan, a vice president for T-Mobile, spent heavily on his own campaign, one, because he was a political unknown, and two, he wanted to be on a level playing field with Nickels, the incumbent, whom he expected to face in the runoff. When Nickels finished third in the August primary, knocking him out of the race, Mallahan suddenly became the establishment choice, getting the endorsements of most of the labor unions, business community and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in the process.

For his part, McGinn, a former Sierra Club activist, ran a passionate, grass-roots effort, relying on volunteers, and effectively painted Mallahan as a conservative businessman, whether or not he truly was. He was outspent three-to-one.

The Seattle Times editorial page explains the result:

Seattle voters are in a testy mood. They turned down the practical, stay-the-course mayoral candidate, Joe Mallahan, and opted for the anti-establishment, in-your-face change agent, Mike McGinn. He is the new mayor of Seattle.

Some people thought McGinn irreparably harmed his candidacy by changing course on his centerpiece issue -- his rabid opposition to the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct became acquiescence. But voters saw him differently.

Yes, they know he opposes the project. But after the City Council's unanimous vote in favor of the tunnel and McGinn's subsequent statement he would not stand in its way, voters read that as more nuanced than an opportunistic flip-flop.

The ramifications of the deep recession, and natural angst about expensive projects in such a climate, made voters feel McGinn will fight hard to protect Seattleites from too much local spending associated with the tunnel.

After many one- or two-term mayoral stints, voters feel more comfortable with the candidate most likely to deliver basic services.

One fact may have resonated more than others: McGinn's campaign had limited professional staff and hundreds of volunteers. He was already showing he could conduct business without a lot of fuss and spending.

Besides, Seattleites are naturally drawn to nonconformists.

McGinn is likable and smart -- and a bit of a hell raiser. He doesn't align himself with business interests. Some of his closest allies are in the Sierra Club, where he was local chapter leader.

The new mayor has much to do in the months ahead. He needs to assemble a team that can filter some of his overly ambitious ideas. Early in the campaign, for example, he raised the possibility of a takeover of Seattle schools. He has since moderated that position. Perhaps in time the city will assume a larger role, but there is a city to manage first and a steep learning curve ahead.