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Originally published Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

The political air feels a bit stagnant, but no one's opening a window

Washington's leading politicians are like airplanes stacked up over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — circling and circling with no place to land.

Washington's leading politicians are like airplanes stacked up over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — circling and circling with no place to land.

In the coming years, we could have a third-term mayor of Seattle, a fourth-term executive of King County, a couple of U.S. senators who are not leaving anytime soon.

In other words, we have a long list of politicians lower on the political food chain, with no chance to advance.

Let's start with the Seattle mayor. Greg Nickels was relaxed and upbeat delivering his State of the City address the other day. In his seventh such speech of his two-term mayoralty, his oration was brimming with innovation and forward thinking. Ours is a city on the leading edge of response to global warming and imaginative use of parks and open space.

I could not help notice Nickels was at the top of his game. No, that is not an endorsement for his third term, but he clearly is planning one.

King County Executive Ron Sims backed the wrong candidate for president for his own political advancement, Hillary Rodham Clinton, which leaves him running, perhaps, for a fourth term.

Nickels' potential challengers include former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran. He denies interest. Or recently departed Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck. He does not deny interest.

For county executive, County Councilman Bob Ferguson, a fellow Democrat and hard-charging go-getter, told Sims he would not run against him, which also means he probably would seek an open position. Another potential challenger, County Councilman Larry Phillips, told me he would not take on Sims, but is interested otherwise.

Neither of our U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, are moving on.

Murray does not face re-election until 2010 but as the only woman in Democratic Senate leadership, she will not yield her power. She will stay awhile. Same for Cantwell, who was just re-elected 15 months ago. She is in her seat at least another five years.

The state's top job is held by Gov. Christine Gregoire, a first-termer with no plans to step aside. She will rigorously defend her job this year in a red-hot race against Republican Dino Rossi.

Where is a young, aspiring politician to go? For example, Congressman Adam Smith of Tacoma? He backed the right horse, Barack Obama. Ferguson? Rob McKenna? The Republican attorney general has potential to be a terrific governor but has said he isn't going anywhere until he serves a second term.

All of which means we need an opening in the ceiling somewhere so people can move upward.

The best hope, and it's more wispy than real, is that Congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle moves on. That one officeholder steps aside and a cool blast of fresh air moves in.

In that scenario, Sims or state Sen. Ed Murray or someone totally different runs for Congress. The subsequent opening for county executive creates room for a county council member or an Eastside legislator, a Fred Jarrett or Ross Hunter on the Democratic side. For Republicans, names that come to mind are state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser or County Councilman Reagan Dunn.

But here we sit, sit being the operative word. No one is budging. Not McDermott. Not Sims. Not Nickels. Not Murray. Not Cantwell. Politically, we are bloooooocked.

The Seattle City Council has new blood infused the old-fashioned way: a highly qualified challenger, Tim Burgess, took on an underwhelming incumbent and beat him. Steinbrueck stepped aside and opened the door to newcomer Bruce Harrell.

On the County Council, inertia is the name of the game. Many council members have been in the same job for a long time.

All these calculations do not capture yearnings from Olympia. Where does state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane go if she does not run for statewide office? And she might. This would be a good year to challenge U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris. The 5th Congressional District is heavily Republican, but if Brown is ever to make a move, a presidential year with an inspiring Democrat atop the ticket would be a good time to try.

But scratch a lot of these musings. At the moment, no one is moving. Until they do, ours are the politics of crowded skies and stalled career opportunities for officeholders and wannabes.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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