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Mayor debate: Where’s the blood, the sweat?

Sen. Ed Murray stands during the mayoral debate. From left: Bruce Harrell, Kate Martin, Mary Martin and Mike McGinn. Credit: Photo: Tom James

Finally, it feels like the 2013 mayoral race is off and running, now that the eight candidates in the race have met for for their first televised debate. Well, less a debate than a panel discussion that was part game show in front of a live audience at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College on Monday. Interest in it was great. More than 200 people tried to fill 120 chairs.

The forum was sponsored by the Democrats of three legislative districts (the 11th, 34th and 37th), which cover a swath of South Seattle that hits every demographic group there is. 

The format consisted of the candidates answering questions by writing on pads of paper and holding up brief responses for the audience to see — a kind of low-tech lightning-round gimmick that reminded me of the  campaigning I did in 8th grade when I ran for Boy's Club Vice President at Asa Mercer Junior High. Maybe it was the home-made signs that brought back memories.

Sitting in the front row, I'd hoped for a ringside seat to mayhem. I sat in front of Mayor Mike McGinn and challenger state Sen. Ed Murray, fresh from a bruising session in Olympia. But instead of the sight of sweat and blood, I was almost overcome by the smell of Magic Markers, which also seemed to make even the candidates a little giddy. Except for Mary Martin, the Social Worker's Party candidate, who was a relentlessly grim Debbie Downer. She reminded the audience that capitalism is bad, the Workers and Farmers are getting screwed, global struggle is the answer, and don't forget to pick up a copy of The Militant. She was also the only candidate to quote Hegel.

Moderator C.R. Douglas of Q13Fox also put questions to the candidates, who were given pieces of paper with Donald Trump's image on them. They could play these Trump cards if they wanted to answer a question that went to other candidates. Like a party game, it helped loosen things up. 

With eight people — alphabetically Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Kate Martin, Mary Martin, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, Charlie Staadecker, and Peter Steinbrueck — there wasn't a lot of time for depth or substance, mostly positioning, spinning and taking preliminary jabs that will undoubtedly get tougher and sharper as the campaign picks up steam. The important thing in this first televised gathering (Seattle Channel is expected to broadcast the entire session later in the week) was for candidates to get a feel for their own campaign messages, their opponents' talking points, and to try and differentiate themselves from the crowd.

The news Monday afternoon that an NBA committee had recommended against moving the Sacramento Kings to Seattle was taken as bad news by most of the panel, save Greenwood activist Kate Martin and Steinbrueck, who was delighted that what he described as McGinn's year-long secret negotiations with Chris Hansen for a SoDo Arena had come to naught, at least for now. For arena opponents — and there were plenty of Longshoremen in the room — the SoDo location is a threat to the Port and the industrial job base of the very neighborhood where the forum was held.

McGinn was smoother with his message than some of the others in part because he's had lots of practice — a mayor gets to campaign all four years after an election. McGinn, in a rare moment of public reflection, confessed that he wished he "could have climbed the City Hall learning curve faster than I did." But as he stood to speak at one point, he gestured to the candidates on the panel who had considered running for mayor four years ago but declined. It was McGinn's way of reminding people that when things were tough, he had stood up. Where, he might ask, was everyone in 2009 when the economy was tanking, city budgets were being slashed and Greg Nickels looked unbeatable? Now that the economic recovery is taking hold, everyone's had an epiphany and thinks being mayor might be fun.

That's not how his opponents see it. If McGinn thinks of himself as the bike-riding David who slew Goliath, his opponents are energized by McGinn's failures in office as he struggled with the learning curve. Murray, Burgess and Harrell kept bringing it back to the issue of leadership. Burgess said he wanted to "restore our pride in city government." Harrell said McGinn had failed at the "art of listening." Staadecker said he was inspired to run because City Hall was "divisive, polarized and combative."

Ed Murray perhaps did the best job of making the leadership point. When McGinn complained that the City Council had not passed important legislation on dealing with Nickelsville, Murray pointed out that there were only 9 people on the council but that he, Murray, had wrangled the state's largest transportation bill ever out of a committee of 29 state legislators, including a bunch of Republicans. The implication: Murray can herd cats. No one asked him about Rodney Tom, however.

The surprise of the night for some was the eloquence of Harrell, who made impassioned statements about social justice, accused civic leaders of "cowardice" in their initial response to the killing of Indian woodcarver John T. Williams, and knocked it out of of the park on the subject of the disparity between men and women's pay. The wage gap is worse in "progressive" Seattle than most other cities, according to a recent study. Burgess and Staadecker pronounced themselves shocked and said rather lamely that they would address the problem through education, but Harrell said the problem was institutional practices, that they had to be tackled head on, and that he'd already asked the Seattle Women's Commission for recommendations.

It's one night, but you can start to winnow the list a bit. Staadecker gives good, Aaron Sorkin-like riffs on leadership, honesty and virtue. He sounds like he's narrating a documentary on decency, and in his bow tie and tortoise shell glasses, embodies a kind of spirit of Seattle past, the era of Jim Ellis and Forward Thrust. If he were wearing a toga, he might make a run for mayor of Athens.

Mary Martin's idea of a good neighborhood is somewhere in Cuba, and a good time is walking a picket line somewhere in Auburn. She's a nostalgia candidate for the days of the IWW and Seattle General Strike. She's running for an idea, she even says "we" instead of "I." If you need a May Day protest candidate who believes in Marx and quotes Malcom X, she's your vote.

Kate Martin is interesting, a bit more complicated. She's a self-described business and policy wonk, bright and full of policy ideas. Of all the candidates, she was most forthright about what she was after: 30,000 votes to get her a primary win. And that's the interesting calculus for the August primary: in an eight-way split, it won't take a lot for anyone to get through.

The candidates were asked who they thought would win the primary, and McGinn held up a sign that said "Me and somebody else." That seems to be the new conventional wisdom. Despite the Sonics setback, budgets are turning to surplus, the cranes are building new towers, and the fireworks will illuminate Lake Union once again this 4th of July; he's improved from dead duck to probable finalist. Which means one of his opponents — most probably Murray, Burgess, Harrell or Steinbrueck — will have to break away from the pack in the months ahead to get votes, at least 30,001 of them.

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