McMallahan for Mayor: Take Away the Tunnel Spat and We're Practically the Same Guy

Mayoral candidates Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, both election novices, went head-to-head for the first time on the Vulcan-owned Cinerama floor. "I was just trying to remember, the last two movies would have been the last Harry Potter and the last Bond film," said Moderator Steve Scher. "Let's see if we can get some car crashes and magic happening. Especially the car crashes."

But the collisions were few, mostly over odd issues like whether or not cost saving measures would adequately address the city's general fund deficit, and that little tunnel matter. Most of the rest of the debate went about like this:

On cutting the number of political appointees, advisers and middle-managers:

Mallahan: I agree with Mike, I think City Hall is top heavy."

On public safety:

Mallahan: Like Mike, I agree that public safety is a key issue for quality of life. (Mallahan said he would fully fund the city gang unit, McGinn didn't offer an alternative plan or disagree with Mallahan on this one.)

On making city zoning laws:

McGinn: We have to come up with a more flexible system, one that's driven more from neighborhood planning as well.

Scher (to Mallahan): What would you do?

Mallahan: About the same, I think we've talked about it enough.

On annexation:

Mallahan: Talking to the citizens there [in White Center], I've heard they would like to see how Burien does with the current annexation that's planned.

McGinn: I think it's up to the people of White Center.

On having a better relationship with the city council:

McGinn: I think we need to forge a much stronger working relationship between the city council and the mayor. I think on issues, vigorous debate is usually good and we need to find a way to have that vigorous debate. We need to freely share information.

Mallahan: So my plan is to divide and conquer. (Audience: Guffaws.Scher: That should get you re-elected.) I have been a very successful leader by proving myself to be open, accountable and effective.

There are a few differences. Mallahan wants to see a city tax on individual employees lifted, McGinn wants to keep it. McGinn would consider taking over the schools, though he's backed off a little from his original stance saying it's something the city should consider over the next couple of years. "I think there's plenty of stuff to clean up in Seattle without the mayor taking over city schools," Mallahan responded.

But by far, the wedge issue here is the tunnel. And that's where the only fireworks really came this afternoon.

Mallahan insisted: "That decision has been made, and we're moving forward."

McGinn reiterated his belief that the project will go over budget and Seattle will be stuck with the tab. "We did have a long process which I thought culminated in a vote saying we didn't want a tunnel," McGinn said. "And I think if elected leaders are going to come back and overturn a decision of the people you have have really good evidence."

Mallahan jumped in: "I just think that's disingenuous."

Scher told Mallahan to let McGinn finish. But when coming back, Mallahan said that it took eight years to get to the tunnel decision and he doesn't want to start over. "It's bad thinking to suggest throwing up lawsuits and other barriers to go back and take another four or maybe eight years to get to a consensus as we all hold our breath and wait for the next seismic event."

McGinn shot back saying that Seattle voters who opposed the tunnel option were left out of the consensus on the tunnel. He went on to argue that voters will do public works projects, pointing to the parks, housing and fire levies. "Maybe we're going to have to end up asking the people again on this question, because this is a very high expense that we're asking them to pay and the case has not been made," McGinn said.

Mallahan jumping back in: "So you'd ask the voters to vote on closing I-5 off ramps for your quote, unquote I-5 transit solution. You'd have the voters vote on that?"

It went on like that for awhile. And that, folks, is where you're going to find the magic and car crashes in this mayoral election. In sharing similar if not exact stances on density, industrial zoning, the importance of public safety and the need for better transit options, Mallahan and McGinn are quickly making the tunnel the single biggest voting issue of this election.

There are a few side issues at play. McGinn spent much of the debate emphasizing Mallahan's lack of institutional knowledge of the city. He emphasized participating on city boards, offered to define "community benefits agreements" (where a developer offers up something like green space to the neighborhood they hope to build in), and at one point said that going to aggressively against the will of the public on the tunnel (though that will seems to be more shaky these days) wouldn't be "politically astute" and gestured at Mallahan.

Mallahan, for his part, seems to know where his potential votes lie. He opened by saying that moving people and goods around in Seattle is essential--something that many of the Chamber members presumably conflate with the tunnel. He also talked up labor.

Afterward, two men walking away from the Cinerama discussed what they had seen. Most of the audience was comprised of members of debate sponsor, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Chamber members have generally pushed for the tunnel. One of the men had actually met McGinn a couple of years ago, leery because of his Sierra Club ties, and found him to be "smart, and open-minded." His friend agreed. But for many Chamber members, McGinn's staunch tunnel opposition is a deal-breaker.

There's time between now and the election for McGinn to come up with a different public safety plan, should he choose to, and Mallahan to continue getting more of the specifics of city government down. But looming over it all will be the long, deep shadow of that tunnel.

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