Seattle mayor candidates: Time to sharpen those elbows

At a Town Hall gathering, Seattle's mayoral candidates all spoke about their love of the arts. What's new?
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The Chihuly Glass and Garden at Seattle Center on a December afternoon

At a Town Hall gathering, Seattle's mayoral candidates all spoke about their love of the arts. What's new?

Civic Cocktail

Knute Berger will be on a Civic Cocktail panel at 6 p.m. tonight discussing the Seattle mayor's race, the  Legislature's special session and the business climate in Washington state. Registration has closed but limited seating may be available by calling 206-682-7395 or at the door at the Palace Ballroom, 2100 Fifth Avenue. Registration is $12 for Crosscut or CityClub members and $15 for non-members. Doors open at 5:30.

The mayor's race is still in a mushy phase. The electorate has not made up its mind or zeroed in on the upcoming August primary. The candidates are doing endless group forums, but there is little media buzz about the campaign itself. Voters seem to be a bit overwhelmed by the number of options: some very new (Joey Gray) and others who still haven't broken through to define themselves in the general public's mind. What are the policy differences between Ed Murray and Mike McGinn, for example?

This week, there was a "Cultural Community Forum" at Town Hall where candidates addressed an issue that their handouts and stump speeches rarely, if ever, do: the arts. If people were looking for differentiation between the candidates, there was little to be found here. What do you think they said? They love arts and culture. Surprise.

Even a message that bland wasn't unwelcome to a large audience of arts and cultural supporters and patrons. It's safe to say that Bruce Harrell, Kate Martin, Mary Martin, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, Charlie Staadecker and Peter Steinbrueck are now all on the record for wanting to budget more money to support arts and culture. Late entry Joey Gray — a librarian, non-profit consultant and former executive director of the Ultimate Players Association (now USA Ultimate) — was oddly left out off the panel. Still, interesting tidbits did emerge.

On the subject of Seattle Center, Bruce Harrell wants more open space and seemed okay with the idea of tearing down KeyArena if need be. Mike McGinn would rather find some adaptive alternative use for Key than tear it down. Peter Steinbrueck would like to see the Sonics back in there. And Charlie Staadecker suggested imagining that it be converted into a high-tech high school a la the Bronx School of Science.

Most seemed to want more sustainable funding for arts and culture, and Steinbrueck suggested that the city's bonding authority would be better used for arts infrastructure than a new SoDo sports arena. Murray said that more money should be a priority and pointed to his record of helping to get public funds for McCaw Hall, the new Museum of History and Industry and Hugo House. He modestly declined lengthening the list.

Interestingly, Murray made a quick pitch for a world-class natural history museum in Seattle. He is a supporter of expanding and scaling-up the Burke Museum at the University of Washington (in 2012, the Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for the expansion design). Still, no one asked him how more money would be possible from the state in this era of declining budgets and gridlock.

McGinn defended his record on arts funding during the last few lean years, saying he had protected it from cuts. He pointed out that the city had refurbished the Center House — now the Armory — on his watch, cut a deal to get Chihuly Garden and Glass up and running and mentioned that even the waterfront's Great Wheel was spinning off tax revenues that would help fund other arts programs.

Commerce is important to arts and culture, others noted, including Staadecker, who pointed out that "The Arts" are the sixth-largest industry in the Puget Sound region. Cultural tourism is a big part of Seattle's appeal and contributes to the art's revenue stream (hotel-motel tax).

Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin averred that the arts were a basic human need, not a commodity, and extolled the virtues of ballet in Cuba. The capitalist system, apparently, is bad for the arts, but I found myself thinking I would rather have the art produced under the Medicis than that under Stalin or Mao. Still, many artists are socialists at heart and a WPA-style public works project would be welcomed by many, thank you.

One welcome aspect of the arts forum was a format that featured some thoughtful questions by Steve Scher and a panel of culture professionals. It had less game-show, lightning-round gimmicks — where candidates have to whiz through yes-or-no answers or hold up cards as if they're on a dating game (which they kind of are).

As you see them speak at different events, it's hard not to glaze over at repeated talking points, instead focusing on the bits of personality that emerge. Steinbrueck and Harrell speak with the most passion — native sons of Seattle who have compelling personal stories to tell. Staadecker is the slow, deliberate voice of reason — the wise grandpa of the group. Kate Martin is full of wonky ideas, unafraid to say the James Corner waterfront plan is a failure and that she'd like to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct standing as "open space" like New York's High Line. Mary Martin — who works in a local popcorn factory — can't wait for the Revolution to begin.

Murray and Harrell are most likely to challenge McGinn on style, with Murray attacking McGinn on leadership and Harrell criticizing the mayor for a lack of "collaboration" (Harrell occasionally undercuts that message when he refers to himself in the third person). Steinbrueck uses the SoDo basketball arena deal to club the mayor, but Murray seems most ready to get testy and McGinn often seems to be trying to hold a forced smile; you can tell that's not for long. The campaigners are going to have to sharpen their elbows and ideas to begin to break out from the pack and give voters a better sense of who's who.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.