Former Sonics player James Donaldson's campaign to become Seattle mayor is in debt and losing support, but Donaldson says he is kicking off a more grass-roots campaign.
A few weeks ago, James Donaldson’s campaign consultant needed a new computer mouse.
Team Donaldson is broke. So the consultant, Cindi Laws, went behind a Sodo computer store and looked in the Dumpster. She found a mouse that works just fine.
This kind of thing wouldn’t have happened a year ago, when Donaldson was considered a front-runner for Seattle City Council. He had celebrity going for him from his time as a Sonic, support from some downtown business-community insiders, a résumé of civic involvement, and one of the city’s premier campaign consultants.
Now, with eight weeks until the Aug. 18 primary, Donaldson is running for mayor and trying to resurrect a campaign $9,000 in debt and in a tailspin.
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He is on his third campaign manager, some supporters have changed their minds and the downtown business endorsements went to two of his opponents, Mayor Greg Nickels and City Councilmember Jan Drago. It’s forcing Donaldson to be nimble — and cheap.
“We will be resorting to a very grass-roots campaign,” Donaldson said. “One, because of a lack of resources and lack of funding at this time, but also because it’s part of my nature. … You’re seeing the evolution of a campaign.”
Donaldson, 51, didn’t vote much before 2004, when his friend Brian Ebersole, former Tacoma mayor and former state House speaker, began to persuade him to get into politics.
“He said, ‘James, you’re tailor-made for this,’ ” Donaldson remembered. “As a matter of fact, I despised politics at the time.”
As a small-business owner who played professional basketball for almost 20 years, Donaldson was a community volunteer and active in local chambers of commerce. Last August, he filed to run for City Council. Then, seeing a small field challenging Nickels, he jumped into the mayor’s race.
The first thing you notice about Donaldson is his height: He is 7-foot-2. He works out every day and attends church every Sunday. He’s been a vegetarian for more than 20 years and says he has never so much as tasted an alcoholic drink. He’s lived in the same Magnolia house since 1981.
He was born in England, where his father was stationed in the Air Force, and grew up in Sacramento, Calif. He didn’t start playing basketball until his senior year of high school but got a scholarship to play at Washington State University.
He played for the Sonics in the early 1980s, then went on to the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers.
A knee injury led him to open a physical-therapy clinic in Mill Creek in 1990. When he expanded his business, Donaldson built clinics that included gyms in low-income neighborhoods in Kirkland, Tacoma, Seattle’s Central Area and Cashmere, Chelan County.
He said his “personal passion” was to promote health and create jobs in neighborhoods that don’t usually have gyms. At his Central Area gym, he included a pool named for his longtime pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Donaldson said his other clinics never made money, and all but the Mill Creek location of The Donaldson Clinic have gone out of business. He financed it and helped with marketing and public relations, he said, but hired someone to handle the day-to-day operations.
Donaldson was more involved in the other clinics. The tough credit market this year meant he couldn’t borrow enough to keep them going, he said.
“Once we were no longer able to get a line of credit, that was pretty much the end,” he said. “A smart business move was to close the doors on everything that wasn’t cash flowing positively, and sometimes it is swift and sudden.”
With his gyms closed, Donaldson decided: “I can serve this community even better from City Hall.”
Supporters say he puts his principles ahead of his profits.
“I think he’s an entrepreneur,” said Tim Johnson, a Tacoma Realtor and friend of Donaldson’s. “He’s willing to take risks and he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.”
Donaldson’s foray into local politics has been as rocky as his business past. But he’s pressing on with the same idealism that kept his gyms open long after the hope of making money had passed.
When he entered the mayor’s race, Donaldson touted his business experience. But City Councilmember Jan Drago and T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan have since entered the contest, bringing their own business experience.
Earlier this month, Donaldson was still counting among his supporters Ben Bridge Jewelers Vice President Jon Bridge.
Reached by phone, Bridge wouldn’t confirm it. He signed on early to Donaldson’s campaign as a personal friend, he said, but now he’s “sitting on the sidelines.”
Even as Donaldson prepared for his big campaign kickoff earlier this month outside KeyArena, rumors abounded that he was dropping out.
But polls consistently put Donaldson in third place among the eight mayoral candidates. He came within three votes of winning the endorsement of the 37th District Democrats in South Seattle. And he says he’s just beginning to flesh out his ideas for the city.
If Donaldson were mayor, he would simplify licensing and taxes for small businesses and give out bikes to low-income kids.
He even says he has a plan to use his connections in the NBA to get a basketball team to replace the Sonics.
He’s just getting started on his new campaign strategy. Until now, he has been spending 20 to 30 hours a week on the phone asking for money, he said. Now he’ll spend more time in the neighborhoods, seeking votes.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org