'The Boys' who ran Nickels' war room
Seattle Times staff reporter
He won't take office until January, but Seattle mayor-elect Greg Nickels arguably has already fulfilled one campaign promise.
At campaign events, Nickels spoke of getting young people more involved in city affairs. He did just that during the campaign — pinning his mayoral ambitions on a remarkably youthful campaign staff that in many ways is reminiscent of his own early entry into politics.
At age 28, campaign manager Marco Lowe was entrusted with the race that would determine Nickels' political future. And Lowe was the graybeard of a campaign whose chief fund-raiser and field director were both 23 years old.
Nickels placed great faith in his young guns — entrusting them with his political life at a critical moment. After losing in the 1993 King County executive race and again in the 1997 mayoral primary, Nickels was in danger of being tagged a perennial also-ran, incapable of winning outside his Metropolitan King County Council district in West Seattle.
But Nickels said he always had faith in the energy and enthusiasm of his staff, in part because they reminded him of his own early rise.
Nickels dropped out of college to pursue a political career and at age 22 ran Norm Rice's first campaign for City Council. He later served as Rice's legislative aide.
Rice went on to become mayor, while Nickels became one of the youngest politicians ever elected to the County Council.
"I got some great opportunities as a young person, and it helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life," Nickels said. "I learned I could make a difference."
He says he wanted to give others the same chance.
Like Nickels, who was president of the state Young Democrats in 1976, his campaign crew cut their teeth early by getting involved with the party. Most of them were recent University of Washington grads who met while working for Gov. Gary Locke's re-election campaign.
Lowe, who turned 29 the day after the election, has a quick wit and a slightly cocky air about him. Early on, he boasted he would be ready if the campaign turned nasty.
"If they pull that knife out, I've got a machete waiting," he said.
It never quite got to that point, but Lowe wound up on the winning end and may be in line for a job in the Nickels administration. He is now coordinating community outreach for the mayor-elect's transition team.
This summer, Lowe was named the state Democratic Party's "Rising Star," receiving a trophy adorned with a silver donkey. "I guess you could say I got my ass handed to me that night," he joked.
Lowe graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in history and then started a business with some friends, marketing interactive screen savers for computers, featuring maps of Seattle and San Francisco. He went on to work for Locke before taking a job on Nickels' County Council staff in 1999.
When he left the office to run Nickels' mayoral campaign this summer, Lowe tapped two 23-year-olds, Chris Gregorich and Colby Underwood, whom he had met in Democratic circles. The three, working 80 hours a week out of a dilapidated house in Greenwood, formed the nucleus of a staff much less experienced than those of Paul Schell and Mark Sidran, Nickels' major opponents.
They sometimes joked about what was going on — here they were, three twentysomethings trying to elect a big-city mayor.
"Nobody's really heard of a campaign where the staff and management was this young," Underwood said. "When I sat down with Greg, he brought that up to me — he wanted to give young people a chance. That really was what sold me on working for Greg."
"We actually made fun of Marco for being the old man on the team," Gregorich said.
Nickels said there was a trade-off inherent in hiring a relatively untried staff. "They don't have the history. They don't always know who's who in this or that community. They're going to make mistakes," he said. "The trade-off is they have an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm."
Gregorich, a recent UW grad in Spanish, had worked last year on the state Democratic Party's field campaign in the 1st Congressional District, encouraging voters to turn out for Jay Inslee and U.S. Senate candidate Maria Cantwell.
He put that experience to work as Nickels' field-campaign director, rounding up the volunteers who staffed phone banks and went door to door in key precincts to ensure Nickels' supporters turned out.
By Election Day, the campaign had a list of 11,729 Nickels voters, who then were pestered by phone calls and knocks at the door until they voted. Some observers believe that ground campaign was the difference in Nickels' 3,200-vote victory over Sidran in the general election.
Underwood, whose 6-foot-10-inch frame led to jokes about settling the campaign on the basketball court, was the campaign's finance director, running a fund-raising effort that pulled in more than $530,000 from nearly 4,000 contributors.
That total was dwarfed by Sidran's fund-raising machine (led by political veteran Bill Marler), which garnered $720,000. But Nickels boasted more individual contributors, and the money was enough to keep him from being entirely overmatched in TV advertising leading up to Election Day.
More young talent bolstered the campaign core — Lowe, Gregorich and Underwood — after the primary. The median age stayed about the same when Viet Shelton, 20; Kelly Ogilvie, 22; and Peter McGraw, 29, came on board.
Theresa Wittman, 47, who was Nickels' scheduler during the campaign, simply referred to the rest of the staff as "the boys."
Now some of "the boys" could be headed for jobs at City Hall. Nickels says regardless of whom he hires, getting more young people in city government will be a priority for his administration.
"It's good for the city, because when young people get involved there is a payback over a long period of time," Nickels said. "It brings new energy to the city."
Jim Brunner can be reached at 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information in this article, originally published December 3, was corrected December 6. Terry Wittmans name was spelled incorrectly in an article about Greg Nickels mayoral-campaign staff.