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Seattle’s mayor concedes in primary battle

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, viewed as a national leader on environmental issues but dogged by criticism at home, conceded defeat Friday in a primary vote.
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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels fell about 1,200 votes short — at last count — of reaching the general election. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images for National Urban
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels conceded defeat Friday in his bid for a third term, failing to advance past the primary after getting battered for his bungling of December snowstorms that paralyzed the city.

The concession marks a surprising development for a politician viewed as a national leader on environmental issues and so respected by his peers that he was chosen last spring to head the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Nickels said at a City Hall news conference that he called to congratulate the two challengers who topped him in Tuesday's primary — T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan and Sierra Club activist Mike McGinn, who advance to November's general election. The race is technically nonpartisan, but all three of the top candidates are Democrats.

"The people of Seattle have decided it's time for a new generation of leadership," Nickels said.

In a speech that was gracious and often self-deprecating, he touted his record, including the recent opening of a new light rail system, and said he had always wanted to be a mayor who made tough decisions even if it made him unpopular.

"I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," he joked.

The most recent tally by elections officials had Nickels receiving just 25.6 percent of the vote — 1,170 votes out of second place — to Mallahan's 27.2 percent and McGinn's 26.7.

About 30,000 ballots still need counting. But Nickels said he wanted to step aside to allow voters to focus on the other two candidates — both political newcomers — rather than drag out a recount.

On environmental issues, Nickels helped persuade nearly 1,000 mayors around the country to abide by the standards of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

But more prosaic issues made him less popular at home, including the NBA franchise Seattle SuperSonics' move to Oklahoma City, the city's response to the series of December snowstorms and his support for a multibillion-dollar downtown tunnel, which would replace a crumbling elevated highway along the city's waterfront.

The snowstorms dumped 14 inches of snow on a city that rarely sees that much. Given a relative lack of plows, steep hills and a stubborn refusal to salt roadways, the city all but shut down.

A Seattle Times investigation revealed that the city held some plows in reserve even as neighborhoods complained of snowbound paralysis, and Transportation Department officials focused snow removal efforts disproportionately in West Seattle, where Nickels lives.

"There are two weeks in December I would love to have back," Nickels said.

The county exclusively uses mail-in voting; ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday. The final tally was not expected to be known for days.

Gov. Chris Gregoire thanked Nickels in a written statement.

"He has provided essential leadership and has been a strong partner to keep our neighborhoods safe, find regional transportation solutions and to protect our natural resources," she said.

The vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz of Burnsville, Minn., will take over when Nickels' term in office expires four months from now.

Nickels said he hasn't decided whom he'll support in the November election, or what his next career move will be.

He has spent his entire adult life in government, serving as a city council aide before being elected a King County councilman and then Seattle mayor. He said he hoped to continue to serve the public in some fashion.

"Nothing in my future career will match the honor of being mayor of Seattle — but it may pay better, I don't know," he said.