Harrell fans saved seats at the Rainier Arts Center with the candidates distinctive bright orange t-shirts.
Harrell fans saved seats at the Rainier Arts Center with the candidate's distinctive bright orange t-shirts. HK

After a long election season of mostly online debates and forums, last Saturday candidates for King County Executive, Seattle City Attorney, City Council Position 9, and Mayor squared off at an in-person event called The Great Debate 2021 — and it was a great debate.

Before the final candidates closed out the five-hour marathon, host Julius Caesar Robinson took to the stage and gave the audience at the Rainier Arts Center a stern look – they had gotten a little too rowdy in the last round, and so Robinson told them to be civilized.

“The only people who are allowed to be uncivilized are Bruce Harrell and Lorena González,” he said, introducing the mayoral candidates.

The debates – and there have been a lot of them, trust me, I know – have been pretty tame aside from a few standout jabs: In a Sept. 30 debate hosted by the Seattle Times, city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy said the only thing her opponent was correct about was that homelessness was an issue; in a forum hosted by Rainier Avenue Radio and Converge Media on Oct. 20, Nikkita Oliver pointed out the illegal use of eco-blocks outside Fremont Brewing’s production facility, a business Nelson co-owns.

On Saturday, the candidates more or less stuck to their usual scripts. King County executive candidate and state Senator Joe Nguyen made clear his love of White Center. Thomas-Kennedy summoned her usual examples of pointlessly prosecuted misdemeanors: sandwich theft and sleeping under an awning. Nelson was the first to make the obligatory mention of the $15 minimum wage, a policy she initially did not support. Mayoral hopeful Bruce Harrell insisted Lorena González says nothing of substance.

But in the homestretch of the campaign trail, the candidates seem to have developed a slightly more ravenous taste for blood.

Constantine bit back when Nguyen criticized the incumbent's support of a larger youth prison. Republican city attorney candidate Ann Davison, who pulled out of the debate last-minute, was still present in spirit as Thomas-Kennedy faced a debate-turned-questionnaire-turned-accusation from Davison’s camp. Oliver, on several occasions, absolutely bodied Nelson. And — in classic Seattle style — the mayoral candidates talked about González's recent attack ad without actually talking about it at all.

In short, there sure were some zingers this weekend. I've marked them in bold.

To Jail Kids, or Not to Jail Kids?

Constantine (who sipped from a can of Limoncello La Croix during the debate) and Nguyen led the first round of debates. The two distinguished themselves from the get-go: Nguyen posited himself as an underdog from a background often not represented in office, while Constantine played a highlight reel of his long record with a special emphasis on his COVID-19 response. The man loves to talk about his hotels.

Sleeves rolled up to his elbows and one hand firmly grasping the podium, Constantine did not hold back.

The moderator asked, “What are your plans for homelessness? And why are they better than your opponents?”

“Well, they're better because they're real,” Constantine said before flexing a few of his admittedly insufficiently sized housing solutions: 850 hotel units that will soon become 1,600 new enhanced shelter beds and permanent supportive housing, and 400 jobs that will pay unhoused folks $20 to $25 an hour to pick up trash.

Though in much less zingy-fashion, Nguyen countered, saying the homelessness “situation has only gotten worse” during Constantine’s tenure. He would like more emphasis on solving the “root causes” of homelessness. Nguyen reminded the audience that it is much cheaper to keep someone housed than it is to take on homelessness.

Constantine’s response: “It is true. In my time in office, I've not solved global income inequality.”

Technically, Nguyen is challenging from the left, but the difference between the two candidates is not quite as stark as it is between the candidates in the Seattle races. But since the beginning of his campaign, Nguyen has pointed to a key difference: their stances on the new, bigger youth jail.

Constantine supported a 2012 ballot measure to build a new youth jail. But after much outcry, Constantine pledged to end juvenile detention by 2025. In a candidate Q&A with the South Seattle Emerald, Nguyen said it is “frustrating” that the jail was built in the first place when communities have rallied against it from the very beginning.

“If we were, for instance, using our money to build a bigger youth jail, instead of community-based solutions to actually help our kids, that actually is part of the problem,” Nguyen said. “When we only have one solution – which is the legal system – to disrupt this harm, guess what's going to happen? We’re gonna use that legal system.”

Constantine responded: “I appreciate Senator Nguyen pointing out the amount the county has to spend on the criminal legal system. That is all an unfunded mandate from the state of Washington. And he's in an ideal position to be able to affect that … He has never introduced a bill to make that not [the case], so I welcome him in doing that.”

NTK vs Davison's PAC

Any interaction between polar-opposites Davison and Thomas-Kennedy is truly a treat. Unfortunately, Davison could not attend the Saturday debate, as she was in Texas with her ill mother. She sent a representative to explain her absence and to give some insight into her platform.

In a last minute pivot, the spotlight turned on Thomas-Kennedy.

She took questions from Robinson and gave bits of her usual spiel, including her claim that the Seattle Police Department gassed her neighborhood during the protests last summer. But things really started to heat up when audience members started asking the questions.

“I’m gonna ask that you keep it respectful,” Robinson said to the audience. “Although I think Nicole’s got some thick skin.”

Victoria Beach came up to the mic. Beach, the Seattle Police Department’s African-American Advisory Council Chair, runs a pro-Davison PAC called “Seattle for Common Sense” alongside other “Seattle Is Dying” types, including former Mayor Ed Murray’s public safety advisor and failed city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay and SoDo BIA director Erin Goodman.

Beach claimed to live across the street from Thomas-Kennedy and called the teargas claims into question.

“Never, ever was our neighborhood tear-gassed. That's a complete lie,” Beach said, earning applause from Davison’s base. “...I talked to people in your building on my block and that never happened. So you need to change your excuse. Why did you say those vile, evil words? You need to come up with another excuse. The only thing that happened in our neighborhood were the little punks that rioted, hijacking the Black Lives Matter movement, tearing up the city.”

Thomas-Kennedy was firm, nearly gritting her teeth: “I'm very glad that you didn't get tear gas in your house, but I did.”

Thomas-Kennedy lives seven blocks away from the East Precinct, the site of the protests that lead up to CHOP.

She tried to defend herself further, but shouting drowned her out. Beach accused one Thomas-Kennedy defender of “drinking her Kool-aid.”

Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign provided the Stranger with screenshots of her Amazon order history that show two gas masks purchased June 2.

An Absolute Bloodbath

This debate was by far the rowdiest. You would have thought organizers were using a clap-o-meter to keep score on attempts from Nelson and Oliver supporters to out-cheer one another, but I couldn’t see one. Nelson’s crowd was mostly holdovers from Davison’s supporters, who were also waiting around for Harrell to take the stage later that evening. With Davison’s mask merch, Nelson’s little namecards, and Harrell’s bright orange shirts, the conservative slate definitely won the merch game.

When it came to zingers, however, there was no competition. Oliver dominated. The dunks could be stitched together in a devastating YouTube compilation, but nobody at the Democratic Socialists of America would have time to do that.

Nelson did cuss at one point, which is fun. She said, “It’s not incrementalism, I call it get shit-done-ism,” which sounded like a personal problem.

The first question asked the candidates to identify issues specific to the South End and then explain how they would address them. Nelson wanted to go down to the South End and engage with constituents. Oliver said they didn’t have to visit the South End because they live there. Easy lay-up.

When the question of defunding the police came up, Nelson said she wanted to see reforms, as cops are responding to calls they are not trained to respond to, but abolition was off the table. Nelson quoted the Seattle Times Editorial Board and called abolition “magical irrationality.”

“When we wanted to abolish slavery, they said that was ‘magical irrationality’ too,” Oliver responded, who taught a class on the subject at Seattle University School of Law.

Oliver, who is nonbinary, also called out Nelson for misgendering them during the debate: “You put my pronouns on your mailer, I’d think you’d know them by now.” Nelson apologized.

Call me a super-fan, but I’ve watched a lot of candidate forums. A lot. And this is one I would recommend you watch in full. It was a bloodbath at the pace of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Nelson said it best when she returned to the mic as the crowd cheered for closing statements: “I’m so glad this is over with.”

Talking About It Without Really Talking About It

On its surface, the mayor’s debate seemed pretty normal, but it was littered with references to past debates, and, of course, the talk of the weekend, González’s ad, “Survivor.”

Right before the debate, Harrell hopped on a Zoom call with Black campaign supporters to call on González to pull her ad. The 30-second ad featured a white rape survivor who said she could never vote for Harrell. The speakers on the Zoom press conference said the ad was harmful to the Black community because it reinforced tropes about Black men and sexual violence.

The ad aimed to contrast the candidates’ responses to the Murray sexual abuse allegations that resurfaced in 2017; at that time, Harrell minimized the sexual abuse of five boys, many of them Black, infamously saying that Seattle residents “did not ask us to judge anyone for something that happened 33 years ago or maybe didn’t happen… I don’t want to be judged for anything 33 years ago.” He hasn’t changed his position. Meanwhile, González was the first member of the council to demand Murray’s resignation. González has since pulled the ad, though she reaffirmed in a video statement to her supporters that Harrell has a “troubling” record of responding to sexual abuse.

The moderator asked what specific solutions each candidate would bring forward to address the immediate and long-term safety and support needs of survivors of gender-based violence.

The question went to González first. She touted 10 years of representing survivors of sexual assault as an attorney and pointed to her role on the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center Advisory Cabinet.

Harrell gave a quick Dos and Don'ts: He said the city should invest in existing organizations who do the work of supporting survivors and make sure that perpetrators face consequences.

“What we don’t do is politicize this issue,” Harrell said before shouting out his presser earlier that day.

That day, in a press release, González said Harrell’s response to this ad is another example of him “denying the facts and discrediting a victim.”

“Leaders in our city government and across the nation have a really important and heavy responsibility to speak truth to power when it needs to be spoken,” González countered. “That includes making sure that no victim and no survivor's voice is oppressed, or is quieted, again, for any purpose, whether it's political or otherwise.”

Harrell gave another nod to the presser in his rebuttal, and then again in closing statements.

Harrell at one point declined a rebuttal because he didn’t hear “anything of substance to rebut.” In previous debates, Harrell has insisted on multiple occasions that González is just “stringing words together.” In this debate, González tried to beat Harrell to the punch.

“So I am gonna just put a bunch of words together for a minute and I promise I'm gonna put them into a sentence,” González said. “And so I'll start off by saying Goodman, Petrie and about 200 people at an unmasked event in South Lake Union who gentrified the Chinatown International District — all combined, this is the who's-who of the luxury real estate developer world who have, at last check, spent $1.1 million to get my opponent elected.”

González was referring to the wealthy interests that have dumped a total of more than $1.9 million into various conservative PACs – the pro Davison Seattle for Common Sense, Bruce Harrell for Seattle's Future, and the pro-Nelson Change Seattle.

In the closing statement Harrell made a bipartisan zing. He said, “This is facetious, but are there any gettable votes out here in this audience?”

Attendees wearing bright orange Harrell tees and those with “Lorena” stickers both seemed to give knowing laughs. The Great Debate 2021 was a heated one where candidates did not seem to work the room for undecideds, but rather make last-minute dunks on their opponents to rile up their bases.