A former supporter of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced Tuesday he is running against him. Michael McGinn pledged to improve schools...

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A former supporter of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced Tuesday he is running against him. Michael McGinn pledged to improve schools, bus service and access to technology if he is elected.

The former head of the local Sierra Club announced his campaign at a Capitol Hill pizza parlor and said that, as mayor, he would improve the city’s school district within two years or take it over, ask Seattle City Light to provide Internet access as a utility, and “ban the phrase ‘overcrowded bus’ from our vocabulary.”

McGinn joins one other candidate in this year’s race: political newcomer and executive recruiter Norman Sigler.

McGinn is fairly well-known and is taking on Nickels at a time when the mayor is considered politically vulnerable.

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Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck and 1980s Sonics player James Donaldson are still deciding whether to run. Editor Dan Savage of The Stranger has said on the weekly newspaper’s blog that he intends to run, but that he isn’t qualified and would resign after being sworn in. He said that would allow the City Council president to appoint someone, under the city charter.

McGinn, an attorney, heads the Seattle Great City Initiative, an advocacy organization intended to make Seattle more livable.

McGinn supported Nickels’ first two campaigns, and even gave $50 in 2007 to the mayor’s latest re-election effort. But he said Nickels’ “vision and leadership” have evaporated. Nickels’ transportation policies, he said, run counter to the mayor’s pledge to meet emissions standards of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on climate change.

Sandeep Kaushik, a Nickels campaign spokesman, said the mayor has been a national model on the environment, and on the issue, “the mayor would play second fiddle to no one.”

Nickels and the Sierra Club disagreed in 2007 on a roads and transit ballot measure. The Sierra Club opposed it; Nickels favored it, and it failed at the polls.

They worked together to pass a transit-only package last fall that will fund light-rail extensions. Nickels is chairman of Sound Transit.

McGinn also supports taking down the Alaskan Way Viaduct without a replacement. Nickels wants a tunnel.

McGinn pledges to improve Seattle Public Schools and Metro Transit — though neither would fall under his purview as mayor. But he said he was tired of hearing politicians make that excuse.

“What you get from the elected officials is, ‘that’s somebody else’s responsibility.’ “

McGinn’s three children attend Salmon Bay K-8, a public school. McGinn said the city has left the school system “hanging out there” without enough resources. He mentioned low graduation rates and a disparity in school quality across the city.

“We treat the school system like a hot potato,” McGinn said. If elected, he said, he would work for two years with the district. If things didn’t improve, he’d support a city-controlled school system. That would require a vote of the Legislature.

Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell said the district has lacked a close, constructive relationship with the mayor’s office. But he had questions about McGinn’s ultimatum.

“I appreciate that he’s concerned about education, but I really don’t know if he’s aware of the complex challenges that we face or the fact that we developed a five-year strategic plan to try to improve our performance,” he said.

McGinn said that while the mayor’s office doesn’t directly control Metro, he could work with the King County-run bus system to open more bus-only lanes and increase the number of buses on the road.

Kaushik, noting McGinn’s goals to improve Metro and the schools, said “an important part of the job of being mayor is understanding what role the mayor has in our larger governmental system.”

Nickels has raised about $300,000 for his re-election campaign, and McGinn acknowledged the challenge of running against an established incumbent.

“This campaign is not about who has a fancy office at City Hall,” he said. “This campaign is about what is the vision of our future and how do we get there together.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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