This year has seen more mayoral forums, on more specific topics (public safety; the arts; biking; and even single neighborhoods like Belltown) than any election year in my memory. The upside: The hyper-specific, hyperlocal nature of these forums forces the candidates to drill down on issues and eschew canned speeches and talking points. Seriously: In what other year would we know candidates' views on not just how to select a new police chief but restaurant permitting, cognitive brain development in kids, wage theft, Wal-Mart, "predictive policing," and public restrooms?
The down side: After a while, the forums start to blend together, and it becomes harder and harder to say who "won" a particular discussion. Bruce Harrell, for example, tends to dominate on the stump with killer sound bites and a commanding presence; on the other hand, Mike McGinn regularly offers an impressively on-point laundry list of accomplishments, and Peter Steinbrueck, while given to rambling, has a passion that appears to speak to a genuine love of the city and desire to make it better (whatever you think of his particular policy ideas).
All of which is to say: I can't offer "winners" and "losers" from this week's livable streets forum, in which the candidates focused on how they would, as mayor, make Seattle safer and more inviting for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. (The forum, at the MLK Family, Arts, Mentoring, and Enrichment Community Center, was slightly underattended due to the sauna-like conditions inside the auditorium). What I can offer is some of what the candidates, pressed on the issue of road safety for all users, had to say that was new (and a couple Murray-vs.-McGinn zingers), on the very specific issue of safe streets for all.
After the contenders offered reminiscences about the first trips they could remember taking alone (Ed Murray's and Kate Martin's were both sad, involving, respectively, getting lost and having to call home and buying a piece of cheesecake for Mom in the big city and subsequently dropping it on the ground), the moderators—Bike Works director Deb Salls and Seattle Bike Blog writer and editor Tom Fucoloro, who drew audience questions from Fucoloro's bike helmet—turned to substantive matters.
The first few questions dealt with how the candidates would make streets safer for kids and elderly residents—vulnerable roadway users, in other words (a category that would also include disabled pedestrians and people in wheelchairs).
Steinbrueck, who revealed that his mother-in-law was "tragically killed at a crossing at a busy arterial a few years ago," said that "children as well as seniors are indicator species in terms of safety."
Championing the view that completely separated paths are the safest for bikers and pedestrians, Steinbrueck suggested building a system of public pathways ("neighborhood easements") on private property "that don’t even rely on crossing streets," and added, "I would like to see all 97 neighborhoods in the city have at least access to a safe greenway"—a residential street, away from major arterials, where cars are allowed but bikes and pedestrians are given authority.
Unlike Steinbrueck (who responded by writing a vehement "Y!" on his lightning-round sign), several candidates equivocated on the question of whether they would support protected bike lanes—that is, bike lanes separated physically from car traffic—on commercial streets "even if it means removing parking or travel lanes." Bruce Harrell said "maybe," Kate Martin said "Yes, where appropriate," Ed Murray said "Yes, but must plan," Joey Gray said "Yes, but with effective collaboration," and Charlie Staadecker said "Yes, but need to protect local businesses" (Socialist Mary Martin said the real issue was jobs.)
That's a lot of "buts." Only Steinbrueck and McGinn, who repeatedly read each others' answers before holding up their signs, gave unequivocal "Yes" answers.
Everybody had a plan to pay for local transportation needs. Among all the well-worn proposals—Ed Murray says the city needs to collaborate better with the legislature; McGinn wants to "stop wasting money on highways"—there were a couple of (relatively) new ideas.
One came from Kate Martin, who said the city should pay to build sidewalk intersections—the most complicated and expensive part of sidewalk construction—and ask landowners (who, she claimed, paid for 95 percent of the city's existing sidewalks) to cough up the money for sidewalks to connect those intersections. "I'm absolutely certain that in under 20 years, we can finish the sidewalk network in Seattle," said Martin, who accused the mayor of embracing "the 400-year plan for sidewalks."
Harrell suggested a $40 vehicle license fee to pay for the transportation needs that 2007's Bridging the Gap levy was supposed to fund. Acknowledging that voters soundly rejected a $60 increase in the existing $20 vehicle license fee in 2011, Harrell said he thought a smaller fee might be more palatable and could generate $108 million over eight years. And he suggested that such a fee might have a better shot if "We have a leader who doesn't polarize the debate"—a comment that prompted McGinn to look at the audience with his trademark smirk.
Harrell also got in a populist dig at Murray, who said his favorite cities included Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Dublin. (While the other candidates responded to a question about their favorite place to sit outside with names of parks and other public outdoor spaces, Murray named a private outdoor space—Capitol Hill's Oddfellows Cafe.)
"I haven’t been to Amsterdan or Barcelona or Dublin, but I’ve been to Portland," Harrell said, and he found it inspiring.
But the sharpest barbs of the night came from the two candidates who are currently seen as the frontrunners in the race—McGinn and Murray.
McGinn turned Murray's refrain—that he, unlike the mayor, is a "collaborator"—back on him. "When the state said we don't want Sound Transit unless you fund $8 billion in new highways, we stood up against the entire establishment" to defeat roads and transit in 2007, he said. "I don't want to say to my kids that all the politicians 'collaborated' to build more highways."
Murray shot back: "What we heard [in 2010, when the state signed off on the deep-bore tunnel] was a mayor attacking Olympia." (McGinn famously said of then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, "I don’t believe we can trust the governor to keep her promise to protect us" "from cost overruns. Gregoire has since endorsed Murray). "We have to build a partnership with Olympia. I wouldn't write off Gov. [Jay] Inslee like you wrote off the last governor."
The next big candidate forums are both on July 16, when CityClub presents its candidate forum at 5:30, followed by the Stranger's Candidate Survivor at 8:00; check the PubliCalendar that week for full listings.