Using language that would be familiar to anyone who had followed the debate on the city's impound ordinance over the last several years, the city attorney argued against the partial repeal. The law allows the police to impound cars driven by people whose licenses have been suspended for minor infractions, like unpaid traffic tickets; critics maintain that it unfairly targets the poor and people of color. The city attorney warned the council that, without the option of impoundment, his office would have "no choice" but to "return to pre-impound days of jail as the only sanction for those caught driving with a suspended license."
The argument was neither surprising nor unfamiliar. What some did find surprising was that it came out of the current city attorney's mouth. "If I had a blindfold on, I would have thought it was Mark Sidran," council member Nick Licata recalls--not current city attorney Tom Carr. "He was mimicking Mark's trademark behavior, from his choice of words to his tactics."
Indeed, Carr's words, right down to their solemn delivery, were lifted almost verbatim from former City Attorney Sidran, whose record of prosecutorial "activism"--often at the expense of the most vulnerable, like minorities, the homeless, and the poor--Carr himself had decried during his 2001 election campaign. The Stranger so violently opposed Sidran for supporting policies like the impound ordinance that it once portrayed the city attorney as Satan.
John Fox, an activist who formed the "Sidran Truth Squad" to oppose then-City Attorney Sidran's 2001 mayoral campaign, calls Carr's last-minute appearance in council chambers a "Sidran-esque move that was clearly timed for maximum political effect. It was like he had borrowed a page out of the Sidran handbook."
Three years into his term, Carr's record, like his tactics, is starting to look a lot like Sidran's. He fought to keep the poster ban; he's worked tirelessly to sabotage efforts to overturn the impound ordinance; and, despite his efforts on behalf of the monorail initiative as head of the Elevated Transportation Company from 1999 to 2001, he has actively opposed several citizen initiatives and is currently fighting one--a creek restoration initiative, I-80--in court.
To free-speech advocates like music promoter Dave Meinert, Carr sounds more like Sidran these days than like the candidate the music community backed wholeheartedly during his 2001 campaign. "The music community definitely supported his candidacy," both politically and financially, Meinert says. "But he continues to fight to overturn the decision [that killed] the poster ordinance, so my opinion of him is very mixed. All of a sudden, we're backing a guy who's anti-free-speech."
Carr, a tall, fresh-faced 47-year-old whose elongated vowels and tough-guy demeanor betray his impoverished Bronx upbringings, is equally comfortable in bike shorts or a three-piece suit. He rides the eight miles to City Hall from his home in West Seattle, drinks beers at the Elliott Bay Brewery in the West Seattle Junction, and frequently eschews the Town Car provided by the city to walk, unaccompanied, to appointments. He showers in the little-used locker room in the basement of City Hall, listens to Neil Diamond (records, not CDs), and works in a fifth-floor office that's barely large enough to hold a desk, a bank of shelves, and a small conference table. He is, in other words, a lot like Seattle: modest, unprepossessing, and conspicuously frugal.
When he ran for city attorney in 2001, Carr's regular-guy personality endeared him to voters, who saw his predecessor as inflexible, unavailable, and uninterested in the concerns of ordinary Seattle citizens. (Sidran stepped down as city attorney after an unsuccessful mayoral bid.) Carr--then a partner at the law firm Barrett, Gilman, and Ziker--promised that he, unlike Sidran, wouldn't step beyond his role as the attorney for the mayor and city council. "His mantra," Fox says, "was, 'I don't set policy. My job is to interpret the law.'" While Carr wasn't promising to dismantle Sidran's anti-civil-rights laws, at least, folks like Fox figured, he wouldn't be an activist.
Advocates of all stripes, from Dominic Holden, who pushes for drug-law reform, to Meinert, who wants to make Seattle a more music-friendly city, echo a similar refrain: When he ran for city attorney, Tom Carr presented himself as the antidote to a poison called Mark Sidran. Holden, who ran the campaign for I-75, the initiative that made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority, says that compared to Sidran, "Darth Vader would have been preferable." Similarly, Meinert, a music promoter who opposed the Sidran-backed poster ban and Teen Dance Ordinance, says, "It's hard to imagine being worse than Sidran in a democracy."
But despite his campaign vow to merely "interpret and defend the law" and leave the policymaking to the mayor and council, Carr has been a frequent, aggressive, and outspoken advocate for positions that Mark Sidran himself wouldn't find much to quibble with. Sidran said as much himself in a phone conversation last week: "He seems to have taken a lot of positions--for example, supporting the impound law--that I share."
If you need proof that Tom Carr has undergone a transformation from objective civil servant to hidebound true believer, activists like Fox and Holden will be more than happy to provide it for you. Holden' s efforts to implement Initiative 75 (which Seattle voters passed overwhelmingly last November) have been stymied by Carr, who has refused to provide the case numbers activists say they need to ascertain whether cops are making marijuana possession their lowest priority. Holden has plenty to say about the role Carr played during the I-75 campaign. "At 11:30 on election night, I was on the phone to NorthWest Cable News debating none other than Tom Carr on I-75," Holden says. "At this point, it's over. He lost! But he still wants to spend his time and his name as the city attorney opposing an initiative that he is now legally bound to uphold. He was not able to separate his duties as city attorney from his personal opinion as Tom Carr." Carr, Holden points out, wrote an editorial calling the initiative "irresponsible and dangerous" as recently as this January--two months after the vote.
Carr acknowledges that he has taken a more active role than his critics anticipated. "I hear this [claim] a lot," he says. "People who disagree with me call me an activist. I'm the prosecutor for the City of Seattle and I think I have the right to have a voice." And, he notes in his defense, I-75 affected his office directly, and even mentioned the city attorney's office by name. "They had $200,000 in campaign funds. I didn't raise a single dollar. I didn't run an anti campaign. But I did use my office to say, 'Wait a second, the whole concept that we were throwing a lot of people in jail for [smoking pot] just isn't right.' It was kind of a lost cause, but somebody needed to say it."
I-75 isn't the only citizen initiative Carr has opposed. Last summer, Carr fought backers of another initiative, I-80, which would have required extensive creek restoration throughout the city. Supporters of that initiative filed a lawsuit, currently pending in state appellate court, against the city.
Carr's advocacy troubles Jorgen Bader, a neighborhood activist and longtime employee of the city attorney's office (though not during Carr's tenure). Bader says the city attorney "has to be objective" during initiative campaigns, because his job is to uphold every law, including those with which he disagrees. "He wasn't objective on [the creeks] issue. He sided with the people in charge."
If this debate over the proper role of the city attorney sounds familiar, it is. Sidran made the exact same case to defend himself against charges of prosecutorial "activism." And he makes the same case, in Carr's defense, today. "It's a complete misinterpretation of the job to suggest that a prosecutor is just supposed to keep his mouth shut," Sidran says. "I don't think he's been an activist on issues that are not within the prosecutorial role."
Others, including elected officials like Licata, strongly disagree with Sidran's (and Carr's) contention that the city attorney's role is to advocate, not merely implement, city policies. To the contrary: Licata says he's been taken aback by the active role Carr has adopted on the impound ordinance, a role that he believes should be the provenance of the council. (Licata's proposal to repeal impound, which a majority of the council had supported just three days earlier, was postponed, 6-3, hours after Carr made his pitch to the council. It's currently pending in Licata's public-safety committee.) "Tom has, at times, a rather strong attachment to his views," Licata says. "I find him more frequently crossing the line from that of an attorney-client relationship to that of a policy formulator, like Mark."
The comparison seems especially apt when you consider that Carr stays in much closer contact with Sidran than most elected officials do with their predecessors. Carr and Sidran have had "several conversations," in Sidran's words, about the impound law, and Carr acknowledges asking Sidran, three days before the council's vote, to put pressure on wavering council freshman Jean Godden on Carr's behalf. "I couldn't sit there and do nothing," Carr says of his lobbying efforts. "The council has to know what the consequences of their actions are."
More disturbing to lefty advocates than Carr's activism, though, is what the city attorney is advocating for: a policy platform that looks remarkably similar to his predecessor's conservative agenda.
On an unseasonably warm Friday morning about two weeks ago, Carr and his special assistant, Kathryn Harper, made their way down to a little-used corner in the basement of City Hall. There, behind an anonymous-looking door marked "Seattle Channel," is the studio where programs like Ask the Mayor and Beyond the Badge are taped. The occasion: Carr, accompanied by his criminal-division head, Robert Hood, was appearing on the weekly public-affairs show City Inside/Out to argue against an upcoming committee vote on Licata's proposed impound-ordinance repeal.
Arranging themselves awkwardly among four chairs City Inside/Out host C. R. Douglas had propped on the rickety, carpet-covered stage, the guests (Carr, Hood, Licata, and Defender Association attorney Lisa Daugaard) donned clip-on microphones and prepared for a debate they'd all had many times before--most recently four weeks earlier, when Carr made his surprise appearance at the council's briefings meeting.
The debate over impound, though complex in its details, can be boiled down to a fairly simple question: Is it fair for the city to punish people whose licenses have been suspended for minor infractions, such as failing to pay a traffic ticket, by taking away their cars? Impound advocates like Carr and Sidran argue that impounding a person's car is more compassionate than taking away their liberty. Impound opponents like Licata and Daugaard argue that for people whose only "crime" is being too poor to pay their parking tickets, losing their car is tantamount to losing their freedom. A night in jail, Licata and Daugaard argued, is a relatively minor sanction compared to losing a job because you have no way of getting to work. "These are low-income people, by and large," Daugaard told Douglas. "This is a crisis in our state."
Carr, balancing a hefty sheath of charts and data, came armed with an answer. "We're talking about something the state legislature has decided is a crime," he said. "It is a crime to continue to drive after your license has been suspended. What we're talking about today is, how do we deter that behavior?" Compared to jail, Carr and Hood argued, impound is a more "compassionate" sanction.
The argument is one that makes impound opponents fume. But it's music to the ears of former City Attorney Sidran, who says impound "really focuses people's attention on the fact that they need to deal with" their suspended licenses. "That's a position that I share [with Carr]," Sidran says. As for critics who call Carr "the new Mark Sidran," Sidran has this to say: "God forbid that anybody should be characterized as too much like me! If the worst thing people are saying about Tom is he's too much like me, who am I to get offended by that?"
Carr, for his part, says his position on impound is "fundamentally different" from Sidran's in one crucial respect: "I don't think putting people in jail is the compassionate thing to do. Mark wasn't talking about not putting people in jail. Mark was always interested in doing both." But, Carr adds, echoing Sidran, "If you take away impound as the only remedy, then we are going to be left with either doing nothing or putting people in jail. That's really what the debate is all about."
Impound isn't the only policy for which Carr's arguments sound eerily familiar. In fact, on nearly every controversial policy, from impoundment to the poster ban to "civility" laws aimed at the homeless, Carr has neatly parroted the Sidran line.
On civility laws, which give cops the discretion to arrest people for infractions such as sitting on sidewalks, swearing in public, and "camping": "If the police were out of control and locking people up left and right, I think there would be a problem. But if [the rules are] enforced in the way I think they were intended to be--that is, with compassion and with understanding--they're fine."
On the proposed "four-foot rule," conceived by ousted council member Margaret Pageler and revived by Carr a few weeks ago, that would keep strip-club patrons four feet from employees: "I have always thought that we could address the [strip club] zoning issue better if we had the same regulations that other communities around us have on standards of conduct in strip clubs.... It becomes a point where if you want a really good lap dance, you go to Seattle."
On the poster ban, which was overturned on the grounds that utility poles are a "traditional public forum" for free expression: Postering, according to Carr's appeal of a lower-court decision overturning the poster ban, "substantially contributes to visual blight and clutter and harms the urban aesthetic."
And yet, despite his affinity for many Sidran-era policies, Carr has escaped the kind of blanket condemnation his predecessor suffered at the hands of Seattle's sizable contingent of left-leaning activists, who privately grumble but publicly, so far at least, have left the new city attorney alone. Sidran himself, in fact, marvels at the lefties' kid-gloves treatment of his successor. "Comparatively speaking, I haven't seen anything near the kind of vilification," Sidran says. "There's no Tom Carr Truth Squad. You don't see posters of Tom's face with a swastika over it."
The real difference between Carr and Sidran is that while the abrasive former city attorney often seemed incapable of summoning much genuine sympathy for the poor and downtrodden whom his policies affected, Carr seems at heart to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and even--dare we say it?--liberal than his predecessor. To hear him talk, you might mistake Carr for a bleeding-heart social-service provider instead of the guy most responsible (after the city council) for keeping the city's controversial civility laws in place.
"I've sat in a jail courtroom. It breaks your heart. These guys get dragged in who have very little idea of where they are or why they're there, and we're throwing them in jail," Carr says. "The criminal justice system has become the caretaker for those people and that's absolutely wrong. That's not the way a modern society should work."
It's this contradiction that seems to endear the tough-minded city prosecutor to squeamish Seattle liberals. Like Sidran, he's tough on crime and intolerant of rowdiness. Unlike Sidran, he cares about the homeless, has spent time in the trenches of lefty advocacy, and seems to genuinely want a vibrant city, nightlife and all. Hell, he's the guy who lent his white-shoe credibility to the fledgling monorail when guys like Dick Falkenbury and Grant Cogswell were its only advocates. Those who have clashed with him say he can be stubborn, unyielding, and quick to anger; but others, including many who have had dealings with his predecessor, call him reasonable, sharp-witted, and even progressive.
"He has demonstrated a greater degree of progressivism and more of a hands-off approach," John Fox acknowledges of his sometime adversary. Chris Beer, an attorney who worked with Carr on the monorail initiative campaign, thinks Carr has "tried to move policy forward in a progressive way." Even his frequent adversary Daugaard acknowledges that Carr has been more liberal than Sidran, noting that the city attorney has largely scrapped the High Impact Offender Program, which pursued the maximum allowable jail sentences for defendants based on their criminal histories, regardless of the seriousness of their current crimes. The program, Daugaard says, "conveyed an unfortunate message that we are willing to just give up on some people based on their earlier mistakes." Under Carr, she adds, the city attorney's office has "moved away from the rigid 'throw away the key'" approach espoused by Sidran's office.
In a city where Mark Sidran himself won three consecutive terms (and almost became the mayor, losing by just 3,148 votes), Carr's mix of liberal compassion and tough-guy policies has made him a formidable adversary. In 2001, Carr's lefty cred helped him trounce his opponent, an African-American attorney named Edsonya Charles, by a margin of around 20 percent. And it could catapult him to victory again in 2005 over the objections of a handful of outspoken opponents. While some activists hold out hope that a strong contender will emerge to challenge Carr from the left (Holden, the I-75 proponent, says Carr "may be surprised to learn that Seattle voters remember the track record of those in office"), other Carr adversaries are resigned to another four years unless an equally formidable challenger comes along.
"He's a good campaigner. He's articulate, he's forceful," Licata says. "I just happen to think that he's wrong."