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The great rookie debate

Joe Mallahan, a candidate out of nowhere Credit: Mallahan for Mayor

In some races, there’s an aha! moment when a candidate’s rhetoric or personal story finally sweeps you away, or turns you off definitively. For most Seattle voters, that moment hasn’t come yet as two virtual unknowns, both political rookies, vie to run the city. One of them will be the next mayor, but we don’t know who, and many people know too little yet to make an informed choice. Now with Labor Day out of the way, the process of watching, listening and winnowing begins as we all seriously contemplate the post-Nickels political landscape.

The first head-to-head post primary debate between the two finalists occurred at Paul Allen’s Cinerama theater Thursday, Sept. 10, and the downtown business crowd turned out as if it were a Star Wars premiere. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce hosted the sold-out event and some 350 people showed to get a look at candidates Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan face-to-face, while KUOW’s Steve Scher refereed and asked questions.

First, some of the similarities.

Both are pitching themselves as City Hall reformers, determined to find ways to cut the budget and deliver city services more cost effectively. McGinn says he’ll cut a couple hundred political appointees right off the top, a legacy of Nickels’ consolidation of power. Mallahan says he’ll be tough on consulting contracts, cutting back some of the $125 million (!) the City spends on outside help.

Both are delighted the Russell Investment firm chose to re-locate in Seattle, though both expressed concerns about cutting taxes to land them or anyone else. In general, McGinn favors the city head tax and doesn’t want to see it repealed; Mallahan wants to decapitate the head tax but doesn’t like to see the city inciting regional rivalry by stealing business from Tacoma and promising to cut Russell’s B&O tax. Of course, all this is happening on someone else’s watch.

Both scoff at the idea that their election would create a power vacuum at City Hall into which the city council elders will step to act as a kind of regency until the rookies are up to speed. McGinn exudes the confidence of a strongman with a lawyer’s skill at making arguments and holding his ground. Mallahan touts his management experience at T-Mobile. “I plan on being a strong leader,” he says, while respecting the city council’s role as a legislative partner.

Both agree that the biggest problem with Seattle schools is funding and promise to work with Seattle’s Olympia delegation to get more money. Neither offered any particular educational vision, however, other than to say the city needs better schools.

Both want to improve the business climate by making Seattle even more livable and more efficient. McGinn touts affordable housing, mass transit, great schools, public safety and fiber optics for linking Seattle’s creative minds with the world as the route to being a great place for business. Mallahan promises to “move forward” by not disrupting well laid plans (read: not sabotaging the bored tunnel project), getting more cops, streamlining city government and the licensing and permitting processes for business and developers. Both are progressive, both like sustainability, undoubtedly they are both kind to kids, Orcas and kittens…you get the picture.

But there are differences, and they are key to getting a handle on the candidates. First, of course, is the deep-bored tunnel to replace the Viaduct, a plan that McGinn sees as a huge boondoggle. He attacks it not only as a $900 million “tax increase” but also because it is certain to price out at even more (par for the course for such big projects which tend to prove tricky, as Brightwater reminds us). Mallahan used the word “pragmatic” numerous times, and says we’ve got an agreement to go ahead, so let’s do it. But interestingly, the agreement’s partners are fading from the picture: Nickels has been ousted, Sims is in DC. An unwilling partner, the Speaker of the House still dreams of his Choppaduct.

McGinn played an interesting populist card in the debate, which was to claim that the politicians are acting in defiance of the voters, who previously rejected a tunnel option (it was a different tunnel, but no matter). He doubled down on his opposition by calling for a new vote on the tunnel project: See if people really want to foot the bill, or reconsider the surface options. McGinn said that the pols shouldn’t overturn a vote of the people (harkening back to a stadium you might remember), though history also suggests that Seattleites, who like to vote on everything, are themselves willing to reconsider previous decisions. The R.H. Thomson Expressway and the Monorail Green Line were both made and unmade by votes and politics. Mallahan didn’t challenge outright McGinn’s “put it to a vote” strategy, which seemed like a softball for claiming that undoing the tunnel agreement was a recipe for delay and more Seattle process run amok.

In terms of schools, McGinn was very general in what he thought would improve education, but stuck by his notion that if they don’t get better in a couple of years, he’d want the city to consider taking over the school district. Failure to improve the schools, he said, was a failure of democracy and governance. If failure to improve is the measure, the city could take over all kinds of public entities, from the Port of Seattle to King County. I doubt we’d see much improvement in any of them as a result, at least until we can prove we can plow and salt snowy streets. It also seems naive in terms of the time frame: two years is nothing in the glacial life of education reform.

On the other hand, McGinn at least articulates the need for better schools (he’s got kids in the system) whereas Mallahan seems to treat the subject as if it has cooties. Mallahan was definitive that he wouldn’t take the system over, saying the mayor has too much else on his plate, but he wasn’t able to articulate the fact that integrating school planning into larger city plans is essential, for example coordinating housing needs with the return to neighborhood schools. You might not want to run the school system, but neither can you hold it at arm’s length.

Josh Feit at Publicola makes a case that this Mayor’s race might be decided in Seattle’s minority communities, especially in South Seattle which in the primary was Nickels country. Those precincts, presumably, are up for grabs. Yet both McGinn and Mallahan exude a kind of white-guyness not unusual among those who live north of the Ship Canal.

Who can best address and connect with, say, the diversity and issues of the Rainier Valley? Former mayoral candidate and Seattle Supersonic James Donaldson asked the candidates how they’d deal with the problem of gang violence, which has been resurgent. McGinn said one major factor was jobs; Mallahan said he’d fully staff the gang unit. But neither seemed too familiar with the nitty gritty or offered a strategy for dealing with the social roots of the problem. It seemed like a question dropped in from another planet, out of the candidates’ comfort zone. Afterwards, Donaldson said he’d like to have gotten deeper answers, but he sees bringing up the issue as part of raising awareness. He’s endorsed Mallahan.

Because both candidates are relatively unknown, donors names and endorsements will play a critical role in the race as people try to flesh out what each candidate stands for. One question is, how will the powerful Nickels money machine of labor, development and greens divide? Already, Mallahan is picking up some big names and big money from business and union interests.

It’s early, but candidate difference could still produce odd bedfellows. For example, Joe Mallahan is the candidate attempting to position himself as both pro-busines and pro-labor. His stand in favor of the tunnel (let’s just do it and not revisit eight years of Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement indecision) is pitched as pragmatic and it appeals to industry, downtown business, and the construction and maritime unions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mallahan is every developer’s candidate.

Environmentalist McGinn has worked and negotiated with developers in the past and has a better grasp of the issues than Mallahan, who offered rather rambling answers on incentive zoning and affordable housing. And some of the big fish, like Vulcan, might have concerns about Mallahan, who has been critical of the proposed “Mercer Mess” fix and who says he wishes the South Lake Union streetcar had never been built. Such stands don’t follow the Vulcan script and sound a lot like the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox, a frequent critic of developers and of strategies favored by greens, such as transit-oriented development (packing in density around train stations).

Some worry that Mallahan favors too strong a role for labor in so-called Community Benefits Agreements, private arrangements that require developers to meet certain neighborhood conditions in order to build a project. These can include providing amenities like open space or traffic mitigation, but there’s also a push to require developers to adhere to standards for paying living wages to workers (read union salaries). Needless to say, many developers don’t want to work with such restrictions. In the debate both candidates said they favored the idea of CBAs on a case by case basis. The question about them was raised by a questioner from The Fearey Group, a public relations firm whose clients include Vulcan.

Since the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce crowd is a pro-business group, one might have expected Mallahan to have had home field advantage. Here’s an exec that can talk the talk of business. My impression, however, was that McGinn held his own by his ability to frame issues and set up their context extremely well. He’s articulate and a good speaker, especially at laying out his vision. Mallahan is less articulate, but was not afraid to go on the attack and established certain themes (like pragmatism) that he’ll use to contrast himself with his opponent. Mallahan conveys Seattle nice, but with some feistiness.

One gets the sense that neither knows as much as they should, but I think folks also went away assured that neither are they dummies or empty suits. There’s still time to get to know them, see them under pressure. There’s still time for them to get up to speed on issues and process. In the meantime, some of us will be waiting for that aha! moment to arrive.

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