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Originally published October 1, 2009 at 12:14 AM | Page modified October 1, 2009 at 11:09 AM

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Seattle city attorney candidates object -- to each other

Tom Carr and Pete Holmes are facing off in a bruising race for Seattle city attorney. Behind the personalities lie philosophical differences over how the office should be run.

Seattle Times staff reporter

At an election debate last week, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr looked down, grimaced and shook his head, barely able to contain himself as his challenger, Pete Holmes, spoke. When it was his turn, Carr jumped up.

"Frankly, folks, I'm absolutely flabbergasted," he said. "I've been in politics for a long time, and I have never heard so many misstatements, half-truths and lies than I just heard from my opponent."

Holmes, in turn, threw his own barbs, accusing Carr of "reprehensible mistruths."

If the audience of 50 or so at the West Seattle Democratic Women's forum was expecting a leisurely, Seattle-nice debate, they were in for a shock. The race for city attorney is bruising, pitting two candidates who have clashed in the past over police accountability and open government.

Behind the personalities lie significant philosophical differences: Does the city attorney represent the government or the people? Should he stay neutral or set policy?

Carr, who is seeking his third term in the Nov. 3 election, says his mandate is to represent the city government, and therefore taxpayers, and to give neutral legal advice. Holmes, on the other hand, takes a more expansive view. He says he would represent the people of Seattle and would advocate political positions.

The job

The city attorney is the head lawyer in an office of about 90 attorneys. One side of the job involves prosecuting people for misdemeanor offenses — anything from shoplifting to DUI. The other side involves giving legal advice to the city and defending it against lawsuits.

The pay, about $130,000 a year, is less than many lawyers could earn in private practice.

Carr has been involved in some hot-button decisions during his eight years in the office. He's been praised for cracking down on car thieves and helping start a community court. He's been criticized for a nightclub sting operation and not being open enough with city records. And he's gotten mixed reviews on the Seattle Sonics case.

Holmes is not so widely known. A bankruptcy lawyer, he fought with Carr during the five years he chaired a board that reviews internal police investigations. Holmes was critical of the police, taking then-Chief Gil Kerlikowske to task for overturning or changing discipline recommendations without offering up a reason.

As tensions rose, Holmes accused Carr of obstructing the board's ability to issue reports by not shielding members from personal liability in any lawsuits that police or the public might file.

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Carr, in turn, accused Holmes of overstepping his role and grandstanding.

In the end, a number of Holmes' recommendations were adopted. But he stepped on plenty of toes along the way.

Duking it out once again in a different forum, Carr and Holmes have each raised about $60,000. Carr has lined up endorsements from seven Seattle City Council members, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild and Washington Conservation Voters. Holmes has endorsements from seven local Democratic groups and from The Seattle Times.

Blunt style

Carr, 52, was raised in the Bronx. His alcoholic father died when Carr was 14. He worked his way through college, then served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York, helping bring civil racketeering cases against organized-crime outfits.

Carr said his background helps give him empathy for both victims and criminals. He acknowledges he's deeply emotionally involved in his work — at one point in the West Seattle debate, he compared a criticism of the community court to an attack on his own children.

His blunt style is admired by some but rubs others the wrong way. Perhaps Carr's biggest flaw, according to Holmes, is a reluctance to admit mistakes and change course.

Holmes, 53, grew up on a family farm in Virginia. He worked in Washington, D.C., for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-advocacy group, before moving to Seattle and becoming a partner at the law firm Miller Nash. Like Carr, Holmes' direct, East Coast manner can sometimes offend.

"I think Pete is very personable, and he feels very strongly about principles," said Kate Pflaumer, a former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, who also worked on police-accountability issues. "But I think he misjudges the professional issues, and the effect he has on other people."

Pflaumer has endorsed Carr.

Differences

The two candidates differ on policies for marijuana and domestic violence.

Holmes, who favors decriminalizing marijuana, said he doesn't intend to prosecute any cases in which people are caught possessing small amounts of the drug.

Carr said his policy is to prosecute minor possession cases only when a suspect is caught breaking the law in some other way.

Holmes said he would consider moving the city's nine domestic-violence advocates out of the attorney's office, so they could act with more independence, and allowing victims more say in whether no-contact orders are issued.

Carr said this would weaken the city's commitment to prosecuting those cases and could result in perpetrators gaining more leverage over their victims.

Merril Cousin, executive director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she worries moving advocates out of the city attorney's office would result in a loss of resources. Any policy shift would likely have pros and cons, she added.

Nightclub sting

Carr can claim success in reducing incarceration rates after helping introduce a community court in 2005, which offers alternatives to jail for low-level offenders. And a multiagency crackdown on big-time car thieves is credited with slashing vehicle thefts by more than half since 2006. But other aspects of Carr's tenure have proved much more controversial.

In a 2007 nightclub sting, undercover officers said minors were served alcohol at 14 of 15 bars.

The city then charged 27 bar employees with a variety of offenses, but all the cases fell short. (Many agreed to deals that allow the charges to be dismissed if they follow certain conditions; some had their cases dropped altogether). Carr, who continues to defend the operation, was criticized for being overzealous and politically motivated.

Mike Meckling, co-owner of Neumos club and president of the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, has donated to Holmes' campaign. He said that during and after the sting, it felt as if Seattle's lively nightlife scene was under attack, and that Carr seemed to be on a moral crusade. However, he added, tensions between club owners and police eventually led to improved relationships.

Sonics

Could Carr have done more to keep the Sonics basketball team in Seattle? After a group from Oklahoma bought the team, Carr filed suit to keep the team at KeyArena for the final two years of its lease. But the city ended up settling the case for $45 million (plus the possibility of $30 million more) and the team left town.

Some say Carr caved. But even Holmes acknowledges it was a tough case.

Carr said he was caught between a rock and a hard place. If the city had won, he said, it would have still been on the hook for KeyArena debt, and its relationship with the NBA would have been further soured.

Carr said his biggest mistake was when his office subpoenaed three Seattle Times reporters in 2007, asking them to identify confidential sources they cited in articles on police misconduct. Carr, who quickly withdrew the subpoenas, said a staff lawyer authorized them without his knowledge.

Still, that case — and another in which the city argued in favor of broad exemptions to open public records based on attorney-client privilege — has hurt Carr's reputation when it comes to open government. He serves as chairman of the governor's "sunshine committee" that's evaluating what kinds of records should be open.

Holmes said he's committed to open government: "I have a record of standing up for this, even when it's tough to do so."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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