Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn came into office as a maverick, a fighter, an anti-establishment man of the people.
He’s still all of those things. Only without the people part.
The first poll of this year’s mayor’s race, released last week by KING 5, was the worst I’ve ever seen for an election-year incumbent, at any level of politics. McGinn was found to have a base level of support in Seattle of just 15 to 19 percent.
Even dead-politicians-walking typically post better than that. At this point in 2009, then-Mayor Greg Nickels polled at 28 percent (and went on to lose). In March 2001, even after Seattle had been wracked by the WTO and Mardi Gras riots, and then-mayor Paul Schell had left his post to go get some sleep, both literally and figuratively, he still polled at 27 percent.
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I asked a few political consultants who have worked the local scene going back decades. None could recall seeing incumbent re-elect numbers in the teens. One dubbed them “retirement numbers.”
We’ll see. It’s only March. Ironically, McGinn’s weakness has attracted so many challengers it may take only 20 to 25 percent to survive the primary.
But how is it that McGinn has fallen so low?
For starters, he is not a conventional pol with a core base of party-machine support. Nickels worked for years as a Democratic staffer and official before becoming mayor. McGinn really is an outsider who believes the people should lead the government, not the other way around.
In theory, everybody loves a feisty maverick. In practice, though, McGinn has had a knack for scrapping like hell for the losing position.
Take the Alaskan Way tunnel. When he found it was his view against the world, he took the unprecedented step of running a citizen referendum against the official city position from his perch atop City Hall. If he’d won, this might have been a seismic triumph of citizen democracy. But he got trounced.
It was heading toward déjà vu last week on reform of the Police Department. This time, he and the police lined up on one side. But just about everybody else was on the other, from the feds to the City Council to the city attorney to the appointed police monitor to a very long list of community groups.
Backed into an “I’m right, you’re all wrong” crouch, the mayor clawed at the city attorney. His people smeared the monitor, Merrick Bobb. In the end, McGinn backed down, probably because even he could see he was going to lose. But the image that he’s more headstrong litigator than problem-solving leader was affirmed.
What’s so striking about all this is that by the usual metrics of politics, McGinn has a strong record. His budget is balanced. Crime is at 50-year lows. The city has gained more than 25,000 jobs, dropping the unemployment rate to well below the state average since he took office.
There have been no reported scandals. No snowstorms botched. No one has ever alleged he’s corrupt. Or too heavily influenced by any special interest any more nefarious than, say, the bicyclists.
No, the mayor’s not in trouble because he has done anything wrong. In a sense, it’s worse than that. His real political problem — the reason he’s at 15 percent — is that he’s just been himself.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org