As Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels spoke at a campaign event last week, an infiltrator worked the edges of the crowd. She was a volunteer from...

Share story

As Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels spoke at a campaign event last week, an infiltrator worked the edges of the crowd. She was a volunteer from the Mike McGinn campaign, discreetly passing out fliers opposing Nickels’ plan for a tunnel on the waterfront.

At the podium, Nickels hardly mentioned the $4.2 billion tunnel, but McGinn and his supporters talk about the tunnel wherever they go. It is, McGinn says, “the biggest issue in the race.”

McGinn mentioned his opposition to the tunnel during his introduction at the first major candidate forum, in May. He then wove it into his answers to all three questions posed to the candidates, even though none asked explicitly about the project. The debate — sponsored by the Alki Foundation — was full of business people, who as a group support the tunnel.

When other candidates wanted to get rid of Seattle’s employee-head tax, McGinn responded with a news release that asked: “Is the problem a head tax? Or a $4.2 billion tunnel?”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

McGinn has made the tunnel the cornerstone of his campaign to oust Nickels. He says it represents the mayor’s misplaced priorities. By not building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle could spend more on schools, public safety and transit.

“It’s a huge waste of money that’s completely indefensible,” he said.

Getting the county, governor and state Legislature to agree on a tunnel to replace the viaduct was one of the biggest political victories of Nickels’ second term.

Seattle voters rejected Nickels’ first tunnel proposal in 2007, and key legislators wanted to put up a new elevated highway, something Nickels has rejected as a blight on the waterfront. This year, Olympia said yes to a “deep-bore” tunnel, a different design than the one voters rejected.

Now McGinn, one of mayor’s seven challengers, wants to undo the deal. Instead, he supports a combination of transit, surface streets and a wider Interstate 5 to replace the aging viaduct.

“I think we do need to say ‘no’ to that tunnel if we’re going to be able to say ‘yes’ to basic city services and the things Seattleites really care about,” he said.

The slightly rumpled McGinn, 49, is a lawyer, a former chairman of the local Sierra Club branch. In 2006, with funding from Cascade Land Conservancy, he founded the nonprofit Seattle Great City Initiative, which is intended to bring people together to improve Seattle’s quality of life. The group helped lead last year’s parks-levy campaign.

McGinn’s position on the tunnel fits with his identity as an environmentalist and bike commuter. He rides to work from his home in Greenwood with a roll of campaign stickers on his handlebars. The stickers feature his helmeted head and the words: “Mike bikes.”

His base is an idealistic group of environmentalists who, like him, envision a more walkable city that is less friendly to cars.

On a recent commute through Fremont, a passing bike commuter called out, “Woo, McGinn for mayor!”

The Cascade Bicycle Club, however, endorsed Nickels. The club’s Web site said McGinn had a strong interview, but Nickels got the endorsement because he was the incumbent.

Recent polls show McGinn in third or fourth place in the polls, but he won co-endorsements in three Democratic districts — more than any other candidate. His campaign has raised about $50,000, and volunteers do most of the work.

He’s comfortable as the underdog and often brings up his leadership on two successful campaigns: He was co-chairman of the parks-levy campaign, which passed despite the mayor’s opposition, and with the Sierra Club, led the fight against a 2007 roads-and-transit ballot measure, which was supported by the mayor and failed even though proponents spent roughly 10 times as much money.

McGinn said those two examples show he knows how to win a campaign, but also that he understands what people in Seattle want.

He kicked off his campaign for mayor with a three-part platform: better bus service, better schools and a citywide broadband network. While he’s continued talking about those things, most of McGinn’s campaign has been about the tunnel. His polling shows most people in Seattle oppose it.

Local political consultant Michael Grossman said it could be a good strategy.

“When you are an underfunded, unknown candidate, it tends to be more beneficial to have either an issue or a persona around which a campaign can be based,” he said. “His bet is that people are going to say, ‘oh, Mike McGinn, he’s the guy who’s against the tunnel.’ “

McGinn says there is more to his strategy than that. If he campaigns on canceling the tunnel and wins, other political leaders in the city and the state Legislature will have to reconsider the tunnel, too.

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, chairwoman of the state House Transportation Committee, said it wouldn’t matter if the new mayor tried to undo the deal. The tunnel is going to happen.

“Since we’re so far down the line and this was a decision that took so long to make, we’re not going to change just because one person doesn’t like it,” she said.

McGinn doesn’t think it’s a done deal. For one thing, he said, “They don’t have the money.”

The state is short about $400 million of the $2.8 billion it has promised for the project. State leaders have suggested tolling to raise the funds.

The city, county and Port will need to come up with the rest of the project cost, $1.4 billion (the city’s portion is about $900 million), and it’s not clear how they would raise it. The city is also on the hook for any cost overruns on the project.

“I don’t know how they can say ‘we made a deal’ when none of the (financial) elements are there and 70 percent of Seattleites opposed it,” McGinn said. “On a practical level, we don’t have a financial plan.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.