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Dispatches from the campaign trail

Murray v. McGinn: two middle-aged white guys duke it out for mayor. Credit: Allyce Andrew

They are the same man, are they not? I mean, really. If you described one of candidates’ faces to a police sketch artist, the resulting drawing might end up looking just like the other candidate’s face. Same for their policies, mostly. Sure, one’s gay, one’s straight; one’s a legislator, one’s mayor; one’s beloved by downtown interests, one not so much. But basically what we have here are a couple of well-fed, well-intentioned Northern European sons-of-Ballard types. So, if we’ve got a perfectly serviceable version in office already, why is his competitor trouncing him in the polls?

In search of answers, I decided to follow the mayoral candidates for a day or two.

***

Saturday morning. Volunteer Park. The rain is relentless; the kind of rain that soaks your clothes in a few minutes. Well, you don’t need me to describe it. Spirits are undampened, though, at the kickoff to the 27th Annual AIDS walk. Lots of black Gore-Tex, lots of wet happy faces, not as much funk as you might expect. But it’s hard to be funky in this kind of shitty downpour.

Slowly more and more rain-jacketed figures gather until there’s what might reasonably be called a throng. It’s time to be inspired.

First up, Mayor Mike McGinn, looking hobo-dapper in a felt fedora and a dark jacket and totally unruffled by the crowd’s tepid applause for him. He removes his hat and unspools a few platitudes. This is not his event, he seems to know, and rhetorically he surrenders it to his opponent. “You are all great,” he says. “You care about your community.” He goes on to talk about how Seattle is a leader in philanthropy, about how important this work is. He concludes: “You stand up for those who need help. Thank you, people of Seattle.”

The people of Seattle seem barely to register his gratitude.

Ed Murray steps up. He’s petite and a little doughy. Even from a dozen yards away you can see he has clever, assessing eyes. He has something of the look of the bantam-weight Irish pugilist.

The state senator stakes his claim right away: “I remember 27 years ago, the first march. It came out of a really dark time. Our friends were dying. So we organized. We built a healthcare system.” He goes on a bit, about what’s been achieved since that time.

A few feet away from me, a bearded African American man in a wild pink tunic swoops down upon the only other African American in sight. “TOO many black people here!” They laugh and hug. Old friends.

Murray wraps up: “Let’s change history again!” and surrenders the mic, which is passed along to a young woman whose mom died of AIDS.

Murray’s aide, a sharp-eyed, vigilant young man, checks in with me to make sure I’m getting what I need. McGinn’s people don’t know I’m here; they’ve been lax about getting back to me. Based on this alone, I’m ready to be all in for Murray. I like a well-oiled machine; efficiency is a good thing.

***

An hour or two later, we’re at the Central Area Senior Center, a low, shambling building situated a little incongruously on a street of stately houses atop Leschi Bluff. The meeting in progress is Tabor 100, a group committed to supporting and furthering the interests of minority businesspeople. Black businesspeople sit at round tables. Tabor 100 functionaries sit in a row at the front of the room. Behind them is a splendid view of the Cascades, Lake Washington, a lot of rain blowing practically sideways.

Several candidates running for port positions precede the mayoral candidates. It quickly becomes clear that Tabor 100 is understandably very focused on overturning I-200, the Tim Eyman-backed anti-affirmative action initiative that passed in 1998.

Murray, looking pink, is first up, and his line of talk immediately turns to I-200. “I do think we can overturn the will of the people and I’ve had some experience with it,” he says, referring to the reversal of the state's Defense of Marriage Act. “When it comes to affirmative action, I think we can make that change.”

Waffles and fried chicken appear on heavy Chinet paper plates.

Murray hits a few more points: the problem of biased policing, the challenges to minority business. He segues, in measured, direct tones, to a bumpier topic: “There’s been some discussion, openly and not openly, about me being someone who’s gay and has supported gay issues. I want to be mayor of all of Seattle.” The crowd eats their chicken and barely seems to hear this quiet attempt to address an issue that clearly troubles Murray.

The mayor ambles up to the front. His gait is easy. Sometimes his easiness makes him look uncaring or disaffected but right now he comes off as relaxed. He makes a joke about basketball — which strikes me as pandering, to go straight to b-ball — but everyone laughs and there’s a little backtalk.

“It’s an honor and privilege to be your mayor,” McGinn begins. “When you’re running for office you get asked a lot of hard questions — a lot of those questions get asked by historically discriminated against communities.” Despite the tortured syntax, I like his direct tone.

The mayor is known here; more to the point, his programs are known here. He talks about his Women and Minority-owned Business Enterprise Plan, which elicits an impromptu round of applause.

When the Q&A opens up, McGinn, famous for being difficult to work with, demonstrates listening. He does it quite literally, saying to one woman who tells him how hard it is for contractors to get paid by the city: “You’re sharing information with me. I’m listening. I take it back to the office with me.”

He wraps up on the offensive: “We have taken hard positions and we have a record of achievement. Because we’ve listened to you. Where’s his record of achievement? I needed to go to mayor’s school and I did go to mayor’s school. Sometimes people say I’m divisive. That’s a way of saying, Let’s not talk about the hard issues.” He concludes: “My mind is made up and my heart is fixed.” I’m not sure exactly what he means by this, but he clearly means something.

Despite the mushiness of this sentiment, I find myself impressed. The mayor is a forceful presence. Direct, non-bullshitty, informed. I wonder how things got so rocky for him. Former mayor Paul Schell was washed out on a wave of bad feelings engendered by the WTO and the Pioneer Square riot; Greg Nickels went out on a snowplow. McGinn hasn’t had any such watershed moment. What is it that Seattle voters think they’re not getting from him? True, we’ve all heard stories about his tough personality, but is that enough of a reason to go out and find his replacement/body double?

Before he stands down, McGinn delivers his take on I-200: “Yes, overturn, but if you wait for Olympia you might have to wait a long time.”

Ed Murray is all over that: “You heard it, the politics of division, attacking a Democratic legislature and a Democratic senator. I’m proud of my record. I’m proud to have the endorsement of …” He lists endorsements. “I’m sorry it ended on a divisive note.”

McGinn gamely lists his endorsements and wraps up: “This race is about what you’ve done and what’re you gonna do. When you’re doin’ a good job you get to keep your job.” People nod. He closes his iPad. The case has a Sub Pop sticker on it.

***

A few nights later, the mayor rides his bike up to the corner of 12th and Pine, gracefully dismounts and locks up. Across the street, The Comet Tavern has just closed for business and he casts a curious look that way as he crosses the street.

I watch all this as I lounge like a delinquent against a car parked just outside Barboza, where the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce is hosting a mayor’s forum. I let McGinn pass and follow him down a dark stairwell to the basement venue, where it’s all young white people with intelligent eyeglasses and terrific, thoughtful hair.

The forum's moderator is filmmaker Sandy Cioffi, and she lays the ground rules. Candidates, she says, will be gonged if they use one of three forbidden words: "progressive," "vibrant" or, worst of all, "parking." There’s a gong, she points out, which will be manned by Michael Wells, the Chamber's executive director. “You will also be gonged if the rhetoric is empty.”

“Oooh,” says McGinn, playing at being schoolyard-scared. He and Murray sit on a low, vintage, uncomfortable-looking couch, a pair of bookends with their blue suits, blue ties and shiny red faces.

There’s a smattering of polite claps when the mayor makes his opening remarks; the applause turns thunderous when Murray takes the mic.

“I have lived on Capitol Hill for 29 years,” he says to whoops and hollers, and he starts to describe how he’s seen the hill through many changes. “I saw a vibrant hill,” he says, and there are groans, and then a gong.

The candidates back and forth on affordable housing, police, safety. Soon a theme emerges: The mayor knocks Olympia and the difficulty of getting anything done there; Murray talks about his own ability to work with others.

For instance, on whether or not they’d support a proposition on the ballot to fund Metro:

McGinn: Yes. Going through Olympia is hard. It’s time to, you know, set the hostages free.

Murray: I think it’s about partnerships, not going it alone.

It’s Murray’s night, but something strange is happening. McGinn is relaxed and full of information. He comes off as the grown-up in the room. His answers are direct, unfussy. By the end of the evening he’s landing applause lines throughout the crowd, not just the corner in the back where his supporters are huddled. He’s connected, he listens, he’s funny. The closing of The Comet comes up, and moderator Cioffi asks half-jokingly what the mayor can do to protect dive bars. Ed Murray launches into some memories about Neighbours, whereupon Michael Wells summarily gongs him — just because, it seems. McGinn pipes in: “We got The Crosswalk and The Baranof up in Greenwood. Come on up.” Big laugh.

The psychology professor Barry Schwartz has written a lot about the paradox of choice. He says people tend to be either maximizers or satisficers. I know, "satisficers" is an unfortunate word, but anyways. Maximizers are always looking to improve their lot; satisficers are content with what they’ve got. Guess which group is happier? Maybe Seattle voters are a just bunch of die-hard maximizers — always looking for the most optimal deal. But what is lost in the search for perfection?

Closing remarks are pretty civil; there’s the listing of endorsements, the hopes and dreams statements, the lite bashing of the opponent, and the thing is done.

I weave my way through the drinking young folk; I'm a little sleepy. “Tougher than I thought,” I overhear someone say.

***

Epilogue: a few days later the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, one of the hosts of the forum runs a survey of readers: Which candidate is best for the Hill, and which will win? Fifty-two percent of Capitol Hill-based respondents say McGinn would be the best mayor for their neighborhood; more than 67 percent say they think Murray will win.

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