Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels conceded the election this morning at a City Hall news conference. Environmentalist and attorney Mike McGinn and T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan will move on to the Nov. 3 general election.

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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels conceded the election this morning at an emotional City Hall news conference.

He defended his accomplishments in his eight years in office but said, “I think the people of Seattle decided it was time for a new generation of leadership.”

T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan and environmentalist and attorney Mike McGinn — both political newcomers — will move on to the Nov. 3 general election.

Nickels’ family and some of his political supporters and city staff attended his brief speech. His staff looked stunned and somber. Some had red eyes, as if they had been crying.

“I’m very proud, though, of the many accomplishments that we have made these last eight years ” Nickels said. “I believe that when the history of this decade is written, it will be seen as a time of tremendous change and positive change in our city.”

Nickels, who is chairman of the Sound Transit board, mentioned the opening of light rail, and voter approval of lines out to the suburbs, as examples of the region’s top achievements during his tenure. He described the deal he made with state leaders to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel as a “breakthrough agreement.”

“That decision had to be made,” Nickels said. Adding: “As we saw on light rail, leadership means moving forward.”

McGinn ran a campaign based on opposition to the tunnel.

30,000 ballots left to count

Ballots continue to be counted, but after Thursday’s tally, Nickels trails McGinn by 1,170 votes for second place. Mallahan remains in first place, 540 votes ahead of McGinn.

King County Elections still has about 30,000 ballots left to count, but the trend would have to change drastically for Nickels to have a chance at overtaking McGinn.

After Thursday’s count, Nickels had 25.6 percent of the vote. Mallahan, who spent $200,000 of his own money on the primary campaign, had 27.2 percent, while McGinn had 26.7 percent.

As for what he’ll do after leaving office, Nickels said he has “no idea.” He added, “The best days are ahead.”

Nickels’ primary loss makes him a lame-duck mayor for more than four months. During that time, he will have to grapple with a $72.5 million budget shortfall.

On the national stage

During his two terms in office, Nickels has gained national prominence for his environmental policies. Since 2005, he has gotten more than 900 mayors to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, an international effort to reduce environmentally harmful emissions.

This summer, he was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Locally, however, Nickels’ popularity has waned in his second term. Polling throughout the spring and summer showed Nickels with a low job-approval rating, and it was widely reported that he was in political trouble.

His opponents criticized his style. They said he was too quick to take credit for things and insisted on getting his way. He was a bully, they said, and alienated regional and state leaders.

In December, Nickels’ image was further tarnished by the city’s poor response to a record snowstorm. Afterward, he gave the city a “B” for its response, infuriating people who were stranded by icy, rutted, unplowed streets during the busy holiday shopping season.

The snowstorm revealed myriad management problems within the city’s transportation department.

“We are not a broken city”

Nickels said this morning the city is “stronger, better and kinder than the Seattle of yesterday.”

Of the campaign that will now go on without him, Nickels said, “Those who are running for office must make a case that they are the best person. But they should not denigrate what we have done.” Nickels said. “We have done those things together, and we are not a broken city. Far from it. The challenges we face are the challenges of success.”

City Council President Richard Conlin issued a statement this morning praising Nickels. In it, he said, “Mayor Nickels has dedicated his life to public service, and has worked hard to make Seattle a better place.

Before being elected to his first term as mayor eight years ago, Nickels was a Metropolitan King County Councilmember and an aide to then-Seattle City Councilmember Norm Rice. He has been involved in local Democratic politics since he was in high school.

In 2001, Mayor Paul Schell lost the primary election to Nickels and then-City Attorney Mark Sidran. Schell got blamed for the city’s response to 1999 WTO riots and 2001 Mardi Gras street brawling that killed a 20-year-old man.

Nickels looked around at the staff gathered in the conference room, named for Rice, his political mentor, who also served as Seattle mayor. The loss, Nickels said, is “harder on them than it is on me.” Nickels said he accepts the voters’ decision as part of the process.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or