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George Tibbits Associated Press Writer
Published: 09 August 2009

SEATTLE (AP) -- In oh-so-polite Seattle, is Mayor Greg Nickels just not nice enough to win a third term?
Nationally, Nickels' stock seems to be soaring: He was recently chosen head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is a leader on making cities greener and can brag that President Obama consults with him on urban affairs.
A new light rail system just opened, and the city's skyline is dotted with construction cranes despite the bad economy. Nickels has raised far more in campaign donations and gotten key endorsements from labor and civic groups.
In the Aug. 18 mayoral primary, he faces seven low-profile challengers, most of them political neophytes.
But polls indicate big trouble, with less than a quarter of voters saying they would choose him in November.
He's been dogged by criticism of the city's response to a December snowstorm that paralyzed Seattle for nearly two weeks -- something he wishes he could do over. And in a city that prizes collaboration and civility, some think Nickels is too simply gruff and aggressive.
"The mayor's style is very topdown and autocratic," says City Council member Jan Drago, the only one of his opponents to have held elective office. Drago says that alienates people used to the "Seattle process" of politics: talking and discussing issues -- often exhaustively -- and making sure all parties have a voice in decisions.
"It is a difference between win-lose and win-win," she said.
In an interview at a Seattle coffee shop, Nickels shakes his head and calls claims he's difficult to work with "so much hogwash."
"You know, I am who I am, he said. "I can't change my personality. I believe and I think if you talk to my children and my wife they would confirm that I am a nice man. I have a dog and I treat my dog well.
"But I also have a real passion for this city and if I think that something has to be done for this city to be successful, for the people in this city to do well, I really won't let things get in the way of trying to make that happen."
A SurveyUSA poll conducted for Seattle TV station KING and released Thursday found 22 percent of 579 likely voters would pick Nickels. And last week, the nonpartisan Washington Poll said it found just 23 percent of likely voters sampled would vote for Nickels if the election were held today, with 37 percent undecided.
"That is very low for an incumbent going into an election," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor who conducted the Washington Poll.
Perhaps as bad, Barreto said, 50 percent of respondents had an unfavorable impression of Nickels, to 40 percent favorable. A separate question on whether things in the city are going in the right direction had 55 percent saying yes, 32 percent saying it's on the wrong track.
The election, Barreto said, "is a referendum on Nickels. He has had eight years."
The SurveyUSA poll, conducted Aug. 3-6, interviewed 579 likely and actual voters. The Washington Poll interviewed 600 likely voters from July 28 to Aug. 3. Both polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Nickels long has suffered from low poll numbers despite heading a city praised for its livability. Barreto said many factors could be in play: the poor handling of the snowstorm, losing the NBA SuperSonics to Oklahoma City last year, failure to get more federal stimulus dollars, conflicts between Nickels and Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature.
And the man himself.
"Certainly his opponents have made his leadership style and his persona an issue," Barreto says. "They have argued he is hard to get along with, he doesn't have a cooperative style, he does a lot of things behind closed doors, that he's stubborn."
Outside a city coffee shop, Todd Harps and Steve Frost count themselves among the many voters undecided. Harps said he's "pretty ambivalent" about Nickels. "His ego's bigger than his talent."
But Frost says that while the mayor's controversial, "I think he's done some good things" such as working for light rail and transportation.
Besides Drago, Nickels' major opponents include Joe Mallahan, an executive at cell phone company T-Mobile; attorney and Sierra Club activist Mike McGinn; and former Sonics basketball player James Donaldson. Also running are Elizabeth Campbell, Kwame Wyking Garrett and Norman Sigler.
Nickels and his opponents stress the need for jobs, good transportation, strong neighborhoods and help for the homeless and less fortunate -- popular, progressive issues in a heavily Democratic city. All, Nickels included, emphasize that a mayor should listen and be a team player.
King County elections officials forecast a light turnout for the dog days primary, with about 35 percent of the city's approximately 376,000 registered voters expected to cast ballots in the all-mail vote to be tallied Aug. 18.
Nickels narrowly defeated former City Attorney Mark Sidran in 2001, but received only token opposition four years ago.
Former City Council President Peter Steinbrueck and Drago say council members have found the mayor's office distant and overbearing. Politics is a hardball sport and after two terms, "you're going to offend people and make enemies," Steinbrueck says, but, "there's virtually no working relationship between the mayor and the City Council."
Nickels often relies on his aides to handle difficult issues, Steinbrueck says. In the seven years he and Nickels shared City Hall, "I maybe saw him two times on the council floor," Steinbrueck says, adding, "I can't recall a single instance when I received a personal call from him."
"My personal interactions with the mayor have been quite cordial," Mallahan says. "But on the campaign trail I hear repeatedly and overwhelmingly that the mayor is vindictive and bullying."
Mallahan says he's heard such stories from neighborhood leaders, individuals in city departments, business people and others.
"The people of Seattle understand that the mayor is a bad manager," he says. "And I think that a candidate with effective management experience is a real threat."
Nickels says debate is good and the Seattle process is ingrained in the city's culture. But he says he stands out because he's willing to make tough decisions, such as insisting on a tunnel to replace the waterfront's dilapidated Alaskan Way viaduct, damaged in a 2001 earthquake.
Seattle, he says, is "competing with great metropolitan areas all over the world who are very deliberately laying out their future. And if we don't learn how to make decisions and move forward, rather than debating the same issues over and over and over again, we're going to have our lunch eaten."
In appearances and television ads, Nickels stresses he's all too human and has made mistakes. But he's also said that in hard times, the campaign should focus on bigger issues.
Though Nickels has been forced to cut jobs and spending, Seattle has fared better than many U.S. cities in the economic downturn.
Still, he says, "With this terrible economy, I think people are scared and angry. And an incumbent mayor is, you know, a pretty inviting target for some of that anger."
Besides the waterfront tunnel, Nickels takes credit for backing Seattle's new regional light rail system, which began running last month, and for keeping the city positioned for economic recovery. Crime has dropped on his watch, he says, and the city is fixing roads, adding bike lanes, building sidewalks and filling potholes.
But he admits, "I certainly would like to have a couple of weeks in December back."
The rare heavy snowstorm all but shut down Seattle, which lacks a fleet of snowplows for winters that normally consist of months of cold rain. Blame for the gridlock fell on Nickels, who initially gave the city a "B" grade for its response.
"That issue, perhaps, became symbolic to some people," Barreto says. "That's the sort of time people said, 'Hey, in my neighborhood, it's an F."
Nickels said the city has changed policies, arranged with contractors to supplement city plows and is willing to use road salt instead of just sand to keep streets clear.
"So if it happens again on my watch, it will be very different. But I think people do want you to acknowledge when you screw up and I did," he said.
That attitude has helped Nickels, says UW political science professor David Olson.
"Enough time has passed, he seems to have been contrite about the response to this issue, and I don't see this as taking him down."
As for his style, Nickels "is a practiced politician," Olson says. "He has very strong positions on a variety of issues and he gets on a horse and he rides it."
Accountability and leadership style matter, says McGinn, who has made opposition to the waterfront tunnel a keystone of his campaign -- he favors demolishing the viaduct, widening nearby Interstate 5 and significantly beefing up transit. But he has little patience for discussing "who plays together well. My goodness, that's insider stuff."
If there's a referendum, he says, it's on what sort of city Seattle should be.
"I think it's a referendum on the future and that's what the voters care about."

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