YOU'VE GOT PICKETERS, cops, and comedy bits? Mark Sidran must be running for mayor.
Seattle's ever-controversial city attorney kicked off his challenge to incumbent Mayor Paul Schell last Thursday morning at the Westin Hotel with about 1,000 supporters in attendance. Outside, some 40 protesters waved signs and distributed handbills spotlighting Sidran's role in drafting laws allowing the city to seize cars belonging to unlicensed drivers and ticket the homeless for sitting on downtown sidewalks. They were kept at a safe distance by a dozen uniformed Seattle police officers hired by the hotel as security.
Inside, everything was peaches and yogurt as Sidran supporters ate breakfast, watched their candidate perform in a humorous campaign video, and cheered the city attorney's call to abandon Sound Transit's light-rail plan. While moderately surprising, Sidran's blast against Sound Transit made political sense: Major opponents Schell and County Council member Greg Nickels are both members of Sound Transit's governing board. Sidran blamed the transit agency's near fall on "stunning mismanagement, woefully inadequate oversight, and a failure of leadership."
After the event, Sidran clarified his position, saying that he doesn't oppose light rail per se but supports a cost-benefit analysis of numerous transit options, not just light rail. Sound Transit's current troubles have knocked the light-rail program completely off schedule, he notes. "Over the next two or three years, what could we actually get done on the ground that could improve mobility?" The candidate's proposal: Take immediate steps to improve bus service. He also pledged to reexamine elevated transit, including the Seattle monorail proposals.
Naturally, his critics see opportunism, not leadership, in Sidran's sudden Sound Transit conversion. "This is a man who compared the monorail to the Bubbleator not long ago," says John Fox, a housing advocate who helped organize the demonstration outside the Westin.
Actually, Sidran might be pleased at Fox's comment. Local kid Sidran is going to the Jet City nostalgia well early and often in his campaign, and the Bubbleator (a futuristic elevator and relic of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair) fits in well with the candidate's own references to his Rainier Valley upbringing, his Franklin High education, and his late father's neighborhood drug store. The comic video introducing the candidate featured 1950s local TV kids' show host Wunda Wunda, who delivered the morning's toughest shot to incumbent Schell, if in an oblique manner. (After meeting young Mark, Wunda Wunda recalls thinking, "Someday this kid is going to grow up to be either a clown or a mayor—I never realized one could be both." Badoom-boom!)
Nostalgic imagery aside, the major thrust of Sidran's kickoff speech was how much Seattle has changed. "For better or worse, the 'big small town' of my youth is gone," he told supporters. "Seattle is now a big city, with big-city challenges." City Hall has been passive under Schell, merely reacting to events, he continued. Seattle needs a leader, and tough-guy prosecutor Sidran wants the job.
BUT WHILE City Attorney Sidran didn't mind being stereotyped as Mr. Law and Order, the mayoral candidate is working to show his softer side. On the radio recently with KUOW's Steve Scher, he had a surprising response to callers rapping his authorship of the so-called civility laws (banning sitting on sidewalks, aggressive panhandling, and using alleys and doorways as bathrooms) as attacks on the homeless. Sidran shelved his array of one-liners for a long monologue on how the city should properly address the problems of the homeless.
Simply providing more shelter spaces doesn't work, he says. "We aim to aid people in getting off the streets, not helping people to stay on the streets." The funds the city is currently spending, while substantial, are "clearly not making things better." (A good showing, although he did inadvertently channel the Tin Woodsman at one point by announcing, "I believe that I have a heart.")
Sidran argues that he has long advocated new ways of addressing homeless issues, but his comments end up getting brushed aside by reporters spotlighting the controversy of the moment. "Obviously my message gets filtered through the media—that filter is not free of its own lenses of opinion," he says.
As to his radio response to critics of his homeless policies: "I'm not trying to talk them into agreeing with me, I'm talking to other people who might be listening."
While Sidran is no rhetorical slouch, Schell and Nickels have better skills at shaking the money tree. In April, Schell reported an amazing $103,625 in contributions, while the Nickels campaign took in $64,311. Sidran collected just $30,975.
And Sidran the mayoral candidate still has a tendency to talk like a city attorney. He has made his call to change the state's civil commitment laws a major focus of his campaign. He argues that currently, mentally ill and chemically dependent persons can be involuntarily enrolled in treatment programs only after they have committed a crime. Sidran also puts on the law-and-order hat in blasting the city's failure to clear drug dealers and loiterers from downtown streets near the Pike Place Market.
He notes that most of his package of civility laws passed the City Council by a 7-2 vote. "I don't think it was hard to get seven votes, and I don't think it would be hard to get seven votes for these laws today," he says. As far as the general public is concerned, "there's not actually a lot of controversy about the value of these kinds of rules."
Perhaps not, but even Sidran's supporters are hungry for more policy stands outside the criminal justice and social policy arenas. At least the media's tendency to get distracted by side issues sometimes works in his favor: He recently won a decisive court victory over a city historical review board that tried to stop him from moving his campaign headquarters into a building he and his wife own. Could this victory over the red-tape peddlers by Mark "See You in Court" Sidran energize the masses? You never know.
Which neatly sums up the dilemma faced by Sidran's critics. Even members of a fledgling political organization dedicated to dogging Sidran on the campaign trail worry that they could end up aiding the candidate's quest for the votes of Seattle's silent majority. Daniel Hannah, one of the Westin protesters, cited his concerns about the civility laws and Sidran's support of laws restricting all-ages dances. But, after looking at the many protest signs featuring the name "Sidran" in a red circle with a slash through it, Hannah voiced the fears of many Sidran critics: "We're giving him good name recognition by being out here."