Mike McGinn entered Seattle's race for mayor in April with a few big ideas and an obsessive dislike for the plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

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Mike McGinn entered Seattle’s race for mayor in April with a few big ideas and an obsessive dislike for the plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

But T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan entered the race with money — a $200,000 check to his own campaign — and sharp criticism of the incumbent and unpopular mayor, Greg Nickels. City Councilmember Jan Drago had experience and name recognition when she joined the race.

It wasn’t long before McGinn’s campaign faded from the headlines.

But something changed this summer when, after months of being the only person in the race talking about the $4.2 billion tunnel project, McGinn heard a response from the project’s supporters.

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Suddenly, McGinn was back in the race, rising in the polls and getting media attention. The Stranger newspaper put his face on the front of its Aug. 6 edition, turning the city’s 500 Stranger boxes and racks into campaign signs just as the other candidates were paying big money to get on TV.

By election night, McGinn was on top. He was leading even though his top two competitors outspent him by almost $900,000. He slipped a bit behind Mallahan after Wednesday’s count, and Nickels remained in third. The top two advance to the Nov. 3 general election.

McGinn, 49, moved to Seattle from western Massachusetts to attend law school at the University of Washington. He practiced business law at the downtown law firm Stokes Lawrence. He eventually became a partner there, and in the meantime, got involved with Greenwood neighborhood politics and the local branch of the Sierra Club.

He was an early supporter of Nickels, giving money to all three of Nickels’ campaigns — including this year’s before deciding to enter the race himself. In 2006, when McGinn was Sierra Club chairman, he praised the mayor for his “tireless work and political courage.”

Nickels and McGinn disagreed at times, most notably on transportation issues. In 2007, McGinn organized a protest of a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting Nickels was hosting because McGinn believed some of Nickels’ policies contributed to global warming.

Last week, Nickels’ campaign launched an attack against McGinn with thousands of robo-calls that said McGinn’s criticism of the tunnel was misleading.

McGinn says his $80,000, volunteer-run campaign was exactly what he had in mind. He didn’t hire a campaign manager. He doesn’t have a spokesperson. Some evenings in the McGinn headquarters on Aurora Avenue North, volunteers spilled out of the office and down the hallway, sitting on the floor with cellphones and computer printouts. In all, they contacted 10,000 voters, McGinn said.

“From the beginning, we knew going in we weren’t going to have as much money as our opponents,” he said. “Like every campaign does, we just said, ‘Well, let’s make sure we talk to the people we know are going to vote, first.’ “

McGinn left Stokes Lawrence to start the Seattle Great City Initiative in 2005. The nonprofit was envisioned as an urban branch of the Cascade Land Conservancy, and McGinn oversaw it as its budget quadrupled from $40,000 to $160,000 a year.

The group holds seven to nine meetings a month with “coalitions” of people to find common interests. For example, a coalition considering how to create more open space, empower neighborhoods and restore forests decided to run the Seattle parks-levy campaign last year.

Great City gets support from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and from developers such as Vulcan, Harbor Properties and Triad Development.

McGinn stepped down from Great City to run his campaign — and because taking political positions while still head of Great City could have harmed alliances that make the organization effective, said Joshua Curtis, the group’s new director.

McGinn says people who call him a single-issue candidate just don’t want to talk about the tunnel, which he insists is not his only issue. Still, he brings it up in answer to almost any question he is asked.

He kicked off his campaign with a three-part platform that didn’t mention the tunnel. He wanted to improve schools and bus service, and create a citywide, city-run broadband utility. In a relaxed news conference Wednesday on his backyard patio, McGinn said voters would hear more about his broader platform in a general-election campaign.

“I think there will be a range of issues,” he said.

McGinn’s campaign strategy — and the parallel strategy of City Council candidate and fellow Sierra Club leader Mike O’Brien — worked not just on the candidates’ base of young environmentalists but among older people on fixed incomes and Republican voters who support a smaller government, according to polls.

People understand that the tunnel is about priorities, McGinn said.

“If you put all the money into the tunnel, … how do we invest in education, transit and social services, taking care of the homeless and public safety? You know, it’s a choice.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246

Staff reporter Susan Kelleher contributed to this report.

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