Ok, I promised earlier today that I would post something more about the big “debateā€¯ last night at Town Hall. Here goes…
First off, there seems to be some confusion (in the comments) about whether the event was actually billed as a debate. As you can see in this press release from the 43rd District Democrats, who put on the event, the audience was promised a “debate-format program.ā€¯ To me that means debate—conflict, for the purpose of clarifying positions—and last night the audience did not get what it was promised.
Which is really too bad, because the major problem for voters in this race is going to be parsing the differences among six Seattle liberals who all seem to agree more often than they disagree. The 43rd District Democrats did a disservice to the voters in their district by letting their lefty aversion to conflict get in the way of a potentially illuminating clash of ideas and philosophies.
Does King County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Sherman agree with former judge Jim Street’s vaguely anti-drug-war rhetoric? How does Dick Kelley’s ranting about “special interestsā€¯ sit with business lawyer Jamie Pederson, whose firm does a lot of lobbying on behalf of “special interestsā€¯? Do Stephanie Pure, 32, and Lynne Dodson, 45, really agree on the same feminist agenda?
We didn’t find out last night. (And we, the members of the media, also didn’t have wireless access—another boneheaded move by the cheapskate 43rd District Dems, who decided not to pay Town Hall a wireless rental fee and thereby kept their event from being live-blogged.)
The absence of conflict in this race is letting the candidates off too easy, and it’s also serving to amplify the power of money in this political contest. If all the candidates are essentially the same, then the candidate who can buy the most name recognition wins.
The candidates love this state of affairs, I’m sure. It lets them focus on fundraising and on the kind of mild differentiation by which Bill Sherman becomes the earnest environmentalist, Jim Street becomes the experienced wise man, Dick Kelley becomes the campaign finance reform martyr, Stephanie Pure becomes the voice of youthful optimism, Jamie Pedersen becomes the business-savvy do-gooder, Lynne Dodson becomes the rabble-rousing labor darling—and in the eyes of many voters, it all becomes a wash.
If this race doesn’t see some conflict soon (and maybe it finally will at the conflict-friendly Stranger endorsement interviews on July 26) then the winner is going to be chosen largely on superficial, not substantive, matters. You can see this happening already in the comments, where people are talking about Sherman’s “poise,ā€¯ Pure’s “positive enthusiasm,ā€¯ Street’s “weirdoā€¯ vibe, Pedersen’s “brown-nosingā€¯ vibe, Dodson’s “intensity,ā€¯ and Kelley’s ability to induce a “yawn.ā€¯
In today’s P-I, Chris McGann was able to scrape together enough substance to make a short article. But he, too, mocks how similar the candidates were in their support for “raising taxes and sending fewer people to jail — political suicide in most areas but the gold standard for Seattle voters.ā€¯
And when everyone meets the gold standard, the gold standard becomes a meaningless measure.
What’s left, then, is for those paying attention to this race to get very People Magazine on the candidates. That’s what I found myself doing last night—taking notes on style when substance failed to materialize. For what it’s worth, here are my People Magazine thoughts:
I thought Pedersen did himself no favors with his khaki pants and his quickness to argue over whether he had been given two minutes or three (in fact, he had been given his full three minutes). He should follow Sherman’s lead and embrace lawyer-casual: Blazer, slacks, no tie, and also, no arguing over process—just substance, please.
Sherman, for his part, is walking a fine line between sharp-looking, natural-born politician and smarmy, overly-self-assured climber. His confidence is clearly up since he got those big endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Washington Conservation Voters, but it’s cutting both ways. Last night, for the first time, I heard the words “sexy” and “smarmyā€¯ used, in about equal proportion, to describe him. Another example of the same phenomenon: People are starting to describe Sherman as Clinton-esque. If he made fewer cloying references to his two young sons and their drawings of birds, that might go a long way to lessening his appearance as a man on the make.
Stephanie needs to cut the word “wowā€¯ out of her vocabulary. She also needs to stop over-stating her experience, which reads as overcompensation, and instead start embracing the potential freshness of her vision. She does not, however, need to change her outfit, which was the best at the event (with Sherman’s a close second).
Jim Street needs to stay seated. When he got up, at the very end, and walked around the table to the front of the stage, I was shocked at how short he was. The beard is great however, given his attempt to be the 43rd’s Solomon.
Lynne Dodson needs to stay standing. When she’s upright, commanding an audience, and talking about the issues that make her passionate, she really looks… alive, in control, and like good legislative material. In these moments, her rabid ambition (which shows through so clearly you can imagine her gnawing one of competitors’ legs off to get ahead) is an asset.
And as for Dick Kelley: Please, never utter the phrase “Help me, Jesusā€¯ again.