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The Mayoral Debate

By Erica C. Barnett September 10, 2009

[caption id="attachment_13821" align="alignleft" width="347" caption="McGinn v. Mallahan at Cinerama"]McGinn v. Mallahan at Cinerama[/caption]

At their first one-on-one debate at the Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle this afternoon (video available here), mayoral candidates T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan and Sierra Club activist Mike McGinn sparred over job creation, zoning rules, the proposed waterfront tunnel, and the role the mayor should play in the Seattle school district, among other issues. Some highlights:

• Mallahan seemed far more open to the idea of expanding roads than McGinn, who supports the surface/transit option (now, apparently, dubbed the "I-5 transit solution") for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In response to McGinn's statement that "commerce runs on fiber optic cables," Mallahan responded, "it also rides on roads and rails and shipping … The worst thing we could do for this economy is to slow the movement of people and goods through Seattle." Mallahan then expressed his opposition the so-called "head tax," a $25-per-employee tax that pays for transportation improvements (and exempts employees who don't drive to work alone). McGinn supports the tax.

• McGinn and Mallahan disagreed strongly about whether the $930 million the city has pledged to help build the Alaskan Way tunnel constitutes a "tax increase," as well as whether the tunnel—agreed upon by Nickels, former King County executive Ron Sims, and Gov. Christine Gregoire last year—is a "done deal." Mallahan said McGinn had "done an extraordinarily effective job in framing this as a tax increase," which Mallahan says is not accurate. He adds: "That decision has been made and we’re moving forward. I think the role of the next mayor of Seattle is to deliver that project on time and hopefully under budget and ensure that the impact to businesses is minimized." He said the decision to build a deep-bore tunnel was the result of a "long process" and that the city shouldn't revisit that decision.

McGinn responded that the city "is going to have to come up with ... that $930 million and we haven’t done that yet." He added: "We did have a long process, and I think that process culminated in a vote that said we didn't want a tunnel." Voters rejected a different version of the tunnel in 2007 by a margin of 70 percent. (Although he didn't say so in today's debate, Mallahan has argued that the surface/transit option would also require a tax increase).

• Both candidates offered their ideas for cutting the "fat" in the city's budget. McGinn said he would eliminate "duplicative" positions—human resources staffers in various city departments, for example, whose jobs duplicate the city's human resources department—and cut the number of "political appointees" in half, which he said would amount to about 200 city staffers.

Mallahan said he would "look for sustainable cuts," eliminate many city consultants (whose pay, McGinn pointed out, is not included in the city's general fund), and get rid of "people with big titles who don't have a lot of value to add," such as some of the city's 300-plus executive-level staffers.

• In a somewhat confusing response to a question about incentive zoning (which provides additional building height to developers who pay for things like affordable housing and parks), Mallahan said he did not support incentive zoning, "which results in suboptimal [building] heights," but would support "just straightforward taxes and fees, both on developers and on the citizens of Seattle," to pay for affordable housing and other benefits. McGinn says he supports incentive zoning regulations, but would want to make them more "flexible" in the neighborhoods (giving developers incentives for things other than additional height, for example).

In response to a questionnaire from the Downtown Seattle Association during the primary season, McGinn responded "yes" to the following question: "Will you initiate reconsideration of the city’s 2008 citywide incentive zoning decision? Would you support examining incentive zoning policies on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis in conjunction with action on legislative rezones vs. adopting one policy citywide prior to consideration of legislative rezones?"

• The candidates also diverged on the question of how to fix Seattle's faltering public schools. McGinn said that if the schools didn't improve in his first couple of years as mayor, he would consider taking them over, but added, "We would have to make the case to the public and let them evaluate that [idea] themselves." Mallahan said he would not take over the schools, but would lobby the legislature to "have the state meet its [financial] obligations" to pay for public education in Seattle.

• Asked "Which streetcar will you throw yourself in front of?" (Mallahan opposes streetcars as too expensive, preferring bus service), Mallahan responded that his main target is the First Avenue streetcar, which he claimed was part of McGinn's preferred surface/transit proposal for replacing the viaduct. (Mallahan, who interrupted McGinn loudly and frequently, stage-whispered, "That, by the way, is capital funding, not operation and [maintenance] funding."] McGinn did not get an opportunity to answer the streetcar question, but he opposes the First Avenue streetcar and supports the one on First Hill.
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