With just three weeks to go, the 2013 mayoral contest is playing out as a “me too” festival of agreement.
Sure, there are pockets of policy disagreement. But the future sketched by both men is a liberal utopia of increased rail transit, a high minimum wage, generous social services for people in need, a new basketball arena and more taxes for roads and parks.
That means the hottest arguments in this contest are not about Seattle’s future. They are battles of hindsight.
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Murray argues McGinn has been divisive, pointing to his corroded relations with other local officials over the Highway 99 tunnel and reforms to the Seattle Police Department.
McGinn questions Murray’s 18-year record as a state legislator, pointing to Olympia’s failure to adequately fund public schools or pass a bill this year to save Metro from looming bus-service cuts.
“They’re both attacking each other’s personal foibles because they don’t disagree on anything,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, who has endorsed McGinn.
Those backward-looking fights are all relevant to Seattle’s future, the mayoral rivals say, because they reveal leadership flaws that would slow Seattle’s march toward the progressive paradise they each see in the city’s future.
The dynamics of the race were captured in a series of campaign events over past weeks.
On Oct. 7, during a debate sponsored by civil-rights groups on Beacon Hill, McGinn and Murray sharply agreed about the failure of the war on drugs and the need for a gentle approach to downtown disorder.
“My rebuttal to the mayor is I absolutely agree with what he said,” Murray said at one point, seconding McGinn’s support for “harm-reduction” practices such as public housing for street alcoholics.
The next morning, Murray called a news conference near Pier 70 on the downtown waterfront to assure voters he’s just as opposed to new coal-export terminals as McGinn.
On Oct. 9, it was McGinn’s turn to sidle closer, and even leapfrog Murray, on the minimum wage. In an Associated Press interview, he said he’d support a $15 an hour city minimum wage, matching Murray’s earlier endorsement. McGinn said he’d even be willing to go higher, calling $15 “a fair starting point.”
Later that night at the start of a televised KING 5 debate, panelist Dave Ross, of KIRO Radio, asked what separated the two candidates besides the fact one is “an openly bearded man.”
Neither raised a single policy difference in their answers.
Just about the only policy disagreement to emerge in recent weeks was not ideological.
McGinn floated a new 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soft drinks and other sugary beverages. Murray opposed the idea — though only because he’d backed a similar tax at the state level and saw it repealed by voters.
Yet at some recent appearances, McGinn and Murray flashed plenty of backward-looking disagreement about each other’s records and leadership styles.
At the Beacon Hill event, when asked why he is frequently called divisive by critics, McGinn turned to a criticism of Murray’s legislative record.
Describing Murray’s approach as a timid “we can’t get anybody upset at us, particularly the important business people,” McGinn said that style in the Legislature has failed by leaving Washington 43rd in per-student schools funding and 50th in mental-health beds.
McGinn added Murray also had failed by allowing a Republican-dominated coalition to seize the majority in the state Senate this year. The coalition, led by state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Medina Democrat, stymied some Democratic priorities.
“Sen. Murray says he united people. He managed to unite a majority of the senate behind Rodney Tom as leader. And that person waiting on the bus. That school kid waiting to get educated, they’re paying the price. That’s not leadership,” McGinn said.
Murray responded: “So obviously you can see why sometimes that people call the mayor divisive.”
He said McGinn was distorting his 18 years in Olympia, pointing to his role in securing money for the state’s first migrant-farmworker housing, doubling the state’s affordable-housing trust fund and passing legalized gay marriage.
And as for the cuts that did happen — many of which he signed off as a top budget writer — Murray said they were forced by the economic collapse of 2008, “not because of Democrats in the state Legislature.”
Murray, meanwhile, has taken his share of shots at McGinn’s record, saying his clashes with other local elected leaders on some key issues have left him with few allies.
“I’m not going to doubt my opponent’s progressive values,” Murray said at the KING debate. “I think it’s an issue of effectiveness.”
Murray pointed to McGinn’s efforts to derail the Highway 99 tunnel project, despite a campaign pledge in 2009 to not stand in the project’s way despite his personal objections.
McGinn suffered the defining political setback of his first term in 2011, when voters overwhelmingly rejected the mayor’s tunnel objections and voted to proceed with the project.
“How can we as a city trust you?” Murray asked McGinn.
McGinn defended his tunnel maneuvers, saying he was merely raising questions about the project’s financing plan — particularly a provision inserted by the Legislature which would leave Seattle on the hook for any cost overruns.
“I said that I accepted the tunnel, but I said I didn’t accept the cost overruns,” McGinn said, accusing Murray of being “divisive” by voting for the cost-overrun provision.
“I don’t get to vote for perfect things in my body (the Legislature),” Murray replied, adding that he’d fight any effort to make Seattle pay for overruns.
Murray has also repeatedly questioned McGinn’s response to the Department of Justice’s report criticizing excessive use of force by Seattle police, calling it an “embarrassment” that Seattle is under a federal consent decree.
It was another example, Murray argued, of McGinn’s stubborn streak when it comes to cooperating with other regional leaders, including the City Council and City Attorney Pete Holmes.
“I believe when the Obama administration came to us to talk to us about racial-biased policing and overuse of force we had an incredible opportunity to reform our police department,” he said. “That’s what I would have done differently.”
McGinn called such attacks unfair. “Of course you can Monday morning quarterback back this and take a look at it with hindsight and second guess things,” he said. “These things are always contentious.”
In the end, McGinn said the final Department of Justice (DOJ) agreement worked out well, citing the creation of a new Community Police Commission, which brings together police critics and officers to help oversee reforms.
When asked whether he disagreed with any of the final provisions of the DOJ settlement the city reached, Murray acknowledged: “Probably not.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner