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The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

May 3, 2013 at 2:10 PM

Mayor’s debate focuses on police reform

Leadership and reform of the police department again led the debate among seven candidates for Seattle mayor at a forum Thursday night sponsored by North-end Democrats. Challengers criticized incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn for the lack of a strong command of the force and the ongoing oversight of a federal monitor.

But McGinn and the department won mostly praise for their handling of the May Day protests Wednesday.

“As soon as violence began, they acted,” said City Councilmember Tim Burgess of the police response. “It was a vast improvement over last year.”

McGinn also praised the officers and command staff saying, “In a tough situation, they did a difficult job.”

The Burgess campaign has seemed ambivalent about his past as a Seattle police officer, at one point this spring highlighting his subsequent work as a poverty aid worker in Asia and Africa. But Thursday, Burgess emphasized that no one else running for mayor had walked a beat. He said there was an urgent need for reform of the department and that he was the one to lead it.

State Senator Ed Murray, more engaged than at Monday’s forum (he reportedly had only five hours sleep after the Legislature’s late Sunday adjournment) called it a travesty that a progressive city like Seattle should be under a Justice Department consent decree. He blamed both McGinn and Burgess, who chaired the Council Public Safety Committee in the lead-up to the federal investigation that found the department had a pattern of excessive use of force.

Moderator Enrique Cerna, of KCTS public TV, asked the seven candidates what they would look for in a new police chief. The job is vacant with the retirement of John Diaz last month.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell, the current chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he wanted a chief with fire and passion who “can go to any neighborhood and feel comfortable.”

Murray said he would seek a chief who had experience reforming a department and changing its culture.

Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said that with the infighting at City Hall among the mayor, city attorney and council, the best candidates in the country were unlikely to apply for the job.

Businessman Charlie Staadecker said he would look for a chief with the “highest virtues.” But Staadecker also gave McGinn the only praise of the night, thanking him for the good work the police had done during the May Day protests.

McGinn’s response highlighted the difference between his 2009 insurgency campaign and his effort to run now on his record over the past four years. Instead of outlining a vision of where he wants to take the city, or giving a sharp critique of his rivals’ failings, McGinn said he’d look for a chief who was solid on community engagement and could bring innovative neighborhood policing policies to Seattle.

And he pointed to his work to bring residents together with officers to talk about neighborhood issues, an effort called Safe Communities.

Harrell got off a jab at McGinn when he questioned the mayor’s transportation priorities. Harrell noted that in 2012, the city had built just 12 blocks of sidewalks, but had striped 15 miles of bike lanes and sharrows. (Painting bike lanes of course is far cheaper.)  Harrell also got a laugh at McGinn’s expense when the Mayor, disputing the assertion that he doesn’t work well with others, urged the other candidates to join his anti-coal train coalition.

“Sure,” Harrell said, “If it will help you do better than your last four years.”

Murray also questioned McGinn’s transportation priorities, saying that the city had used Bridging The Gap funds to supplant money that had previously come from the city’s general fund, but his explanation was a little garbled, suggesting the Senator still needs more schooling on city issues.

Burgess criticized McGinn’s proposed rezone of South Lake Union, which he called a “back room deal with Vulcan,” perhaps a deliberate allusion to McGinn’s refrain in the 2009 mayor’s race that city elected leaders had “cut a backroom deal” with Olympia to build the waterfront tunnel.

Peter Steinbrueck was at his best on the subject of zoning for affordable housing. He suggested that the city require housing anywhere major growth is planned (such as South Lake Union) and that planning policies across the city support a variety of housing types from cottages and row houses to cluster-housing that can be built privately and compete in the market.

Otherwise, he said, “We’ll never have enough subsidies to get the housing we need.”

Greenwood activist Kate Martin (was that an eye-roll when McGinn also cited his political beginnings as a Greenwood activist?) said she’d tighten the budget belt at the city to give voters confidence that their investments in levies were being well-spent. She also decried the lack of sidewalks in parts of the city and suggested that on some blocks, the neighbors would be willing to pay part of the costs if it would speed up the city process.

The forum organizers, the 32nd, 36th, 43rd and 46th Legislative District Democrats, get kudos for the best decorated stage of the three forums held this week. The candidates table was festooned with red, white and blue bunting and they sat against a backdrop of state, federal, county and city flags.

And under the “only in Seattle” category, the courtly Staadecker congratulated Ed Murray on his birthday and led the audience of about 200 in singing Happy Birthday.

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