by Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit

In a Northgate church basement as hot and bright as a Baghdad interrogation chamber, 17 Seattle City Council candidates spent three and a half hours last Thursday, June 19, answering a barrage of questions from the 46th District Democrats. The North Seattle crowd of doctrinaire Dems put candidates through a party litmus test, forcing candidates to answer questions on everything from district elections to the neighborhood planning process to the council's volatile relationship with the mayor.

Rudi Bertschi (challenging Peter Steinbrueck) Rudi "I'm Deborah Senn's husband" Bertschi worked a few pointed barbs about Seattle City Light into his anti-Steinbrueck spiel, but he couldn't find a focus when he tried to address the economy and cuts to city services. Grade: C

David Della (challenging Heidi Wills) Easily the most improved candidate, United Way staffer Della was finally opinionated, loud, and confident. Referring to Wills' performance as chair of the City Light oversight committee, Della said Wills "has fundamentally failed." In a smooth sound bite, Della broke down the utility's $1.7 billion debt to $3,019 per citizen. Grade: B

Dick Falkenbury (challenging Margaret Pageler) Falkenbury, the charming ex-cabbie and author of 1997's monorail initiative, seemed to be doing an Elvis impersonation, bobbing at the front of the room and addressing the crowd in a firm but quiet drawl. Pageler, who smiled condescendingly, shouldn't take him lightly. Despite Falkenbury's one-note reputation and looming, sometimes boorish presence, he was funny, hard-hitting, and specific--proposing things like an SPD dispatch upgrade. He even silenced the room of Northgate lefties, telling them frankly, "Light rail isn't going to get to Northgate.... We should stop wasting our money." Bonus points: Falkenbury was the only candidate who brought his mother to the forum. Grade: A

Kollin Min (challenging Judy Nicastro) Min, a middle-of-the-road environmentalist and Preston Gates & Ellis attorney, seemed more like the young, inexperienced newcomer he is than the combative, formidable challenger he needs to be if he wants any shot at unseating a fearsome opponent like Nicastro. His bland message--"I can build coalitions and work with the mayor"--managed to make Nicastro look like the renegade she claims to be. Grade: C

Judy Nicastro (incumbent) Confident in her record as a tenants' rights crusader, Nicastro hyped her 2000 Renters' Summit, her follow-up legislation making it easier for tenants to challenge landlords, and her recent vote against the housing levy--too much money was diverted from tenant assistance to mid-income homeownership. She also played up her pro-development economics, including a measure she sponsored that reduced the minimum parking requirements for builders, and her recent vote to lift the lease lid around the University of Washington. Grade: B+

Margaret Pageler (incumbent) For someone who was job hunting for work outside city hall just a year ago, Pageler was unusually spunky about winning reelection. An upbeat Pageler defiantly supported a controversial plan that would add 640,000 watts of new lighting in the 46th District's Sand Point Magnuson Park, outfoxed opponent, monorail guy Dick Falkenbury, by saying the monorail ignored neighborhood plans, and dissed her council colleagues for failing to accept that Mayor Nickels isn't a bully, he's just good at his job. Grade: B+

Tom Rasmussen (challenging Pageler) You could almost see this soft-spoken city bureaucrat disappear as he fumbled his way through an excruciating introduction. And his message, once he got around to it--"we need a council member who will listen"--was dull, dull, dull. Grade: D

Robert Rosencrantz (challenging Nicastro) Rosencrantz wants people to see him as the janitor who bootstrapped his way to a successful career as a real-estate broker and advocate for low-income housing. But more and more, the oddball landlord is looking like the lone Republican in the field of kneejerk D's, calling for a Microsoft campus in Seattle in the next 10 years. Grade: C+

Darryl Smith (challenging Nicastro) Definitely the best-dressed guy in the room, this baritone-voiced Columbia City activist scored points as a plainspoken candidate. In addition to setting the theme for the night (his forthright rap on Seattle's middle-class housing crisis framed the evening), Smith was also brave enough to tell the roomful of North End neighbors that he supported the controversial Sand Point Magnuson Park field lighting plan. Grade: B+

Peter Steinbrueck (incumbent) Despite going through awkward backflips to mention his famous dad, and despite making the most disingenuous comment of the night (Mayor "South Lake Union/Northgate/Lease Lid/Biotech" Nickels doesn't have a vision, Peter?), Steinbrueck finally got around to playing up his strengths, when he told the crowd he would not cut social services (he actually restored social services in the 2003 budget)--a pledge other candidates weren't willing to make. Grade: B

Mike Thompson (challenging Pageler) This average-Joe populist Maple Leaf neighborhood guy had the biggest challenge of the night: outshining average-Joe populist Maple Leaf monorail guy Dick Falkenbury. He failed. Grade: C

Heidi Wills (incumbent) In the best spin of the evening, Wills wooed the Democratic crowd by saying she'd saved 300 lunch-pail jobs at the Duwamish corridor's Birmingham Steel. What she didn't mention was that she'd done it as the chair of the electric utilities committee, by giving the company an $11.4 million deferment on its energy bill. Grade: B

Christal Wood (challenging Wills) It's easy to dismiss Christal Wood as crazy at worst--you may remember her as the woman who ran for "mayoress"--or irrelevant at best. But despite dressing like a 10th-grade theater student in tuxedo pants and a white shirt with a plunging neckline (she all but rode into the forum on a unicycle)--Wood did get in some of the best applause lines of the night. "The Seattle way turned into Greg Nickels' way, which turned into Paul Allen's way" and Simon Properties' way, Wood said. Grade: C+

Our apologies to incumbent Jim Compton and his three challengers: Angel Bolaños, John Manning, and Susan Harmon, who had the worst time slot--10:30 on a school night.

josh@thestranger.com barnett@thestranger.com

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