08/20/2009 06:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Mayors

Seattle -- Right now the Seattle mayor's race is nip and tuck. Incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels, winner of the Sierra Club's Edgar Wayburn Award, and creator of the Mayor's Initiative for Climate Change, is in third place by 1,000 votes and might not make the runoff. In first place is self-funded challenger Joe Mallahan. But in second place is the Sierra Club's endorsed candidate, former Sierra Club Cascade Chapter Chair Mike McGinn.

Obviously the choice between McGinn and Nickels took some serious thought by the Club. But the story of how McGinn ended up in the race and leading the incumbent is a story of a virtuous cycle of ever-higher energy and climate aspirations in the Puget Sound Area. The turning point in the story is 2007, when the Club and McGinn decided to oppose a Faustian bargain on the Washington State ballot -- a bond measure that would have funded mass transit, but only at the cost of 182 miles of new freeway. As the Seattle Stranger put it, the Club and McGinn "argued that if voters rejected the roads-heavy measure, the light-rail component would come back to the ballot the next year and win. Nickels argued that this was the only chance to expand light rail. McGinn was right and Nickels was wrong: Even though the measure had been polling at 57 percent, the campaign against it worked, and the following year, funding for just light rail was on the ballot and passed by a wide margin."

Then, in 2008, Nickels was blamed for mismanaging a major snowstorm -- also a mayoral no-no. And he came out for yet another expensive, auto-dependent piece of infrastructure -- a huge tunnel to replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct.

McGinn decided to break and challenge his long-time ally. He came out against the tunnel and in favor of a much more modest road replacement. And as I write this, he's leading Nickels by 1,000 votes. What's remarkable about this story is that it shows the Sierra Club's ability to raise the policy bar -- more transit, less carbon, less highway dependence, lower taxes -- by consistently demanding more and by changing alliances when it makes pragmatic sense. We supported Nickels as long as he was the leader, but we joined with anti-tax forces to kill the highway/transit shotgun marriage, and then switched fields to work with labor and progressives to put transit over the top. McGinn also united with low tax groups in the fight against the tunnel.

If we're going to transform our society as fast as the climate scientists say we must, then we'll have to recognize the need to keep raising the bar higher while remaining open to new partners and alliances.