In a new television ad, a political-action committee bankrolled by supporters of state Sen. Ed Murray is attacking Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn as indifferent to the problem of domestic violence.
The 30-second spot features Terri Kimball, the former director of the city’s Office of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention, and criticizes McGinn’s 2011 decision to eliminate that office and subsume its duties within a larger human-services division. “Now, domestic violence aggravated assaults are up 60 percent,” the ad’s narrator says. Kimball adds: “To McGinn, domestic violence just wasn’t a priority. And your priorities say everything about you.”
What we found: mostly false.
While critics can credibly argue that McGinn de-emphasized the city’s domestic-violence office, the ad omits relevant facts and goes too far by implying the move led to a spike in serious domestic violence.
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The ad — clearly aimed at weakening McGinn’s support among female voters — makes three main claims.
The first, that the McGinn administration eliminated the city’s domestic-violence office, is true. That decision, part of a broader reorganization of the city Human Services Department, was criticized at the time by some domestic-violence advocates and City Council members. Former City Attorney Tom Carr also panned the decision.
“This is the one crime we deal with that could become murder. It’s such a pervasive and serious problem that having a division that just dealt with it was really important,” Carr told The Seattle Times in 2011.
In an interview, Kimball noted that the office and its stand-alone director position had been in place since 1990 and were considered a model for other cities. She said she was getting ready to retire at the time and that her criticism of McGinn “isn’t about me — it’s about eliminating that office.”
However, the ad doesn’t mention that most of the staff and services of the domestic-violence office were maintained within the reshuffled Human Services Department. That omission may leave viewers with the incorrect impression those services were simply done away with when the office was “eliminated.”
Murray says if elected mayor, he’d restore the domestic-violence office and its director position.
The ad’s second claim, about a rise in serious domestic-violence assaults, is highly misleading.
It’s true that Seattle Police Department statistics say domestic-violence aggravated assaults rose 60 percent between 2009 and 2012. But by mentioning that right after talking about the elimination of the city domestic-violence prevention office, the ad clearly invites viewers to see a causal connection between the two — a link that is unproven, according to experts.
“I can’t say there is not (a connection), but I don’t see how that structural change would have a significant change in domestic violence,” said Merril Cousin, executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Cousin said domestic-violence stats can be tricky since the crime often goes unreported. A seeming increase in serious assaults could be the result of more victims being willing to report incidents or greater efforts by police or prosecutors to crack down on the crime, she said.
David Martin, who heads the domestic-violence unit at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, noted that the Legislature toughened the law in 2007 to make it easier for prosecutors to file aggravated domestic-violence-assault charges in cases where a victim is choked.
Over the past few years, prosecutors have increasingly used that law to file those more serious charges, turning cases that previously would have been misdemeanors into felonies, Martin said. It is now one of the most common crimes charged by the domestic-violence unit.
While Martin said he didn’t want to be drawn into the political dispute in the mayoral race, he said, “I think it is fair to look at legal change that could influence crime statistics.”
The third claim in the ad, that domestic violence was not a priority to McGinn, is highly subjective.
By eliminating the domestic-violence office as a stand-alone unit with a director focused on the issue, critics say McGinn showed he did not view the issue as a priority.
“There is a big difference between having staff reporting to a director with that as a central-core mission, rather than reporting to somebody who has many different missions,” said Dean Nielsen, spokesman for People for a New Seattle Mayor.
The reverse is certainly true, as political leaders frequently signal priority shifts by creating new departments. Indeed, McGinn has chosen to elevate at least one other issue, signing off on City Council legislation creating a new city division — the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
In his 2011 budget, McGinn also proposed to cut two of seven domestic-violence advocates in the Seattle Police Department. The City Council restored the positions.
But McGinn supporters point out the city has increased total funding for domestic-violence services in recent years.
In 2009, the city spent $3.7 million on those programs. After a small cut in 2011, that has risen to nearly $5 million in the 2013 budget, according to figures provided by the city Human Services Department.
Some of those increases came after McGinn faced criticism on the campaign trail — but the numbers have gone up.
“Not only is domestic violence prioritized, but all human services are prioritized in this administration,” said Patricia Hayden, co-chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner