At a Burien City Council candidate forum this week, Councilmember Jack Block Jr. and his opponent, Lauren Berkowitz, had an unsmiling debate about sidewalks and the city’s crime rate.
But in the audience, representatives from each side were quietly making accusations of hypocrisy, smut-peddling and being a Communist.
Class issues and environmental questions have divided the seven-member council in Burien, and City Hall tensions led to the departure of the city manager this year.
“There’s been a lot of divisiveness, which kind of distracts from the substantive issues, which is unfortunate,” said Burien Mayor Brian Bennett.
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Thirteen candidates filed for four council positions this spring, but the race devolving most rapidly into personal attacks is the Block-Berkowitz race.
It all started last Christmas.
Feeling festive, Block posted a photograph of an “attractive young lady,” as he put it, modeling lingerie on her hands and knees in front of a holiday backdrop.
“Merry Christmas, y’all,” he wrote.
Two days later, on the advice of his campaign consultant, Block took it down.
“It was probably not the most appropriate or mature thing I’ve ever done,” acknowledged Block this week. “I was enjoying Christmas.”
A few months later, Berkowitz and others complained formally to the City Council, which in March censured Block. He said he made a mistake, but dismissed the censure as politically motivated, and called the photo “PG at best.”
In a public meeting, one of his fellow council members called it pornographic. Councilmember Gerald Robison said the censure was to “assure the public that it is not Burien city policy to treat women as chattel.”
Berkowitz, a law student and union organizer, filed to run against Block.
The two disagree on some bread-and-butter city issues: She supports a comprehensive plan, while he thinks the city should act instead of plan. He wants to hire more cops, but she thinks there might be ways to make the existing police officers work more efficiently first.
Both candidates are interested in restructuring city government. Block supports an elected mayor instead of the appointed city manager the city has now. Berkowitz thinks City Council members should be elected by district, instead of at-large as they are now.
Block has raised $16,000, much of it from local businesses. He has the support of local builders and some labor groups. Berkowitz has raised about $11,400, according to state filings. Health-care workers who make up the area’s largest SEIU local, the current Burien mayor, and the Cascade Bicycle Club are among her donors.
In the August primary, Berkowitz won by 10 points, garnering 52 percent — a bad sign for an incumbent with high name recognition. Block’s father, Jack Block Sr., was a longtime Port of Seattle commissioner and well-known in Burien. Block Jr. is serving his second term, though he took a three-year break to run, unsuccessfully, for Port commissioner.
Now Block, 50, a longshoreman, is on the defensive, and he is fighting back with allegations that he is not the only candidate in the race with a salacious taste in social media.
Berkowitz, 29, last year posted a photo on Facebook of a woman at a political protest, wearing a sheet printed with a huge male genitalia and holding a sign, asking whether it made her “rights look bigger.”
At the campaign forum Tuesday, Block carried a printout of the post with him, just in case. And, he said, Berkowitz is a hypocrite because her campaign consultant, Jeff Upthegrove, was for a time a partner in a company that sold technology often used for downloading pornography.
Block’s campaign also was distributing a page from Berkowitz’s LinkedIn page associating her with the Vietnam Communist Youth Union when she was working overseas, teaching English in underserved countries.
“This isn’t red-baiting,” Block said, “But personally, given the fact that we have so many Southeast Asian immigrants that are residents of this area, it’s surprising that she would be supportive of an oppressive regime.”
Berkowitz said many organizations in Vietnam include the word “communist,” and that doesn’t make her a communist.
Her campaign filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission this month, accusing Block of accepting campaign donations from two local car dealerships that exceeded the state’s $900 contribution limit per election. Block said he returned the checks as soon as he learned of the problem.
And just to be sure, her campaign also is circulating a photo of Block. wearing an official city of Burien placard, on a city-related trip to Phoenix. In the photo, he is grinning, flanked by two Arizona Cardinals cheerleaders.
“This is information we believe is relevant,” Upthegrove wrote.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter