Once upon a time Seattle mayors had a relatively easy time getting re-elected. At the very least, they could count on making it through the primary.
But lately, voters have grown fond of dumping hizzoner without even waiting until November.
In 2001, they booted Paul Schell, marking the first time since 1936 an incumbent Seattle mayor had lost in a primary. His successor, Greg Nickels, lasted two terms but was rejected in the 2009 primary.
In a few days, it could be Mayor Mike McGinn’s turn.
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While McGinn has a core of devoted supporters and can point to a city on the rise economically, his negative job-approval poll numbers and numerous critics show there is no guarantee he’ll survive after votes are counted Tuesday.
McGinn has fought hard to prove he’s worth a second term, firing up his base of unions and progressive activists with a July surprise — a controversial effort to block a proposed Whole Foods store in West Seattle over wage concerns.
“I made a commitment when I first ran, to just try to do what is right,” McGinn said in an interview. “We’ll see where the chips fall.”
John Wyble, McGinn’s political consultant, is making no predictions. “The numbers don’t point to us automatically getting through (the primary),” he said, “but we feel good about where we are.”
McGinn has raised more than $285,000 for his re-election bid, and unions representing grocery and hotel workers have added an additional $69,000 to an independent campaign on his behalf.
McGinn’s opponents, meanwhile, have each made a case for change, arguing the city needs a mayor less prone to picking fights.
State Sen. Ed Murray has made leadership style a centerpiece campaign issue, arguing his 18-year track record in the Legislature proves he can better build regional ties. He says he’d use those skills to accelerate light-rail expansion and attract a top-notch new police chief.
“I bring collaborative approach to leadership that actually results in accomplishments,” Murray said.
Murray, best known for leading the fight to win legalized gay marriage, has emerged as the leading fundraiser in the 2013 race, pulling in nearly $390,000. He’s also piled up high-profile endorsements and momentum in polls.
A political-action committee, People for Ed Murray, funded largely by business groups, has raised another $128,000 to support him.
But Murray has opened himself up to critics who say his campaign is long on establishment support and generic slogans, but short on specifics.
McGinn has passed up few opportunities to needle Murray as an instrument of downtown “status quo” interests.
Another leading candidate, former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, has positioned himself as a champion of neighborhoods worried about rapid growth.
Steinbrueck said the city needs to ensure amenities like parks and sidewalks keep pace with development.
“It’s not being really well managed the way it should be,” he said.
With less money raised — just over $175,000 — Steinbrueck is relying on name recognition and his years of contacts with neighborhood activists.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has campaigned as a social-justice champion, highlighting his own inspiring biography as a kid who grew up in a poor neighborhood only to become a University of Washington football star, corporate attorney and politician.
Harrell has proposed creating a new college-endowment fund to allow every Seattle public high-school graduate to attend a local college tuition free for a year. He says he’d hire new community service officers to reconnect the Police Department to neighborhoods.
Harrell’s longtime business and UW alumni ties have helped him raise nearly $260,000.
While polls and endorsements point to McGinn, Steinbrueck, Harrell and Murray competing for the top two spots in the primary, there are also five lesser known candidates on the ballot.
Businessman Charlie Staadecker, who runs a commercial real estate company, is campaigning as a gentleman who’d restore civility to Seattle and be the city’s “chief salesperson” to attract new jobs. His campaign has raised $200,000, but he has remained in single digits in polls.
Despite little visible support, Greenwood activist Kate Martin has run as a one-woman idea factory in the race, rattling off her criticisms of city spending problems and advocating preserving part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct as an elevated park.
Other candidates in the race are socialist Mary Martin, who at campaign appearances has talked about Cuba as a model for Seattle to follow; Joey Gray, who has touted her record growing an ultimate Frisbee league; and Doug McQuaid, a little-known attorney.
With the primary being held in the middle of summer (unlike past years when it was in September), participation is expected to be low. King County Elections is predicting 35 percent of registered voters will turn out in the city.
Seattle’s previous two mayors said they’re not sure there is any pattern to their primary election defeats.
Schell lost after a string of bad news, from the World Trade Organization riots to terrorism threats and Boeing announcing its corporate headquarters was relocating to Chicago.
But Schell said primary elections can be particularly unforgiving to candidates running as moderates. “It’s the time when the true believers and ideologues emerge. There is no constituency for the middle ground,” he said.
Nickels said he should have known trying for a third term was an uphill fight, especially given the lousy economy in 2009. His campaign tried to remind voters of all his accomplishments — from expanding light rail to becoming a national leader on global warming. But it was no use.
“It was like I was standing on a railroad track with a train coming at me unable to move,” Nickels said.
With so many well-known challengers splitting the anti-incumbent vote, McGinn may yet dodge that train.
Either way, the mayor said he’s at peace.
“No matter what happens, having had the opportunity to work to make a difference in the lives of regular folks has been an extraordinary thing,” McGinn said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner