From the start, the moderators at the first televised debate in the Seattle mayor's race searched for ways to differentiate between the two candidates.
“Besides the fact that only one of you is an openly bearded man, what’s the difference?” That was part of the opening question at the forum, which aired on KING 5 Television on Wednesday. With nary a few distinctions between their liberal policy platforms, Mayor Mike McGinn and challenger Ed Murray — dressed similarly in dark suits and blue ties — sparred mostly over who had the best leadership style.
As the debate unfolded, the candidates had somewhat spirited clashes over McGinn’s handling of the police reform process and Murray’s response to an embezzlement scandal that took place during his time as a co-chair of a Democratic campaign committee. Another animated moment came when Murray said McGinn first supported and then opposed the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. McGinn, meanwhile, said Murray was partly to blame for state legislation that said Seattle would be on the hook for cost overruns.
During the course of the event, the moderators asked questions about a smattering of familiar issues, ranging from the $15 minimum wage, which both candidates support, to affordable housing, which they both say there should be more of. For the two candidates, however, the crux of the conversation always seemed to hinge on who had more clearly demonstrated that they had the chops to hold an executive office.
“I’m not going to doubt my opponent’s progressive values," Murray said. "I think it’s an issue of effectiveness. I think we’ve seen a city challenged with police issues in dealing with the Justice Department, we’ve seen a city challenged with frictions between the council and the mayor.”
McGinn said, “The issue of style, and whether I’m disagreeing or not agreeing is not really the issue. I’m out there in every community working with them on the issues that matter, and that is a style.”
Murray’s remark about the police was in reference to an agreement forged last year between the U.S. Department of Justice and Seattle to reform the city’s police department. The agreement outlines a process designed to reduce the use of excessive force and racially biased policing by the department.
The topic re-emerged later in the debate. Murray said that while he would “probably not” want to change the final agreement between the federal government and the city, he thought McGinn had missed a chance to work more closely with the Department of Justice. If elected, he said he would try to hire a former member of the Obama administration who could work to expedite “getting out from underneath” the reform process.
McGinn pushed back and said that the process shouldn’t be rushed. “This is an opportunity to fix something,” he said. “It’s embarrassing that we had complaints about police brutality for 20 years and didn’t do anything about it.”
Early in the debate, the mayor brought up an embezzlement scandal that took place at a Democratic campaign committee earlier this year, while Murray was a co-chair. The former director of the committee is accused of stealing up to $300,000 in campaign funds, some of which he spent on drugs and gambling. In recent weeks, McGinn has criticized Murray, saying he had oversight of the director and that he is trying to avoid blame for the scandal.
“He was actually the chair of the Senate Democratic campaign committee here and he had executive responsibility,” McGinn said. “This was Senator Murray’s job and he didn’t succeed at it.”
“I was one of three chairs, our role was not an executive role," Murray replied. "He doesn’t seem to understand how campaign committees run.
“We came in late, we found a problem, we corrected it, we went to the authorities, that’s transparency.”
Another volley of barbs took place after Murray accused McGinn of flip-flopping his support for the viaduct project. “In the end of the '09 campaign you said despite your own personal misgivings you wouldn’t oppose the viaduct,” Murray said. “And then you spent two years opposing it.”
“I said that I accepted the tunnel, but that I didn’t accept the cost overruns,” responded McGinn. “In fact that was the cost overrun provision that you put into law in the Legislature.”
“Just to correct the record, it was not my provision in the bill that forced Seattle to have cost overruns,” Murray said.
“You did vote for it though, didn’t you?” McGinn shot back.
“I did vote for it,” Murray said. “Allowing the viaduct to fall down would’ve been a huge mistake.”
Later in the debate Murray said he would not support tax increases in Seattle to pay for extra tunnel costs and that he would use his influence in the Legislature to advocate for the removal of the clause that holds the city responsible for any overruns.
“I appreciate that,” McGinn quipped. “I’d like Senator Murray to stay in Olympia, to use his influence to make that happen.”