Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels loses in the primary, Susan Hutchison leads for King County Executive, and city voters defeat a shopping bag fee on August 18, 2009.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/31/2010
  • Essay 9292

On August 18, 2009, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) finishes third in the primary election and loses his seat after two influential terms in which he built a national reputation as an environmental leader but ultimately alienated many city voters.  Attorney and activist Mike McGinn (b. 1959) wins the primary with T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan second; McGinn will go on to win the mayor's office in the November general election.  Seattle voters also reject a 20-cent fee on shopping bags, proposed by Nickels and approved by the City Council, after a campaign in which the plastics industry outspends fee supporters 15 to 1.  In the race to succeed Ron Sims (b. 1948) as King County Executive, former TV news anchor Susan Hutchison finishes first in the primary, but County Councilmember Dow Constantine, the second-place finisher, will win the general election. 

The 2009 vote made Greg Nickels the second consecutive Seattle mayor to lose the office in a primary race.  In the 2001 primary, Nickels, then a King County Councilmember, and Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran (b. 1951) finished ahead of incumbent Mayor Paul Schell (b. 1938), whose single term was marred by the city's bungled handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization conference and protests, the 2001 Fat Tuesday riots, the relocation of Boeing's headquarters to Chicago, and an economic slump. Nickels edged Sidran in the 2001 general election to win the office and was re-elected without significant opposition in 2005. 

Accomplishments and Discontent 

During his two terms, Nickels racked up an impressive array of accomplishments.  He built fire stations and bike lanes, spearheaded passage of two housing levies, and successfully promoted denser development, particularly in the Northgate and South Lake Union areas, arguing that density would curb environmentally damaging sprawl.  While mayor, Nickels chaired Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, and played a major role in finally bringing light rail to Seattle -- the line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport opened in 2009. 

Nickels also developed a national reputation for his efforts to fight climate change, which he recognized as a serious threat to a region dependent on winter snowpack for its water supply.  He committed Seattle to becoming carbon-neutral and urged fellow mayors to adopt the goals of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which the federal government under President George W. Bush (b. 1946) had rejected.  Almost 1,000 mayors around the country did so, and in 2008 Nickels was selected to head the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 

But even as his colleagues honored his work, many constituents had become disenchanted with Nickels.  From the time he took office, Nickels was perceived by some as taking an arrogant, top-down approach, which offended members of the city council and neighborhood leaders.  While Nickels' assertive approach got results, it also fueled constituents' wrath when his administration stumbled.  Seattle's "loss" of the Sonics basketball team to Oklahoma City hurt his popularity, as did the Transportation Department's inadequate response to a series of December 2008 snowstorms that left the city paralyzed, an issue exacerbated by Nickels' assertion (later regretted) that the city deserved a "B" for its storm response. 

Nickels may also have been hurt by what supporters, including downtown businesses and labor unions, saw as a major achievement: winning the state Legislature's support for a tunnel to replace the aging and dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct.  Local environmental leaders criticized the decision and Mike McGinn made opposition to the tunnel the centerpiece of what seemed to be a longshot campaign for the mayor's office. 

Many Challengers 

Nickels' declining popularity drew a host of challengers to the mayoral primary.  Besides McGinn and Mallahan, former Sonic James Donaldson, City Councillor Jan Drago, and three others entered the race.  Although both Nickels and Mallahan vastly outspent him, McGinn stood out in the race as the only candidate to oppose the $4.2 billion tunnel proposed to replace the Viaduct.  A business lawyer who was active in the Sierra Club and founded the nonprofit Seattle Great City Initiative, McGinn relied on a large group of campaign volunteers who contacted more than 10,000 voters on his behalf before the primary.  McGinn also won the enthusiastic backing of The Stranger, the free alternative weekly newspaper whose increasing political clout was demonstrated in the 2009 election (nearly every candidate and issue The Stranger endorsed, including McGinn, prevailed in the general election.)   

Mallahan contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to his campaign, in which he touted his business experience and strongly criticized Nickels' performance.  When all the primary votes were counted, McGinn led with 39,097 votes (27.7 percent) and Mallahan claimed the second general election spot with 37,933 votes (26.9 percent).  Nickels collected 35,781 votes (25.4 percent), Donaldson had 11,478 (8.1 percent), Drago got 10,154 (7.2 percent), and Elizabeth Campbell, Kwame Wyking Garrett, and Norman Zadok Sigler split the remainder. 

No Bag Fee 

Seattle voters also rejected Referendum No. 1, which would have imposed a 20-cent fee on each plastic or paper shopping bag that supermarkets, convenience stores, and drugstores gave to customers.  (Small stores would have kept the fee; large ones would have paid 15 cents per bag to the city to fund recycling and environmental education.)  Nickels proposed the fee and the City Council approved it overwhelmingly (only Drago voted no), but the American Chemistry Council, a national plastics-industry group, bankrolled a successful signature-gathering effort that put the fee to a vote.   

The industry group spent $1.4 million on the campaign to reject Referendum No. 1, dwarfing the $93,000 spent by supporters, who argued that the fee would promote reusable bags, reduce waste and greenhouse gases, and cut the number of plastic bags littering streets and polluting oceans.  Voters evidently agreed with the industry’s argument that a tax to change behavior was not the right approach, at least during a recession, as 76,346 (53.1 percent) voted to reject the fee, with 67,524 (46.9 percent) voting to approve.  

County Executive Race 

Like the mayoral primary, the King County Executive race featured a crowded primary field, with incumbent Ron Sims having moved on to take a post in the administration of President Barack Obama (b. 1961).  It included longtime KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison, two County Councilmembers (Dow Constantine [b. 1961] and Larry Phillips [b. 1956]), and two state legislators (Senator Fred Jarrett and Representative Ross Hunter).  There were also two perennial candidates (Stan Lippmann and a man who had legally changed his name to Goodspaceguy) and little-known engineer Alan Lobdell.   

Although the executive race was officially non-partisan (voters amended the county charter in 2008 to make most offices non-partisan), all four elected officials in the race were Democrats.  With the four splitting the Democratic vote, Hutchison (who disclaimed any party affiliation but had ties to Republicans) finished well ahead in the primary with 110,052 votes (33.05 percent).  Constantine was a solid second with 89,833 votes (26.98 percent).  Jarrett was third with 40,527 votes (12.17 percent), Phillips fourth with 40,295 votes (12.10 percent), and Hunter fifth with 36,259 votes (10.89 percent), while the last three candidates together had less than five percent of the vote.  Jarrett, Phillips, and Hunter all endorsed Constantine in the general election and he went on to an easy victory over Hutchison in November.

Sources: "Election Results," King County Elections website accessed January 15, 2010 (; Keith Ervin and Emily Heffter, "Candidates Throw Hats in Ring as Filing Deadline Passes," The Seattle Times, June 6, 2009 (; Phuong Le, "Seattle Voters Reject 20-Cent Grocery Bag Fee," Ibid., August 18, 2009; Le, "Seattle Votes Down Fee On Plastic, Paper Bags," Ibid., August 19, 2009; Marc Ramirez, " Bag Fee: Bad Idea Or Bad Timing?" Ibid., August 20, 2009; Emily Heffter, " McGinn: Surprise Survivor In Race For Mayor?" Ibid., August 20, 2009; Gene Johnson, "Seattle Mayor Fighting To Hold Onto His Job," Ibid., August 20, 2009; Johnson, "Seattle's Mayor Concedes In Primary Battle," Ibid., August 20, 2009; Keith Ervin, "Hutchison, Constantine To Face Off For King County Executive In November," Ibid., August 18, 2009; Bob Young, "Primary Rivals Endorse Constantine for County Executive," Ibid., September 3, 2009; Heffter, "Outgoing Mayor Greg Nickels Leaves Stamp on Seattle," Ibid., December 31, 2009; Craig Welch, "Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' Green Agenda Wasn't Enough," Ibid., January 16, 2010; The Stranger website accessed January 27, 2010 (

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