ON THURSDAY JULY 15, WHILE 47,000 Seattleites gathered under the retractable roof, the Budweiser ads, and the flashing scoreboard to watch the Mariners start their new era, 100-plus folks gathered in North Seattle under fluorescent lights and the bingo score board at the Greenwood Senior Center on North 85th Street to watch 11 city council candidates start the campaign season. The two-hour forum was sponsored by the 46th and 36th District Democrats. Each candidate gave a two-minute spiel, and then responded to written questions from the audience. There were seven questions in all, ranging from "Are you a Democrat?" to "How do you keep Seattle livable for low- and moderate-income people?"

The answers varied from odd (Cheryl Chow thinks people should move in with their parents to solve the housing crisis) to annoying (newcomer Andrew Scully went over the time limit trying to answer the "are you a Democrat?" question); from predictable (several candidates pontificated about bike lanes) to evasive (Peter Steinbrueck wouldn't answer the yes-or-no question: "Do you support the poster ban repeal?" -- instead offering, "I'll let the voters decide"); from smart (Curt Firestone suggested proportional representation for city council elections) to downright original (Daniel Norton advocated turning public transportation costs into a monthly utility bill).

However, in an era when it's hard enough to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans, imagine trying to find distinguishing characteristics at a table of 11 Seattle Dems. Indeed, several candidates slipped into the background, speaking in lazy generalities about livability, kids, and diversity. Try this one out for size from position 7 candidate, Ballard activist Thomas Whittemore: "What I want to do is bring community into city government."

But a few others shined. For example, Wallingford renters' rights activist Judy Nicastro, 34, who is running for position 1 against middle-school principal and failed mayoral contender Chow, was a damn rock star. Her fine-tuned opening statement zeroed in on affordable housing: "People who own homes now," she asked rhetorically, "could you afford those homes if you were in the market today?" And she was the only candidate in the room who mentioned the public's wariness of the SPD. In fact, she called for an independent review board. She also unveiled two of the evening's more provocative (and popular) ideas: establishing a renter's right to renew leases, and the right to have a mobile credit check.

Green Party coordinator Curt Firestone, 58, running for position 5 against incumbent Margaret "Vote for Continuity" Pageler, also made a good showing. Sporting a full gray beard and a set of beige walking shoes, the bullhorn lefty came on like a talk-radio populist -- winning more applause than the 10 others combined. The applause-ometer, in fact, peaked during his opening remarks when he trashed the "sports entertainment industry" for robbing hard-earned taxpayer money. During the Q&A he was particularly articulate on growth and housing issues -- if not a little infectiously starry-eyed. He said rent increases should be tied to wage and cost-of-living increases. And he was the only candidate, with the exception of Ron Sims' special assistant Heidi Wills, who got specific about growth management. He openly supported density housing, in-fill development, and upward growth -- accompanied by community and rec centers. (He didn't, however, mention where the money would come from.)

Ultimately, the other candidates didn't match the passion, presentation, or originality of Nicastro and Firestone, although subdued populist and former city council member Charlie Chong deserves his proppers for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic party. Despite some odd comments on transportation, he was the only candidate in the room, for example, to specifically name the homeless in his catalogue of government responsibilities. He was also the only candidate to get real about the poster ban. The final question of the evening was posed as a yes-or-no option: Do you support the poster ban repeal? While the majority of candidates hemmed and hawed about the safety of line workers, Chong flatly supported the repeal, and quite correctly called safety a "phony issue."

It's rumored that some heavy hitters are waiting in the wings to join the race. Judging from opening night at the Greenwood Senior Center, with a few exceptions, their competition won't be too rough.

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