A few years ago I was hanging around with a City Council candidate when he went into a private meeting with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

Five minutes later he came out, shaking his head.

“He said I need to be against the tunnel or I have no chance,” the candidate reported to me. “He said I need a wedge issue, or I’m toast.”

As it happened, that candidate refused to go against the Alaskan Way tunnel project — wouldn’t use what was the political wedge issue of the time. And as McGinn predicted would happen, the candidate lost.

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I learned a few things from this exchange. Our mayor’s not always on the winning side, to say the least. But he does know his politics. He knows what drives votes. He knows how to go for the wedge.

So the biggest news from Tuesday’s primary election is this: Mike McGinn lives.

It’s hard to get too worked up about an incumbent mayor finishing second. But if anyone could dramatically exceed expectations without coming in first, it’s our mayor who was believed to be a dead-man-bicycling.

But instead of becoming the third Seattle mayor in 12 years to be fired in the primary, he not only survived but did so with surprising ease. Even his own campaign consultants had been downplaying the mayor’s chances.

It sets up a general-election showdown with state Sen. Ed Murray for the fall. The theme of which, at least on the McGinn side, is: Could Mike McGinn be the comeback kid?

He still only got a bit more than a quarter of the vote, which is not a strong showing for an incumbent. He’s got to be considered the underdog to Murray. But he made it through. How?

By creating a wedge.

McGinn’s problems as mayor have stemmed from his activism. Too confrontational, some say. Like when he took the unprecedented step of leading a citizen referendum against the city’s official position on the tunnel. Only to get trounced by the voters he was seeking to empower.

But this spring and summer he went back to the activist well again anyway. He walked the picket lines with unions. He attacked Whole Foods, trying to block a West Seattle development because he argued the grocery, a planned tenant, is nonunion and doesn’t pay enough. He proudly repeated that he has become, in his first term, the “most progressive mayor in America.”

I don’t know if he wanted a wedge issue or just believes passionately that wages are the biggest issue in the city. Probably both. But it seemed to work. The other candidates lined up against him on Whole Foods, while the unions endorsed him.

Even some voters turned off by McGinn’s combative nature liked this fight.

“However you feel about McGinn, I think most of us can agree this city is getting ridiculously expensive and we do need to have a discussion about it,” one reader wrote me about the Whole Foods debate. “How can people in service jobs afford to live here anymore?

“I’m reluctant to vote for him, because everything is oppositional with him. Everything has to be a messy ‘us versus them’ fight. But I’m glad he brought this one to the forefront.”

McGinn told me at the time it was a symbolic gesture only, because obviously blocking one grocery store won’t do much, if anything, to raise wages. But limited policy turned out to be great politics.

Maybe career-saving politics.

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