With Mayor Mike McGinn's poll numbers in the toilet these days, city hall observers are abuzz over the ever lengthening list of Seattle city councilmembers who are privately expressing at least some level of interest in challenging the current incumbent in 2013. At least six (and maybe more) of the nine are said to be mulling over the possibility. Tim Burgess is already beginning to lay the groundwork for a bid, but that's not stopping colleagues Sally Clark, Tom Rassmussen, Bruce Harrell, Richard Conlin, and Sally Bagshaw from keeping at least one eye on the prize.
In short, McGinn has apparently succeeded in unifying members of the Council, not only in opposition to many of his policy proposals, but also in the belief that one of them is likely to replace him. Throw in former councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who may still be interested in a bid, and the list gets even longer.
And why not? A seat on the Council seems like a perfect spot from which to launch a run for the 7th floor. Councilmembers who run tend to be instantly credible with the press, the downtown chattering class, and stakeholder groups, who annoint them out of the starting gate as serious and formidable candidates. Recent history shows, however, that the voters may be a tad more skeptical.
Just one example: in May 2009, with a politically wounded Greg Nickels seeking a third term, Councilmember Jan Drago jumped into the race. She was immediately treated as the main threat to the incumbent mayor, including by the Nickels campaign (for which I bear significant responsibility -- I served as the mayor's campaign spokesperson in that race). Just before she announced, the Seattle Times described her as "an automatic frontrunner in the race" based on her extensive name recognition. But in the August primary, Drago finished a distant fifth, with only 7 percent of the vote.
The Drago experience is more typical that not. I took a quick glance at Seattle mayoral races dating back to 1969. Over those 40 plus years -- a span covering 11 elections -- Seattle has elected six different mayors. Only one of them, Norm Rice, who was first elected mayor in 1989 and reelected four years later, didn't have to hire a moving van to get his stuff over to City Hall.
Wes Uhlman, first elected in 1969, came from the state legislature. His successor Charley Royer was a KING TV reporter and commentator before he emerged from a 13 candidate field (including four incumbent councilmembers: Wayne Larkin, Phyllis Lamphere, Sam Smith, John Miller) to win his first term in 1977.
After Rice beat City Attorney Doug Jewett, a Republican who was closely associated with an anti-busing initiative during the 1989 campaign, Paul Schell, a real estate developer and a Port Commisisoner, was elected in 1997. Three councilmembers ran that year -- Jane Noland, Cheryl Chow, and Charlie Chong -- but none made it out of the primary (Schell beat King County Councilmember Greg Nickels in the general election). Nickels won in 2001, followed by McGinn, a Sierra Club leader and neighborhood actist, in 2009.
(Update: a friend just e-mailed me; by his count, over the last 10 elections 14 different incumbent City Councilmembers have run for mayor: Tim Hill - Liem Tuai - Sam Smith (twice) -John Miller- Wayne Larkin - Phyllis Lamphere - Norm Rice (who lost in 1985 before winning in 1989) - Randy Revelle - Jim Street - Delorse Sibonga - Charlie Chong - Jane Noland - Cheryl Chow - Jan Drago. "All of them lost to an outsider," he writes.)
Overall, not a good historical track record of councilmembers getting elected mayor. I've been thinking about it, but I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it is that councilmembers are by definition political insiders, and outsiders to city of Seattle politics who can offer themselves more credibly as change and reform agents have a leg up. Maybe it's in part because of that general truism in politics that legislators are seen by voters as having a different skill set than what is needed in an executive position. Maybe it's that too many voters don't have much sense of what our city councilmembers really do and value outside, "real world" experience more. I'm open to suggestions -- if you have an explanation, post them in the comments.
But the historical track record is pretty clear. A seat on the Seattle City Council is probably not the ideal jumping off point for those interested in serving as mayor. There is still plenty of time before the 2013 election. Maybe even long enough for some of the current crop of councilmembers to get "real jobs" before jumping into the replace-McGinn fray.