Campaign cocktail

A stiff shot for the voting public.


It is startling how few legal eagles know anything about the candidates for Seattle city attorney, Tom Carr, Jim Cline, and Edsonya Charles. Normally lawyers love to dish about their colleagues running for office, but no one I've talked to has actually met more than one of these candidates.

It's especially surprising when you consider what an important job we're talking about. The city attorney supervises 84 attorneys; the office does misdemeanor prosecutions, defends the city against lawsuits, checks city contracts, and gives legal advice to city departments including opinions about the constitutionality of legislation cooked up by the City Council, among other things.

But despite that these candidates are low profile, if you meet them you'll learn they are of extremely high quality.

TOM CARR is perhaps the best known. The West Seattle Democratic activist has not made a name for himself as a lawyer, but rather as an important leader in the effort to expand the monorail. He served on the board of the Elevated Transportation Company, the group charged with planning and building the monorail, and fought valiantly and maturely against City Hall's effort to quash the undertaking. He has run for office before, and is using his experience to raise money and issues effectively. He is philosophically a complete change from current City Attorney Mark Sidran, preferring a compassionate liberal approach to Sidran's tough-guy shenanigans.

Yet Carr isn't a flake. Take his critique of the impound law. Sidran no longer throws people in jail for driving with suspended licenses or failing to pay traffic tickets—now he just seizes people's cars. Obviously this causes tremendous hardship for poor people. Carr points out that King County allows people to set up payment plans for their tickets instead of seizing their cars or throwing them in jail. It's a commonsense, real world solution.

Despite his philosophical differences with Sidran, Carr does not plan on firing a ton of Sidran's attorneys if elected. Is that a sign of managerial savvy or a bleeding heart? That's the question voters will have to decide.

JIM CLINE comes off as more of a hard-ass. He started out his legal career as a King County prosecutor, and earned a reputation of being a fair and honest player. The last 11 years, he has been a labor lawyer, working with police unions and doing police defense work.

He calls the city's criminal division "dysfunctional." He plans on asking for letters of resignation not only from Sidran's top deputies, but from all middle managers in the City Attorney's Office as well. Then he will decide who stays and who goes.

His excoriating critique of Sidran's office is filled with specifics. For instance, he believes the City Attorney's Office is doing a very poor job of advising departments about terminations. Easily implemented changes in this process could result in millions of dollars of savings in unnecessary lawsuits over firings, according to Cline.

Cline has been endorsed by several significant police organizations, including the local Guild and the State Troopers. And that's the rub. Do we want a city attorney who's cozy with the cops? Cline argues that this relationship will give him the ability to convince the cops of the needed changes in reviewing the use of force by police, among other things. But a variety of people across the political spectrum think that Cline's relationships with the police may be a stumbling block to much-needed reforms.

EDSONYA CHARLES is a startling concoction of the touchy-feely and the prosecutor. Currently, she works as a federal prosecutor in the fraud section of the U.S. attorney's office, but in the past she has been the executive director of the Human Services Coalition. When she talks, the human services provider definitely trumps the prosecutor.

As an African-American woman and a prosecutor, she believes she can help heal the rift between the police and Seattle's communities of color through a "coalition-building approach." She believes the city could settle more disputes through mediation. She wants to start a restitution program through which nonviolent offenders could repay their victims or society through community service instead of jail time. Charles was an active opponent of the anti-affirmative action Initiative 200 and served on the board of Northwest AIDS Foundation.

She is not an experienced campaigner, however, and it shows. In a room with Carr and Cline, she disappears. She doesn't project well, and her answers lack the specificity of the other candidates'. She is reportedly doing better one-to-one, earning endorsement from players like power lawyer Jenny Durkan, House Co-speaker Frank Chopp, and former mayors Wes Uhlman and Norm Rice.

What can I say, people? All these candidates promise change. Get to know them in order to make a good choice in September's primary.

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