Paul Andrews

Riding to Win

In Bicycle advocacy, Obama Bikes on November 4, 2009 at 8:10 am

They snickered when Mike McGinn started off his campaign by showing up at cycling events with “MIKE BIKES” stickers. How quaint. He’s going after the funny-hats-and-clicky-shoes vote.

It was a startlingly unconventional way to build a base, campaigning in a bike helmet and blazer. But McGinn knew something that cyclists have long suspected: We’re a strong and growing political constituency, just waiting to be galvanized by a candidate who rides.

Cyclists are the statistical equivalency of the old newspaper circulation figure. Back in the day, publishers were fond of noting (especially to advertisers) how the print run was a misleading number. What was more important was that every paper that got printed was read by at least one or two other people besides the purchaser.

Cyclists are smart. They’re committed. They pay attention. They talk and IM and Twitter (and blog!). They cross over into numerous disciplines: Technology, education, graphic design, social work, non-profit organizing, entrepreneurialism and yes, even politics.

They vote. And for every vote they cast, you can count on two or three or more people they’ve influenced voting the same.

We disagree about a lot of things, because we’re fiercely independent. We have to be. You don’t risk your life competing with two-ton behemoths of glass and steel on a daily basis without having a certain self-confidence and belief in knowing what you’re doing.

But when we find out someone else is a cyclist, their stock goes way up. We have an instant bond. We are brothers and sisters in the daily combat of urban traffic. We know there’s a high chance our values will align, if not mirror, our compatriot’s.

We are the classic “cultural creative,” the description sociologist Paul Ray devised for over a quarter of the population. People who represent a commitment to sustainability, environment, health and justice. Cultural creatives also are highly individualistic: They think of themselves as a marginal minority, not a social subset. But taken together, they represent a powerful constituency.

Get them to vote together, and you have a solid numerical bloc from which to build a coalition. Mike McGinn may not yet win the mayor’s race, but he came so far so fast, from such a remote outpost of conventional political thinking, that like Barack Obama he’s shown a whole new path to campaign success.

McGinn was not the only “cycling candidate” in this election who did well. Richard Conlin, the City Council member who commutes to City Hall, and Mike O’Brien and Dow Constantine, both with strong ties to the cycling community, won decisive victories. None made two wheels quite as much of their profile as McGinn, but they are strongly in the camp of improving transportation networks with cycling in mind. And all won rousing endorsements from Seattle’s powerful Cascade Bicycle Club, whose 11,000-plus members make it the nation’s largest local cycling group and whose advocacy work is leading-edge for any membership organization.

Together, especially with McGinn at the helm, they constitute one of the nation’s leading elected cycling blocs. They promise not only to enhance Seattle’s already recognized cycling reputation (aided by Nickels), but to put Seattle at the center of cycling progress and innovation along the lines of Davis CA, Portland OR, Boulder CO and Vancouver BC.

When Cascade held its nose and endorsed Nickels in the primary, and I went off on my blog, McGinn told me he wasn’t worried. “We’re the only candidate in this space,” he said. As alacritous as it seemed at the time, he was right: For all the good work Mayor Greg Nickels did for cycling, he wasn’t one of us. Cyclists and their circle wouldn’t vote for Nickels and McGinn knew it.

We got the word out on our email lists and the blogosphere and Twitterdom. Everyone who asked me who to vote for mayor got a Full Monty of why Mike was right (and Mallahan was lame). I’ve not always agreed with McGinn and have even had run-ins with him in the past. But I know at core he stands, er, rides, in the same space I do and has the same goals.

McGinn may not win. But we think he will. The political polling system, and the vast network of bloviating analysts and pundits who somehow think they have credibility because their name gets displayed under them when they yap, have yet to figure out how to calculate the Obama Effect. They don’t know how to measure tweets. They can’t count under-40 voters on their cell phones (who don’t have land lines). They still think Downtown Business dictates elections.

When a race is close in the polls, the cultural creative has a huge advantage. His constituency is entirely unmeasured.

Funny hats and noisy shoes. McGinn was onto something.

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  1. That’s great that bicyclists are a voting bloc in Seattle. Not so much in automobile-centric Bellevue, though. Cascade’s endorsements are 0-for-3 for the Bellevue City Council in early results. Challengers Orrico and Marchand are getting trounced by incumbents they’re trying to unseat, but Cascade-backed Bonincontri is only trailing Wallace by 2 points.

  2. But surely McGinn campaigned on issues besides cycling, right? Who did he appeal to besides people like you and me?

  3. [...] was the dark horse candidate who was outspent three to one. Seattle bike blogger Paul Andrews writes of McGinn and his campaign: It was a startlingly unconventional way to build a base, campaigning in a bike helmet and blazer. [...]

  4. [...] home the win last week, and good news for our Left Coast friends…the guy’s a biker. He actually campaigned riding around town on his bike, barking at people while wearing a helmet and blazer. Hopefully Washington takes notice and the [...]

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