Ed Murray did Seattle residents a service by stepping aside from re-election.

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SEATTLE Mayor Ed Murray made the difficult but right decision to drop his re-election campaign, sparing voters from a contest overshadowed by scandal.

Had he remained in the race, voters would have had to choose between believing Murray’s theories of a political conspiracy to bring him down or believing that decades ago, he sexually exploited four vulnerable teens.

The choice may not be fair to Murray and his decades of public service. The allegations against him, one of them contained in a civil lawsuit, may be false.

But Murray was clearly too politically damaged to be re-elected. Had he decided to run again, the fierce debates that should be central to the mayoral campaign — about coping with Seattle’s unprecedented growth and challenges — would have become secondary to Murray’s legal drama. For that, Murray did voters a favor.

The mayor acknowledged as much in his emotional speech at Alki Beach on Wednesday. “The mayor’s race must be focused on these issues, not on a scandal, which it would be focused on, if I were to remain in,” he said.

Earlier, however, Murray escalated the conflict with attacks on his accusers’ backgrounds, as if criminal records suggested they couldn’t be trusted. That tactic was denounced by far too few Seattle leaders.

Now, Murray has cleared the field for would-be mayors who step forward by the day. Seattle needs a strong mayor to bridge widening socio-economic divides, to refocus city priorities and to be a pragmatic champion for the whole city, including citizens who increasingly view City Hall as captive to fringe activists. The city needs a leader who can continue Murray’s work toward police reform, ending homelessness and universal preschool.

Murray’s decision to serve out his term, rather than resign, puts the onus on him to prove he can still lead. Leadership requires trust, moral authority and public engagement. Even without a re-election campaign, he cannot refuse to answer questions from the public or the media. Murray canceled a long-sought meeting with The Seattle Times editorial board an hour before it was to start on Wednesday; a spokesman said he needed time after his withdrawal the day before.

Murray, flaws and all, built a remarkable civil-rights record over the past two decades. This editorial board agreed, and at times disagreed, with him.

Wednesday, he put the public interest first in stepping aside. With more than seven months left in his term, he has to prove he can be effective, or else he should resign.