It's a lackluster debate when one of the few sparks occurs before the participants begin talking. Things got interesting before five candidates for mayor of Seattle squared off Tuesday night, but the debate itself coasted along unremarkably.
The pre-debate excitement occurred as candidate Kate Martin, a neighborhood activist and landscape architect, protested her exclusion from the stage at the CityClub's Seattle mayor primary forum.
The official explanation was that she didn't make the cut. To determine who deserves a place in its debate, the club has a "matrix" to sift through candidates by how much money they raised, endorsements they received and comparative standings in election polls.
Although she has been campaigning since the start of various debates early this year, Martin, considered a long shot candidate, didn't gain admission. But Charlie Staadecker, also considered a long shot, got a place at the table — perhaps because he usually places fifth in polls to Martin's sixth, plus he has raised significantly more money and has received more endorsements than Martin.
During the debate, Martin's absence was noted by fellow candidates Peter Steinbrueck and Staadecker, as well as two of the post-forum analysts, Erica Barnett of Publicola and Assunta Ng of Northwest Asian Weekly. "I'm disappointed she is not here tonight," Staadecker said.
CityClub Executive Director Diane Douglas said Martin did not reach the club's minimum criteria to be a participant. She said the criteria were set in 1988 and that the club's board of directors reviews them every two to three years.
Nine candidates are competing to be the two survivors of Aug. 6's primary. Incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn, state Sen. Ed Murray, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and Steinbrueck, a former councilmember, are universally considered the front-runners. Staadecker, Martin, Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin, and late entrants Joey Gray and Douglas McQuaid are considered the long shots. Gray, Mary Martin and McQuaid also were not invited to Tuesday's forum.
Gray faced a similar rejection earlier this month when she wanted to participate in a mayoral candidates forum on the arts, which did invite Kate Martin.
An additional wrinkle Tuesday was that McGinn used the forum — consisting of five men with all three women candidates missing — to discuss the conclusion of a study of the gender gap in city government wages. The city study followed earlier research showing that women earned significantly less than men in Washington state. The city-commissioned report found a large gap in wages between male and female employees in Seattle's government.
The forum concluded with a post-debate analysis by four journalists -- Barnett, Ng, Knute Berger of Crosscut, and Joel Connelly of seattlepi.com. None were impressed, saying the candidates essentially said the same things at earlier forums. They also noted that many Seattleites are unlikely to vote in a summer primary, which would likely be dominated by hardcore voters intensely interest in city government.
At the forum in the downtown Seattle Public Library attended by about 400 people, McGinn and Murray took digs at each other. Murray said the city's street maintenance backlog has grown immensely, a characterization that steamed McGinn. The mayor argued the backlog is not nearly as bad as Murray claimed. McGinn pointedly put part of the blame for Seattle's transportation budget woes on the state Legislature, where Murray is a major player. Murray countered that McGinn tends to irritate Olympia. McGinn shook his head and murmured, "Nope."
The conservative wing of the 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority caucus controlled the flow of Senate bills -- including a bill containing transportation money for Seattle -- in the past legislative session. This is a wing that McGinn, Murray and other Democratic legislators all have had no luck negotiating with.