City Councilmember Tim Burgess withdrew from the crowded Seattle mayor’s race Friday, saying he wasn’t confident he could be elected and didn’t want to risk Mayor Mike McGinn being returned to the top job in City Hall.
Burgess, a former Seattle police officer and advertising executive, led in fundraising, with more than $232,000 in contributions for the August primary. But he hadn’t distinguished himself among seven rivals in early forums and legislative-district endorsements, and said his campaign needed more “spark and energy” than he had been able to summon thus far.
“The mantra I heard from some supporters over the past 10 days was, ‘Tim would make an outstanding mayor, but he can’t win,’ ” Burgess said Friday at his campaign headquarters on Capitol Hill. “I realized this was going to be a difficult path, and I did not want to dilute our opportunity to have a new mayor.”
Burgess has clashed with McGinn over the pace and scope of police reform, favoring a strong federal monitor over one acceptable to the police rank-and-file and preferred by the mayor.
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He also has criticized the mayor for pursuing funding for light-rail projects when the city faces a $1.8 billion backlog in maintenance for transportation infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
Speculation quickly turned to whom in the mayor’s race Burgess might endorse or direct his campaign cash to. He said he’d already gotten calls from several candidates asking for his support, but he said he planned to spend a few days reflecting.
Some observers speculated Burgess’ exit will most directly benefit State Sen. Ed Murray, who gained national recognition for his work to pass marriage equality in Washington last November and who has strong support among Democratic Party activists.
“Ed Murray may be the strongest challenger to McGinn at this point,” said Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council. But he added that it’s too early to tell what the ramifications of Burgess’ withdrawal might be.
“We don’t know yet how the people who were supporting Tim are going to fall,” Freiboth said.
Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, one of the nine remaining candidates for mayor (two joined the field Friday, the last day to file), called Burgess’ announcement “a bit of an earthquake.” He called Burgess a strong voice for families and education, and he praised his conduct during the campaign as “respectful and thoughtful.”
Murray also praised Burgess’ graciousness and thoughtfulness during the early campaigning. “I look forward to reaching out to Tim’s supporters and working hard to gain their vote for my candidacy to be Seattle’s next mayor,” Murray said.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, also considered one of the top candidates for mayor, said he respected Burgess’ decision. “He wasn’t being led by ego, but by what he thought would be best for the city.”
McGinn’s campaign manager, John Wyble, said Burgess’ withdrawal was a boost for the mayor’s re-election efforts: “Anytime one of our major candidates pulls out, we feel good about that.” Wyble said it releases some voters who might have been committed to Burgess, but added, “We still have to go get them.”
Burgess’ style is serious and thoughtful, and on the council he is known for bringing in experts and researching best practices on issues from early-childhood education to police reform.
His supporters for mayor included many of the downtown business leaders who had previously backed former Mayor Greg Nickels and, when Nickels was knocked out of the 2009 primary, McGinn’s opponent Joe Mallahan.
But in his 2007 challenge to then-incumbent City Councilmember David Della, Burgess was painted as too conservative for Seattle. He had worked for seven years as a police officer. His advertising firm had once represented an anti-abortion group. And on the council, he championed an aggressive-panhandling bill in 2010 that was vetoed by McGinn.
While Burgess’ announcement Friday caught many by surprise, there had been signs he was rethinking his candidacy. He was the only one of the announced mayoral candidates to not have filed for election. And he fired his campaign spokesman, Alex Fryer, earlier in the week, replacing him with a former McGinn staffer, Matt Fikse.
Fryer said Burgess was frustrated about how to articulate why he was running for mayor and appeared to lack the fire in his belly to continue the campaign. “I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed and mystified and confused. But obviously if his heart was telling him not to go any further, then he did the right thing by listening to his heart,” Fryer said.
Christian Sinderman, who managed Burgess’ 2011 re-election campaign for City Council but is now working for Murray, said Burgess was motivated by an ethic of public service and may have realized he could continue to be an effective leader on the council.
Both Sinderman and Fryer said there were no scandals, skeletons or opposition research that would have driven Burgess from the race.
“God, no,” Sinderman said.
“Absolutely not,” Fryer said.
Fryer acknowledged that Burgess hadn’t stood out from the crowd in early candidate forums, where there was little time for substantive answers. But Fryer believed those problems — like Burgess being labeled a conservative — could have been surmounted by Burgess’ record. “I think you could’ve changed that narrative. But now we’ll never know.”
Sinderman said he wasn’t so sure.
“Tim is a strong Democrat with very progressive values, but politics, especially primaries, are prone to shorthand,” Sinderman said. And Burgess “may not have been able to overcome” the conservative label in a crowded field.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes