The most revealing part of last night's Seattle Human Services Coalition candidates forum was the order of the program. The headline bout was Kshama Sawant vs. incumbent council member Richard Conlin, followed by the mayor's race. The audience started to trickle out after that.
It was an acknowledgement not just that these are the only two contests of which the outcome isn't all but certain, but that these are the only two contests in which a candidate is generating any real excitement. And in the excitement category, nobody is lighting up the room quite like Sawant.
The room was filled with Sawant supporters who consistently delivered the longest and loudest ovations of the night. But it wasn't just a handful of noisy socialists. Sawant's economic justice theme, particularly her focus on a $15 an hour minimum wage and, yes, even rent control, has consistently resonated with rank and file voters. It's her passionate mix of short-term pragmatism ("tent cities are a really necessary stopgap measure to help homeless people") and long-term economic idealism ("the roots of homelessness are in the roots of our capitalist economy") that gives Sawant such a special appeal. Nobody is questioning Conlin's intent. But Sawant does constantly question how he and his colleagues can claim to represent the interests of the people while relying on contributions from big business to fund their campaigns.
One gets the feeling that if Sawant had the kind of get out the vote machine that McGinn is known for, she might actually pull this race out.
To his credit, Conlin was calm and good-natured throughout the forum, despite the overtly pro-Sawant crowd. Following Sawant's opening statement, Conlin, smile glued to his face, stood patiently waiting for her ovation to die down before self-mockingly thanking the audience for their applause. Good on him. He even elicited a few laughs. But he elicited no passion, no cheers, no boisterous round of applause.
As for the mayoral candidates, frontrunner Ed Murray could take some lessons from Conlin's calm demeanor in the face of withering criticism. At the end of a long day (this was the third of three mayoral forums), Murray could no longer hide his disdain for the mayor, attempting to shout him down during Mike McGinn's closing statement. That's poor form, and the room let him know it. And it was really the only interesting moment their short, 15-minute mayoral debate.