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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 6:42 PM

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Seattle mayoral contenders meet Monday in first big forum

Seven challengers for mayor take on incumbent Mike McGinn on Monday night at the first big forum of the campaign season. McGinn is trying to change the impression among some voters that he has been divisive. His opponents are all too happy to bring up his previous missteps.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mayoral-candidates forum

The 11th, 34th and 37th legislative districts’ Democrats host a candidates forum for the Seattle mayoral race.

When: Monday, 6-8 p.m.

Where: South Seattle Community College, Georgetown Campus, 6737 Corson Ave. S., Rooms 110/111

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After Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s state-of-the city address in February — a long list of every city accomplishment in 2012 — City Council President Sally Clark quipped that the speech seemed to be “the second two years trying to run away from the first two.”

With seven candidates lined up to remind him of every misstep, McGinn will be hard-pressed to distance himself from his past, even as he casts himself as a leader who can bring others together on issues such as opposing coal trains or leveraging money for transit.

The first big mayoral candidates forum is Monday, an event sponsored by Democrats in South Seattle legislative districts. The invitation to candidates advises, “leave your stump speech at home. ... With such a crowded field, we want to see what makes you different.”

Differentiating themselves will be the candidates’ task in the months leading up to the Aug. 6 primary.

Spring is usually when candidates begin lining up endorsements. But with an incumbent mayor, one former and two current City Council members and one high-profile state senator in the race, some organizations are reluctant to endorse for fear of showing favoritism.

“Picking one out of that group carries a lot of potential political downside,” said Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council. “Overall, we’re talking about friends and asking people to pick among friends. That’s clearly difficult.”

The labor council and the Democratic legislative-district organizations will not make endorsements without a supermajority of support for a single candidate. With eight contestants, Freiboth said those may be hard thresholds to reach.

So far, the campaign has been about fundraising, with candidates trying to establish they are credible and can attract enough money to get their names before voters.

In that contest, City Councilmember Tim Burgess had raised almost $195,000 through March. McGinn brought in $154,000, and bow-tied businessman Charlie Staadecker garnered $132,000. State Sen. Ed Murray raised $117,000 in just nine days before the start of the legislative session in January, but is prohibited by state law from fundraising while the Legislature meets.

City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has raised $78,000, and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck $44,000. Greenwood activist Kate Martin has about $3,000 and Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin hasn’t reported any contributions.

Burgess, a former Seattle police officer and advertising executive, has collected early support from downtown business and real-estate interests, reflecting his efforts to position himself as the candidate with the experience and seriousness to run City Hall. He’s criticized McGinn’s transportation budget for not emphasizing repair and maintenance of existing streets. McGinn shot back that Burgess’ plan didn’t address light rail and was better suited for the 1970s.

McGinn has support from some of the city’s unions and its garbage and yard-waste haulers. He’s also picked up endorsements from the Sierra Club and Cascade Bicycle Club, two groups that provided vital ground troops for his 2009 campaign.

While a KING 5 poll in March found just 19 percent of voters would support the mayor if the election were held then, his campaign says their own polling shows that about 48 percent of voters have a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of him.

A potential campaign liability remains with the continuing federal oversight of police reforms mandated by the Justice Department, even though Police Chief John Diaz retired earlier this month after three turbulent years.

McGinn, however, has won praise and support from community groups for creating a community police commission to help guide the reforms. And recently, he’s emphasized his role in Seattle’s economic recovery and a future that could include light rail between neighborhoods and enhanced broadband Internet in the city.

“The line on McGinn is that his bad news is old news,” said Freiboth.

Staadecker, a successful real-estate broker and arts patron, has kept pace in fundraising with some of the more experienced candidates by attracting support from an older generation of civic leaders, including Howard Wright III, Alan Benaroya and Herman Sarkowsky.

Staadecker laments that the one-time Seattle model of prominent businessmen turning late in their careers to public service has so far not gotten him much traction in the campaign. He said he’s still trying to get his ideas out, including the suggestion that city services should be delivered efficiently, cheerfully and with advocacy for citizens.

Murray is a veteran politician with national stature from his work to legalize gay marriage in Washington, but his ability to campaign is dependent on when the Legislature completes its work. With a state budget agreement still in the distance, Murray may be able to do some fundraising before being called back to a special session. The filing deadline for Seattle candidates is May 17.

Still, Murray has weighed in on contentious city issues, criticizing the mayor’s leadership of the Police Department and characterizing the developer fees McGinn set for affordable housing in South Lake Union as too low. A recent op-ed by Murray in The Stranger said the next mayor must work with others and build good relationships, while describing McGinn as divisive and isolated.

Like Murray, Steinbrueck enjoys great name recognition. He’s lagging the top candidates in fundraising, but as one campaign strategist for another candidate complained, “He has a park named after him!”

Actually, the park is named for his father, Victor Steinbrueck, but the point is made. Steinbrueck, an architect and former City Council member, has also distinguished himself as the only candidate to oppose the Sodo location for the proposed basketball arena, earning him the support of maritime unions and manufacturing interests opposing the project.

And he’s widely viewed as a champion of the neighborhoods at a time when McGinn’s Department of Planning and Development has allowed small-lot development in single-family areas and micro-apartment buildings that come with no design or environmental review.

Harrell, a former corporate attorney and two-term council member, enjoys some of the benefits of incumbency. He has used his position as chair of the City Council Public Safety Committee to criticize McGinn’s leadership of the Police Department, most recently its delay in releasing a report critical of the department’s handling of last year’s May Day protests.

He has also questioned why the city pays the salary of Police Guild President Rich O’Neill when it doesn’t cover any other union executive.

Harrell led in fundraising in February and March. He has relatively few $700 donors, the maximum contribution allowed, but he’s made up for it with a wide range of smaller donations and people attending small house parties. His campaign says that shows backing from across the city rather than special interest groups.

The lack of a front-runner this early in the mayor’s race gives all the candidates hope.

“These campaigns are going to matter,” said McGinn strategist John Wyble. “Nobody is going to win 70 percent in the primary. The ground game will be crucial. It’s gonna be two yards and a cloud of dust.”

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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