- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

SEATTLE | Mayor Greg Nickels walked into the crowded City Hall conference room to a standing ovation from the couple of dozen staff members on hand. As the applause began to subside, some clapped harder, as if trying to stave off the inevitable.

The two-term incumbent had called the news conference on Friday to concede defeat in Seattle’s mayoral primary on Tuesday. After a lifetime in politics and eight years as Seattle’s strong-willed mayor, Mr. Nickels had been upset by two relatively unknown newcomers.

Mr. Nickels, president of the United States Conference of Mayors, had been seen as politically vulnerable, but the primary defeat stunned the city, even catching his opponents by surprise.

Seattle saw a new side of its mayor in his concession speech. Mr. Nickels was humble, self-deprecatory and funny. Even longtime colleagues said they had never seen that side of him.

As mayor, Mr. Nickels said, he made the “right decisions for the future, rather than ones that would preserve my personal popularity. Based on Tuesday’s primary election results, I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”

Seattle voters gave razor-thin victories to Joe Mallahan, a T-Mobile executive, and Mike McGinn, a local activist and environmentalist. By Friday afternoon, Mr. McGinn had 27.6 percent of votes counted, trailed by Mr. Mallahan’s 27 percent. They will be on the November general election’s ballot. Mr. Nickels received 25.4 percent.

“Voters’ frustration with Nickels had been underestimated by all of us, frankly,” said Charla Neuman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Mallahan’s campaign.

For Seattle voters, Mr. Nickels had become a blue-suit, a backroom bureaucrat and a bully. He has been criticized as having a heavy-handed, dictatorial management style.

“The election was about style of leadership rather than accomplishment,” said Jan Drago, a Seattle City Council member and mayoral candidate.

After his election in 2001, Mr. Nickels greatly reduced direct communication between the City Council and city department heads.

Talking with voters, Ms. Drago said, she found they had come to dislike the mayor but couldn’t necessarily articulate why.

Voters also turned against incumbents. “I got caught up in that,” too, she said.

Issues were not at the forefront of the race, and Mr. Mallahan and Mr. McGinn are largely unknown to voters.

The only candidate to clearly articulate a campaign platform was Mr. Nickels, who unveiled his “Progressive Agenda for Seattle’s Next Four Years” in early July.

He laid out a vision full of what one political commentator called “paternalistic government” at a time when the city, like most other major municipalities, is reeling from budget shortfalls.

The agenda was in line with Mr. Nickels’ career as a labor Democrat but it struck many voters as off-key, with pledges to build 1,000 electric car charging stations on Seattle streets when city commuters have been mired in traffic congestion since the mayor was elected in 2001 on a promise “to get Seattle moving again.”

The mayor has long advocated for light rail for the metropolitan area, but failed to receive any noticeable boost from the opening of the area’s first line in July, perhaps his administration’s greatest achievement.

What did stick with voters was the loss of the city’s National Basketball Association franchise, the Sonics, to Oklahoma in 2008, continued traffic congestion, the city’s bungled response to a major snowstorm in December, a roving tent city dubbed “Nickelsville” and the perception that Mr. Nickels was often more concerned with national campaigns, such as getting cities to endorse the Kyoto Protocol rather than focusing on day-to-day operations.

“[Mr. Nickels] and his upper staff forgot that they work for and on behalf of the people of Seattle,” said Liz Rankin, a Seattle resident who supported Ms. Drago.

“Over the past eight years, we’ve experienced a series of broken promises,” she said.

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