Classic Cola: The Lesson Learned

By Erica C. Barnett December 31, 2009

Next month marks PubliCola’s one-year anniversary. Throughout December, we’ve been re-posting our favorite Cola articles from our first 12 months.

(Apologies to those who don’t like the reprints, but we’ve got thousands of new readers these days who haven’t seen some of our greatest hits. December, in fact, has been a record month for us, hitting more than 10,000 unique visitors one day this month.)

Yesterday, we re-ran a story from October that revealed the state bent over backwards to make its preferred viaduct replacement option, the deep-bore tunnel, look better than all the other options.

Today, we're looking back at this year's mayoral election, with a piece recapping the crowded, contentious post-election forum PubliCola hosted at Del Rey, where the chief strategists for Team Mallahan and Team McGinn gave a packed room a candid peek inside both campaigns.

Here are a few highlight quotes from PubliCola's post-election forum at Del Rey last night, where the chief strategists for Team Mallahan and Team McGinn gave a packed room a candid look inside this year's mayoral campaign.

(The Seattle Times, P-I, Seattle Weeklythe Stranger, and ... The Oregonian?? all filed their own reports about our event this morning.)

On post-primary strategy:

McGinn strategist Bill Broadhead: Our first strategy was to start working with the Seattle establishment. We thought maybe winning the primary would make us a little more credible in their eyes. We spent maybe two weeks ... calling the usual suspects, and it was pretty cold out there. ... Then the strategy was to win with no money and no endorsements.

Mallahan strategist Jason Bennett: Coming out of the primary, we didn't have any endorsements either. ... The media's perspective was, "Oh shit, what have we [voters] done?," and that was the narrative for about a week and a half while Ed [Murray] was sort of floating balloons about whether or not he was going to do a write-in campaign. ... We worked really hard to try to prevent Ed from jumping in. ...

Mallahan strategist Jason Bennett

Mallahan strategist Jason Bennett at Del Rey last night.

Then, because the narrative of the previous week had been about the lack of experience of these two guys who had never held elected office before, our goal was to try to be perceived as the experienced candidate and pursue the endorsements.

Mallahan spokeswoman Charla Neuman: I had reporters say, "Oh, it seemed like you guys went silent" because we were so vocal before the primary and then right after the primary [people] felt like we kind of went underground. And there is some truth to that. ... We spent time ... at what Joe liked to call Mayor School.

About McGinn's "evolving" position on the waterfront tunnel (although stopping the tunnel was initially McGinn's key campaign issue, he later said he wouldn't stand in its way, citing a nonbinding agreement between the city council and the state to build it):

Broadhead: He didn't flip on the tunnel. The city council passed an agreement, nine to nothing, locking the city of Seattle into an agreement with the state. ... One of the questions was, is this candidate a guy that understands the process? Does he understand that we're a city of laws and agreements, and you honor agreements? Or is he just going to disregard everything in an effort to get his way?

Neuman: From everything that I've heard about Bill, he's a smarter strategist than to pretend that was an accident. That was a brilliant move. Genius.

Broadhead: It was horrible politics. You don't want two weeks out to have a headline saying, '[Candidate] backs away on signature issue.

Neuman: Yes, you do, when that's what all the polls showed. ...

The day that happened,  I hadn't done laundry in forever and ... it was obvious, because I was wearing a black T-shirt with a Christmas tree on it. And when [McGinn's tunnel statement] happened, Joe came in and said, "Wear that T-shirt every day." And for the first five minutes, I thought, "Yep this is my Christmas present." Five minutes later... I thought, "this could work for him."

Flip-flopping is an inside baseball game. And Mike McGinn is no John Kerry. He can articulate things very well. And that's when I thought, this was genius. And yes, that's when I started wetting my pants. I don't think there's a single person in here who can say with a straight face that, if there was any reason to hesitate for Mike McGinn, it was something other than him potentially wanting to obstruct moving forward with the tunnel. Anyone who was hesitant, who wanted to vote for Mike, this gave them the free pass that they needed. And anecdotally, you heard it every day after that. It was genius. Bill should take credit for it.

On each campaign's biggest mistake:

Broadhead: This is the question that George Bush really fucked up, right? I'd say ... the tone of the NRA robocall [which associated Mallahan with the pro-gun group because he didn't take a strong position on Nickels' ban on guns in city parks]. I'll stand behind the message, [but] the tone was bad and I kind of wish we hadn't done that.

Neuman: Biggest mistake, in my opinion ... was I apparently garnered a reputation for hitting hard, I guess, during the primary particularly against Nickels, and I think that made some people uncomfortable.

During the time when he was trying to secure these endorsements... there was a vacuum that we did not fill, message-wise. We did not do a good enough job early enough to define Joe and to define Mike McGinn.

As far as the Southeast Seattle strategy ... Joe was still uncomfortable being the politician. He didn't want to seem like he was exploiting it, or using it for his own advantage. OK, it's a campaign, you have to. So there were plenty of times when he was down there but he didn't want to do that, to invite all the media. ... During a campaign you have to promo everything. ... He wanted the true relationships. He was still noble and green.

Bennett: We spent an enormous amount of time chasing McGinn on the campaign trail, and sort of reacting to stuff they were doing.

On Mallahan's notorious lack of accessibility:

Bennett: In a loss, there's a real propensity to try to self-preserve and say that there were these forces outside of our control or throw your candidate under the bus and we're really conscious of trying to be perfectly honest and straightforward on this. Anybody who followed this campaign... I have to ask you if you feel like, [having watched] Joe Mallahan, putting him out there more would have been advantageous for the campaign. And whether or not that's something that would have helped us. Then I would say that maybe it was part of our strategy not to increase the frequency with which he could be quoted.

Broadhead: Well, I've got to say, I didn't expect to come here tonight and be in the role of defending Joe Mallahan. ... But I think this guy did speak from the heart. He was credible out there on the stump. And quite honestly, he scared me as a candidate working on the other side. .... I think Joe is a very authentic guy. I think he got into it for the right reasons. ... From my perspective, at least, the problem Joe had was that he had a movie in his mind of what running for office would be like. He'd be the outsider, business, social-justice guy that would come in and maybe clean up a corrupt system. And when Nickels lost the primary, the movie ended. And he didn't know what to do past that point.

Neuman: The other big mistake we made in our TV, our mail, and out on the stump, is that we didn't let Joe be Joe. ...  It's tough to get Joe in a sound bite.

On how the two campaigns felt when the first returns hit on Election Night:

Broadhead: I have kind of a confession to make. I woke up this morning coming out of a dream where the election wasn't quite in the bag. It was, like, two days before and I was like, "Oh, God, what are we going to do to nail this down? We had a vivctory party the other night—it's going to be so embarrassing if we lose this." And then I realized, oh, it was over. I'm still kind of having post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bennett: Yeah, we're actually having post-traumatic stress disorder. So—sorry about your sad dream. How horrible for you. 

[Editor's note: That was the funniest quote of the night.]

Neuman: Walking into election night, I thought that that was going to be our strongest night. I thought we needed to be up, because we would trickle down. So when I saw that we weren't up, I wanted to vomit.

Bennett: Folks were like, what percentage do we have to have to feel confident of winning? And I said that we needed to have 52 percent. If we have anything less than 52, we're toast. So the coma that was walking around on election night, that would be me, because I knew we were toast. ... The primary behaved exactly like the general election for McGinn. So we knew shortly after the vote came in that we were done.

On the role of money in this year's campaigns:

Broadhead: I think obviously it was not a deciding factor. I come out of a school of thought where you raise money, you go on TV, you do the mail, you raise points, you win the election. And this campaign was an eye-opener for me. If you gave me the choice, next cycle, of having the vote of the immigrant and refugee community in Seattle ... and having, basically, the downtown checkbook, that would be a no-brainer for me. The immigrant and refugee committee ... delivered votes for us.

Bennett: We knew we were never going to be able to compete on the ground game. ... If you aren't going to win on the ground campaign, you have to win on points and do the playbook that is tested and true. It is not fun to chase money, but we knew that was what we had to do.

Neuman: Even though it didn't work out for us this time, I will always prefer having a financial advantage. I do think Seattle should rethink its $700 contribution limit. ... In Seattle we pretend there's no primary. We don't have separate fundraising limits for the primary and general.

On whether McGinn's grassroots strategy can be replicated successfully by another candidate:

Broadhead: There's so many people that wish this was a one-time thing ... that there was somebody behind the curtain that cast a magic spell for a few minutes and they can just go back to believing what they believed before and nothing really changed.

But I've got to to tell you, from someone in my position, the math has changed in Seattle. The fundamental political math has changed. And part of that is a demographic shift, part of that is a values switch, it's a self-selecting thing of progressive voters moving to Seattle. ... I think this model is open to whoever wants to follow it.

Bennett: What I hope is repeatable is that we don't see the same six people cycling up the chain. ...

The thing that wasn't really talked about was the impact of Dow Constantine and everybody pushing the "oh, shit" button on him and pushing a great liberal, left, Seattle group out [to vote]. Referendum 71 [which Bennett also worked on] and [Initiative] 1033—we had to win those, and there was a great effort to mobilize that effort and that impacted the mayor's race ... When liberals are activated and they push the "oh shit" button, they rally together, and I think McGinn sort of benefited from that and I do think that's replicable. I hope that's replicable. ... When liberals and progressives unite, they can make a big impact on a campaign. I hope that that's the lesson learned.

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