Last night, I got my first call at home from a computer polling for the mayor’s race in Seattle. Which of the nine candidates did I favor? Unfortunately, while I was offered a touch-tone option to choose undecided, there was no opportunity to pick “a pox on all your homes.” So I just kept hitting a non-responsive button–I think the star key–until the computer finally gave up and went away.
As it turned out, earlier in the week I had attended a mayoral candidate forum at Town Hall during which seven of the nine declared candidates were asked questions more or less related to support of cultural organizations and the arts. Not surprisingly, they all professed great love for the arts. It was one of the sleepiest political forums I have ever seen. It was also one of the least informative.
Here’s how bad it was: The most interesting moment in my judgment came when candidate Mary Martin–not the Peter Pan actress (she’s long dead) but a popcorn factory employee associated with the Socialist Workers Party–actually lauded the artistic freedoms in Cuba under Fidel Castro. I kid you not.
The way mayors are chosen in Seattle, there will be a primary on August 8 to winnow down the field. The two highest vote-getters will appear on the November 5 ballot. It’s supposed to be a nonpartisan election, which is one of the big reasons for what to me seems to be a large lack of passion among the electorate. The absence of established political machines–Democratic, Republican, Socialist Worker, whatever–makes it pretty hard to muster voters on the basis of ideology. Personally, I like political races that are down and dirty, full of negative campaigning and partisan as hell.
One of the seven candidates at the forum was Mike McGinn, the incumbent running for a second four-year term. I can’t remember a single word he said. McGinn was elected in 2009–before I became New To Seattle–after two-term mayor Greg Nickels got picked off in the primary. I am told that was due to voter discontent with snow removal, the departure of the Sonics NBA team to Oklahoma City and an anti-homeless policy so infamous that one temporary tent city took to calling itself Nickelsville. McGinn is a New York-born lawyer and former state Sierra Club chair who as a political newbie cobbled together a coalition of bicyclists, environmentalists and some liberals to edge out Joe Malahan, a telecommunications company executive.
When I moved to Seattle in 2011, everyone I met already was writing off McGinn as the walking dead, an inept bumbler who couldn’t keep his word and made little effort to build a broader voter base. I don’t hear a lot of people writing him off that way now. In a lackluster field he stands out, and not just because he physically is a large man. From what I have been told, and occasionally have seen, his people skills have improved a lot, too.
Unlike his predecessor, McGinn strikes me as likely in such a huge field to survive the primary. I suppose his opponent in the general will be either City Councilman Bruce Harrell or State Sen. Ed Murray. Harrell, a lawyer who lives in Mount Baker, came across to me at the candidate forum as a bit of a wet fish trying to play it safe, spouting the most boring answers (although aside from Martin, he had a lot of competition). But Harrell is said to have a decent political organization of his own. Murray, who is openly gay and represents Capitol Hill and the U district, led the successful push to legalize gay marriage in Washington State and thus has a power base of his own.
One of the very few aha moments in the forum involved political activist Kate Martin (no relation to either Mary), a planning and design consultant from McGinn’s own Greenwood neighborhood. She said the Alaskan Way Viaduct along the Puget Sound waterfront shouldn’t be torn down as is the plan now but turned into a park like the much acclaimed High Line on an abandoned elevated rail line in New York City. I’m not sure what that had to do with the arts, but I actually saw people in the audience nod their heads in agreement.
It’s still unclear to me what the real issues are in this race, or how they separate the candidates. Everyone wants to do something about crime and declining infrastructure. They all seem to be liberals of varying degrees. So I guess it comes down in large part to McGinn versus no McGinn. As for me, I’m still waiting for a button to push. Assuming I don’t fall asleep first.