Swallowed by Potholes: The Mayor's Race and Seattle Streets

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If you grew up in Seattle, you’ve probably heard the tale that back in the muddy streets of 19th-century Seattle a boy actually drowned in a huge pothole down on Jackson Street

You know its political season in Seattle because: Potholes!

The mayoral campaign is heating up, and the race has careened into what could be described as a political pothole of gargantuan proportions.

First, our incumbent may, Ed Murray, was coasting to re-election with no major opponents in the race. He’s been cruising with an air of inevitability, and few established politicians have wanted to take him on.

Then, out of the blue, the Seattle Times reported allegations that Murray raped an underage youth years ago. It doesn’t get more explosive than that in politics.

Suddenly, the race is up in the air. Murray says the accusations are false, that he’s not resigning and will continue to run. Sensing vulnerability, the mayoral election field is suddenly expanding beyond a handful of relatively unknown candidates. Last week, former mayor Mike McGinn jumped into the race—he was defeated by Murray in 2013—and there will be more challengers. Innocent or guilty, the road is getting rougher for the mayor.

The second thing telling thing: Potholes—actual, big craters-in-the-street-type potholes—are back in the news. We all deal with them year-round, but there is no more reliable campaign season stunt than a sitting mayor declaring war on potholes.

Back when mayor Paul Schell ran for mayor in the ‘90s, he claimed to have done some vigilante pothole filling, doing with his own shovel what the city should have been doing. That helped him get elected. After him, Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn unleashed the “Pothole Rangers,” a kind of SWAT team that would go out and fix the streets.

A candidate that doesn’t take potholes seriously is committing campaign malpractice. Why? Because potholes are the one thing everyone agrees on. Drivers hate them. Cyclists hate them. Truckers hate them. Bus drivers hate them. Pedestrians hate them. Bumping, jolting, tripping, falling: our shared loathing is a rare point of civic unity.

If you grew up in Seattle, you’ve probably heard the tale that back in the muddy streets of 19th-century Seattle a boy actually drowned in a huge pothole down on Jackson Street. I’ve never been able to confirm the story, but given the state of our streets, and a soggy terrain where the earth can slide, sink and give way at a moments notice, it’s believable. I’ve yet to meet anyone in Seattle who is pro-pothole.

Not only do we unite around hating our holey streets, we use potholes as a yardstick for measuring civic competence. If you can’t fix the potholes as mayor, what kind of city are you running? It’s one of the basics of city government. (By the way, this also extends to clearing the streets after rare snowstorms, as Greg Nickels learned the hard way when he lost re-election in part because people were angry about his response to a storm back in 2008).

Mayor Murray is a smart politician. The city has announced “Pothole Palooza”— you know it’s political when they give a pothole initiative its own name. The nasty winter has left a bevy of potholes behind so the city is commencing a pothole-filling blitz. The Seattle Times says that in February alone, 3,700 potholes were filled, and that’s just the tip of the (bad metaphor alert!) pothole-burg.

The only good thing about potholes, besides their ability to unify the electorate, is that they are pretty democratic. Meaning that rich, poor, and in-between neighborhoods all suffer from failing streets. Okay, that’s not really so good, but still, fixing them is a perennial campaign season exercise—and one that tests incumbent mayors.

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