Liveblogging CityClub Mayoral Debate

By Erica C. Barnett July 23, 2009


We're at the Seattle CityClub mayoral debate at the Rainier Square conference center, where Seattle Times editorial board member Joni Balter is moderating.

Balter is making fun of Norman Sigler ("professional matchmaker, and I've thought about that") and being weirdly sycophantic to Joe Mallahan, "the candidate you've all heard so much about." Meanwhile, co-moderator Ross Reynolds, the host of KUOW's "The Conversation," just greeted all the candidates, but only shook the hand of Mayor Greg Nickels (who didn't show up to the pre-debate happy-hour open house.)

Introductory statements: Mallahan just made an awkward statement about Norm Sigler "bringing Jan Drago and I together, which we're still working out"; Nickels took credit for passing the housing levy, the families and education levy, and Sound Transit; Drago talked about her ability to "build relationships"; and James Donaldson said "the only way to bring about real change... is to run for elected office."

Donaldson is asked: What qualifies you to be mayor of Seattle? His response involves "being on various teams." Donaldson, a former Seattle SuperSonic, just reminisced with PubliCola about his career as a member of the Sonics, going up against NBA players such as Washington Bullets Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.

The Mallahan love from Balter continues: "We've known you as a community organizer"? Sorry, I thought we'd known him as a T-Mobile manager. Nothing wrong with that, but I don't think "we" know Mallahan at all—much less as a "community organizer in Chicago," the Obama-tinged term Balter used to describe him. Also, he just used the word "ideate."

My personal prediction: Look forward to a glowing Mallahan endorsement from the Times ' editorial board, on which Balter serves, soon.

A question from Reynolds for McGinn: You've never held public office. How can you say you're qualified? (His answer, in short, is that he ran the parks levy campaign, he fought against adding hundreds of miles of highways to the 2007 transit measure, and his work founding the Seattle Great City Initiative, among other things.) It was an interestingly pointed question, considering that the ONLY folks on stage who've ever held public office are Nickels and Drago.

A question from Balter for Nickels: Why are you running for a third term, given that only Charley Royer has served three terms as mayor of Seattle? Nickels' reponse: "A lot of things that we're trying to accomplish in our region take a long time." His example: Light rail, which will take 15 years to cover 75 percent of our residences and 85 percent of our jobs. "No one has worked for as hard and as long as I have on that."

Sigler is being asked the same question as McGinn—as if they're candidates of equal civic accomplishment, which they are not.

Drago just bumped into Mallahan. Balter's response: "We're going to have to separate you two." Matchmaker Sigler's quip: "If I put them together, they'll stay together forever."

Donaldson just made the same old (to those who watch mayoral debates) joke he makes every time: "We have big problems, and we need a big guy." Everybody laughs. I can't believe that still works!

Lightning round of (typically boring) yes or no questions. Interesting responses: McGinn said the tunnel to replace the viaduct will not come in on budget; only Donaldson said he didn't support sand on roads during snowstorms; all six candidate said they'd support salting roads in snow; and McGinn refused to answer when asked, "Should the next mayor fire Seattle Department of Transportation director Grace Crunican," currently under fire for her handling of the snowstorm and a discrimination case against one of her top managers. McGinn said, "I don't believe that's an appropriate question in the context of a forum like this." Mallahan and Sigler said Crunican should be fired, and Drago raised her yellow "waffle" sign.

Mallahan just called the employee hours tax "a tax on creating jobs." The tax, which pays for transportation projects and exempts all employees who don't drive their cars alone to work, costs employers $25 per employee per year .

In a pointed question for McGinn, Reynolds just referred to the "1997 vote" against the waterfront tunnel, "which was a very different vote." The vote was actually in 2007, just two years ago. McGinn's response: The amount the city alone will spend on the tunnel, more than $930 million, could pay for education, police, and any number of other needs. "Yes, I'm pretty confident the public agrees with me on this, and that's why I'm running on it."

Asked what his biggest regrets were in his eight years as mayor, Nickels responded that "there are a couple of weeks in December that i would like to have back"—a reference to his performance during last winter's snowstorm, when many residents couldn't get out of their houses.

A group question: What is the next most compelling transportation priority? (Responses here may be glib, because candidates are only being allocated 60 seconds each.)

Sigler: We need more train transportation, and Sound Transit should have built the monorail.

Nickels: I've worked on light rail for 21 years.

McGinn: The big question is how we integrate our transportation funding with all of our transportation needs. That's a much tougher problem than finding financing for one project, and it's going to take regional cooperation.

Mallahan: We need to coordinate big transportation projects to minimize the impact to traffic flow and business activity through better management, especially at the Seattle Department of Transportation. And I have more management experience than anybody up here.

Drago: We've secured funding for the viaduct replacement; now we need to come up with a plan and funding for the SR-520 bridge. We need to make a decision about the Seattle side of the bridge by the end of the year.

Donaldson: We need to make sure that the big projects we've already approved come together seamlessly when they're built.

Audience questions. A woman just asked a bizarre question about martial law. Time for a mini-sandwich break?

A question for Nickels and Mallahan about how the next police chief, who'll replace 7-year chief Gil Kerlikowske, who's now Obama's drug czar. Mallahan's (good) answer: "I'll have a bias for hiring from within."

Another question for Nickels and Mallahan. Where are the questions for the rest of the candidates? These questions sure make it look like the public (as represented here) consider Mallahan the de facto frontrunner against Nickels. Or more accurately: They're most interested in his candidacy.

Balter is begging for questions for the other candidates. Jan gets one. Goes on too long.

Last question (this one directed at Jan Drago). A softball: She's talked about regionalism. Talk more about that.
Drago says she'll call for a summit of regional leaders to set a coordinated legislative agenda.

Ha. Closing statements. Norman Sigler (who didn't get any audience questions) says "I'm almost falling asleep over here" ... and then, a dig at the last question for Drago ... "I'll know to bring more planted questions next time."

In Nickels' closing statement he (finally) strikes back directly at one of the candidates who's challenging him. Taking on Mallahan's sound bite that "Seattle is a broken city," Nickels said sternly, "Seattle is not a broken city. People want to move here."

Mallahan: "I am a threat to the status quo," and hypes today's big news that he was the only candidate in the mayor's race to get an "Outstanding" rating from the Municipal League, as we reported earlier today.

Drago is talking about her "Blueprint for Seattle's Future ," which she refers to as a "book" about "Seattle's future."

Donaldson says, "I am beholden to no one. ... It's not about style. It's about substance"—ironic for a guy whose campaign is all about his style (and history as an NBA player—"people who will be on my A Team.")
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