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A few months ago, a local union praised Mike McGinn as “the most progressive, mayor in America.” That must have given him an idea.

Why not try that as a strategy to get re-elected?

Because at the time, what McGinn was doing wasn’t working. He was going around Seattle talking about what he’s accomplished in his first term. That’s the same mistake his predecessor, Greg Nickels, made in 2009. When you’re at 25 percent or less in the polls, talking about your record, even if you think you have good things to report, is a political loser.

That’s what makes McGinn’s unusual attack on Whole Foods over wage issues so interesting. It single-handedly changed the topic in the mayor’s race. It fired up the unions. And it pushed McGinn far to the left of the left-wing candidate field, way over to territory previously occupied only by the socialist candidate.

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The big questions hanging over the Seattle mayor’s race now, as it enters its final week before the Aug. 6 primary, are: Will McGinn’s gambit work? Is he crazy, or crazy like a fox?

And the one I wonder about the most: Does Seattle even want to have the most progressive mayor in America?

I have long felt McGinn is a longshot to survive the primary, because his polling numbers have been so disastrously low. When he was at 15 to 19 percent in March, I wrote that those numbers were “the worst I’ve ever seen for an election-year incumbent, at any level of politics.” They’ve barely improved since, to only 21 percent.

Re-elect numbers that low mean roughly four-fifths of the city is either finished with you or strongly thinking about it.

Enter Whole Foods. McGinn said the city should reject a West Seattle development because the nonunion Whole Foods doesn’t pay enough, and also called for a city review of the company’s payroll. In so doing, he instantly separated himself from his entire slate of challengers.

On the down side, his opponents called him reckless, arbitrary and a bomb-thrower. I wrote that the mayor’s request to review a private company’s payroll seemed “vaguely communistic” (which in turn prompted the McGinn-loving Stranger newspaper to call me “bananas.”)

But then McGinn got endorsed by the largest private-sector union in the state, United Food and Commercial Workers, which specifically cited the Whole Foods case. A few days after that McGinn snared the sought-after backing of the Boeing Machinists, who also praised him for staring down Whole Foods.

Seattle’s no longer the union town it once was — no town is — but impassioned labor support could give McGinn just enough of a constituency to save his political career. Last week, another union supporting McGinn sponsored a letter to voters from five immigrant housekeepers making an emotional appeal for him.

“Most people don’t ever really think of us,” the letter says. “Mayor McGinn is the person standing up for us.”

As progressive and liberal as Seattle is, though, it also has a welcome libertarian streak. Remember when the city tried to impose a six-foot rule between nude dancers and patrons at strip clubs? Voters rejected that resoundingly — it was big-government gone too intrusive, and absurd, even for us. Same with the plastic-bag tax in 2009.

That’s the downside risk in all this for McGinn. That you’ll decide he’s no fox, just crazy. That a city mayor has no business meddling in what a private employer pays its workers. Let alone demanding to see their books.

One reason I never tire of politics (I said politics, not politicians!) is that elections are a window into who we are. Just how liberal is Seattle, really? Are there limits to how hard we’re willing to push, even force, progressive ideals?

McGinn has turned this sleepy little primary into our very own political-identity test.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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