Sense and sensibility

Studious Compton challenges charismatic Mason in City Council dustup.

EARLY IN THE campaign season, Dawn Mason was talking enthusiastically about the process of phoning old acquaintances in search of endorsements and donations—"begging for money," as she called it.

The veteran state legislator and current Seattle City Council candidate laughed delightedly in describing the reaction people have when a well-known politician calls to grovel for their support. "They love it," she says.

Television commentator Jim Compton, Mason's final election challenger, never seems to be having as much fun as his opponent. His campaign trail persona spotlights the sober, hardworking reporter Seattle television viewers remember from his long- running KING-TV news show, The Compton Report. Armed with a repertoire of thoughtful expressions, Compton always appears to be on the verge of saying something important.

Although Compton won the primary by just over two points, 36.7 percent to 34.5 percent, Mason won big only in her own 37th Legislative District. Compton led in most other parts of the city, including healthy margins in North Seattle's 36th and 46th Districts. In the money chase, he has a narrow lead ($77,062 to $72,779) but has donated $13,000 to his own campaign. Mason also can't expect as much help in the final from the Civic Foundation, which financed a $25,000 independent expenditure mailing to aid her and fellow candidate Charlie Chong in the primary.

Their campaign for council position 9 has settled into a battle of both style and substance. Compton chose transportation as his key topic and settled into the role of serious issue analyst. He was in his element at a recent public forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, pushing solutions like flex time, telecommuting, and subsidized bus passes. Alternative transportation enthusiasts who didn't get enough from the two-hour debate could pick up a copy of his answers to the Cascade Bicycle Club questionnaire. "We have to get this community moving again," says Compton, whose transportation strategy includes taking quick action to begin building the Sound Transit light rail line.

Mason's campaign is a pastiche of issues, ranging from reexamining the Sound Transit plan to making sure all citizens benefit from the region's economic success. On the campaign trail, she's an ad hoc dynamo: griping about the developer who was able to build houses on her street without adding sidewalks, sympathizing with each neighborhood's battles with the city, or telling the story of how she cast 14 separate votes in Olympia against the football stadium. "I'm a humanist," Mason announced at one forum. "I really care about people. I'm at my best when I'm around people."

You can say that again. While Compton's forte is the standard opening statement, Mason shines when she has to answer questions. With her focus appropriately narrowed, she can then riff on the subject, dragging personal experiences, quotes, and anecdotes along for the ride. An African-American legislator who has only run in Southeast Seattle's 37th District, Mason has shown a knack for connecting with neighborhood audiences. Facing a crowd of older white homeowners at a Haller Lake forum, Mason took a question about rent control. No, she doesn't support rent control, says Mason, admitting that she owns three homes. But she rents two of them to her children; she adds, "That's real rent control." The line not only got a good laugh— Mason's audience was clearly charmed.

Compton has less podium ability, but his earnest style and short, direct answers work well in more formal, controlled situations. Given three minutes for an opening statement at one recent debate, he ran through transportation planning, his endorsements, and his goal of bringing the city together without going over time. He doesn't react well to more chaotic settings: At a forum in Greenwood, Compton was busy praising the area's neighborhood plan and trying to soothe participant concerns when he was informed the draft plan had actually been rejected by city officials. He quickly dropped his aborted attempt to play peacemaker, then seemed distracted the rest of the evening. Mason, of course, had kind words for the work of the planners and pledged to support their work to buck the city to the hilt.

Both candidates have backed off after timid forays into negative campaigning. After mocking Compton's late entry into the race and lack of political experience early in the campaign, Mason seems to be toning down her approach. It's probably a relief to Compton, who makes a poor political hit man. In Greenwood, he tried swatting Mason by revealing that she had passed only one of the 13 bills she introduced as a state legislator. No one present seemed impressed by this tactic, least of all Compton.

Watching Mason's folksy soft sell and Compton's transportation wonkery on the campaign trail, one sees a very different race from the pitched battle for the city's soul the daily newspapers would have you believe is under way. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board labels Mason a "retread" and neglected to even mention her name while endorsing two of her primary opponents. The Times' editorial columnists have had a field day: Joni Balter applauds Compton for standing up against "mindless populism"; David Brewster sees Compton as a potential father figure for the council and an adherent of the "politics of hope." Compton obviously likes the image. "This is time for quiet, thoughtful voices on City Council," he says, condemning those who would seek to divide downtown and the neighborhoods.

Trouble is, after identifying herself as "the neighborhood candidate" in one post-primary newspaper story, Mason hasn't talked much about the downtown/neighborhood battle. And it's hard to portray your opponent as a grumbly naysayer when she insists on constantly smiling, laughing, and making jokes.

But, lacking the last-minute emergence of a new issue, this race pits Compton's transportation studies against Mason's campaign trail breeziness—with the voters making the final call.

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