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Originally published September 11, 2009 at 12:15 AM | Page modified September 30, 2009 at 11:41 AM

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Candidates clash over tunnel in first debate

McGinn opposes the tunnel. Mallahan supports it, and says McGinn's argument ignores the long process that led to the tunnel plan agreed to by the state last winter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn said Thursday voters already have rejected building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct — an argument he made dozens of times during the primary-election campaign.

But in the first one-on-one debate between the two finalists for mayor, Joe Mallahan raised his microphone and interrupted:

"I just think that's disingenuous," he said.

McGinn opposes the tunnel. Mallahan supports it, and says McGinn's argument ignores the long process that led to the tunnel plan agreed to by the state last winter.

Again and again on the tunnel — a major point of disagreement between the candidates — and other issues, McGinn gave long answers and Mallahan moved in with questions of his own. The event offered a chance to see the two engage in a real debate after defeating Mayor Greg Nickels in the primary.

Both candidates are political newcomers, and one of them, T-Mobile vice president Mallahan, a Wallingford resident, has hardly been involved in civic life in Seattle beyond coaching soccer and volunteering at a Catholic-school fundraiser.

McGinn, who lives in Greenwood, is an environmentalist and attorney whose low-budget campaign made him the unlikely winner of the primary.

The debate was sponsored by business groups, including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. It drew a crowd. Organizers sold out the original venue, which seated 150, in under a day. They moved the event to the Cinerama, and ended up selling 375 tickets.

"We seem to have filled the house," Mallahan said, "perhaps more with questions than enthusiasm."

The debate brought to the surface disagreements over what city government should do to control developers and the school system. And of course, the candidates discussed the tunnel, which is likely to be one of the race's most contentious issues.

McGinn said Seattle "probably" would vote on the tunnel project at some point. The county, city and state Legislature agreed last winter on a plan for an underground tunnel on the waterfront, but McGinn has insisted the $4.2 billion project is too expensive and environmentally unfriendly.

He wants to improve surface streets and add transit, instead. He has insisted for months that the tunnel is not a "done deal," but Thursday is the first time McGinn has proposed a public vote.

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He said after the debate that a vote would be about the taxes to pay for the city's $930 million share of the tunnel project.

"The idea that we're going to have a $930 million commitment without a vote is, I don't think, very politically astute," he said during the debate.

Mallahan scoffed at the idea of reopening the tunnel debate. "I know we're frustrated with the process, but I just think it's extraordinarily non-pragmatic, unpragmatic to start that process again."

On schools, the two disagreed again. McGinn has said he thinks Seattle Public Schools should show improvement or face a city takeover.

Mallahan says the city should work with the Legislature to get more money for schools.

"I think there's plenty of stuff to clean up in city government without the mayor of Seattle taking over city schools," he said.

McGinn was more supportive of programs that allow developers to build higher buildings if they include affordable units in their buildings. Mallahan isn't sure such programs work.

He said that if the city determines higher buildings are a good idea somewhere, they should be allowed.

"We should really be shooting for that," he said.

Even when they agreed, both candidates seemed to be positioning themselves for a fight.

When McGinn criticized Mallahan's proposal to cut spending on consultants, saying it would not save money out of the general fund, Mallahan announced: "Let the record show you are defending the consulting spending."

McGinn rebutted: "Not at all, Joe."

Staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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