Ever since T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan entered the Seattle mayoral race in May, the label "newcomer" has clung to him like an extra name.

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Ever since T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan entered the Seattle mayoral race in May, the label “newcomer” has clung to him like an extra name.

Mallahan, 46, has never run for public office, or been visibly involved in any issues or debates to come before City Hall.

Before he volunteered for the Obama campaign last year, Mallahan’s main claim to civic engagement was his support of a foster children’s charity and the Great Wallingford Wurst Festival. He didn’t even vote in some recent local elections.

Yet with a pledge of $200,000 to his own campaign, and some success in scoring endorsements from local Democratic party groups, Mallahan has become the mayoral race’s biggest wild card.

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His campaign has consisted mainly of bashing Mayor Greg Nickels, claiming the city has “failed to deliver on basic services” while wasting too much money on big projects such as redevelopment of South Lake Union.

With no political record to judge him by, Mallahan’s supporters and rivals have looked to his nine years at T-Mobile USA, the Bellevue-based wireless giant, for clues as to how he might lead the city.

Mallahan says he’s proved himself as a creative problem-solver. Last year, he was singled out as executive of the year for his “crazy uncle” ideas — plans that appeared odd at first, but wound up helping the company.

“I really am known at T-Mobile as an innovator,” said Mallahan.

Opponents, however, have tried to link Mallahan to T-Mobile’s hostility toward a union trying to organize workers at its call centers and retail stores.

Seattle City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Jan Drago attacked Mallahan in a statement this month, saying he “can’t brag about his management background as a T-Mobile executive when it’s convenient, and then disclaim T-Mobile management practices when it conflicts with his campaign.”

While running for mayor, Mallahan has kept working at T-Mobile part time as vice president of operations strategy. He ranks in the top 40 or so executives in the 30,000-employee company. (Mallahan says he’ll take a leave of absence, if necessary, after the primary.)

At T-Mobile, Mallahan has been known as “a go-to, big-projects guy,” said Sue Nokes, the company’s former chief customer and operations officer. She was Mallahan’s boss until she left the company in June.

“He would pull people together from the various departments, coalesce them around a goal and get it done,” Nokes said. She described him as “passionate” when he has an idea, but said “you could bring in new data and he wouldn’t dig his heels in — I’ve seen Joe change his mind when presented with different facts.”

Perhaps his signature accomplishment was creating the company’s “FlexPay” plan, which allows prepaid wireless phone customers — traditionally lower-income customers charged high per-minute rates — to get deals similar to those who sign up for two-year contracts. That idea has brought in millions of new customers.

Mallahan said he had to work against the industry assumption that catering to lower-income people wouldn’t be profitable.

Mallahan’s opponents argue he can’t claim credit for T-Mobile accomplishments without also answering for the company’s efforts to stymie a union-organizing campaign by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

A memo T-Mobile sent to its retail-store managers last year with anti-union talking points has been circulated by rival campaigns.

The memo instructed managers to “refresh (employees’) understanding” of the company’s policy banning “all third parties, including union organizers” from soliciting or distributing materials on T-Mobile property.

Mallahan said he never saw the memo before it was brought up in the campaign. He said he thought it was a fake until he showed it to the company’s chief personnel officer, who confirmed it was real.

“I expressed my personal outrage as to the tone of the memo,” Mallahan said. “I also made it clear the position staked out in that memo goes against my personal belief of the right of workers to organize.”

CWA organizers have no proof Mallahan was involved in T-Mobile’s response to the union, but said they believe all high-level executives would have been generally aware of T-Mobile’s opposition.

Jeanne Carpenter, who worked as a CWA organizer in Oregon, called the company’s attitude “union avoidance at all costs.” She cited a 400-page manual prepared for T-Mobile management that listed “warning signs” of union activity and offered advice on how to defeat organizing efforts.

CWA represents 700,000 workers nationwide, including reporters, and advertising and circulation staff at The Seattle Times.

Sensitive about the subject, Mallahan frequently repeats a story about how his grandfather, a longshoreman on the Everett waterfront, used to come home bloodied from fights with anti-union thugs.

David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, which has endorsed Nickels, said Mallahan’s recent statements in support of union organizing do make a difference to organized labor. But, said Freiboth, “Mallahan is an unknown quantity. He has no record in labor, he has no record in government.”

Despite his low profile before entering the race, Mallahan says he always planned to run for public office.

He likes to tell how he worked his way through college at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., by working for Democratic Congressman Al Swift of Bellingham. (This being Seattle, Mallahan doesn’t usually bring up his brief stint working for Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.)

It was in Swift’s office, Mallahan says, that a mentor advised him to go prove himself in the corporate world before entering politics.

Mallahan eventually got an MBA from the University of Chicago and landed a job in the mid-1990s as president of a Century Tile, a Chicago company with 10 stores and 200 employees.

In Chicago, he also volunteered as an organizer for United Power for Action and Justice, a group that looks out for the interests of the poor.

Joshua Hoyt, a former lead organizer for the group, remembers Mallahan as “a big, friendly Catholic businessman.” Mallahan built support for a homeless shelter for black women in his own wealthy, white north Chicago neighborhood.

“There was vicious, mean-spirited opposition,” Hoyt said, from neighbors who wanted to force the church that owned the property to sell it to a developer for townhomes. “He was very active in organizing support … and we eventually won,” Hoyt said.

Mallahan took a job with T-Mobile in 2000, and moved to Seattle with his wife and two daughters. They live in Wallingford.

He said the demands of work and of raising a family kept him busy and largely disengaged from politics here until last year, when he volunteered for the local Obama campaign. It was that work that revived his interest in running for office. “I said to myself, ‘Gee, you’re having a lot of fun, this is very impassioned. It’s time to do something,’ ” he said.

Mallahan’s main pitch to voters is that he’d be a better manager than Nickels by demanding accountability from city departments.

He’s called for the firing of city transportation director Grace Crunican for well-publicized screwups by road crews. He also mocks the South Lake Union streetcar as an expensive “pet project” and opposes plans to expand the streetcar line.

“I’d been disappointed in the mayor for some time,” Mallahan said. “I’d saved enough money to do something like this, and the judgment I came to was that Seattle really needed a pragmatic leader at City Hall.”

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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