Seattle city attorney campaign ripe with political drama
By Kathy Mulady
When it comes to election-year drama, passion and juicy debates, the Seattle city attorney race is going to be the one to watch if the first two weeks are any indication.
“It is personal,” said Pete Holmes, a bankruptcy attorney and former chairman of the police professional accountability review board.
Holmes said he is frustrated by what he describes as a lack of transparency in city government, grandstanding and prosecution of minor crimes that fill up the jail.
So he is challenging City Attorney Tom Carr, who has been in office for two terms — eight years without facing an opponent in the election ring.
“With me, it’s not personal,” said Carr. “I am the incumbent — I am running on my record. I will talk about him (Holmes) if I am asked. For years I put up with the cheap shots. I am happy we are now able to have this discussion.”
Holmes’ campaign for city attorney had an odd start.
He first signed up for the Seattle City Council race.
After conversations with other lawyers, and some research by his then-campaign manager, Cindy Laws, showing that Carr was vulnerable, Holmes switched to the city attorney race.
The problem was, Laws is a close friend of Carr and his family. The two worked together for years on the Seattle monorail board. Two weeks ago, in tears, she told Carr she didn’t want to manage Holmes’ campaign against him, but she needed the work.
Carr quickly hired her as his campaign consultant, leaving Holmes fuming.
“I am helping a friend who I care about very much,” said Carr. “She didn’t change. He changed.”
Holmes had been hammering at the lack of transparency in city government for years.
As chairman of the police professional accountability review board, he was repeatedly frustrated when annual reports produced by the board were withheld from the public because of concerns that they contained confidential information about officers.
“It makes more sense to err in favor of transparency and openness, rather than to work so hard to find excuses to hide the information,” Holmes said.
Carr said it wasn’t his decision not to release reports. He just offered advice.
“I’m not sure Pete really understands what a lawyer does,” Carr said. “He came to our office for legal advice. We advised him that there was risk associated with the report. We tried to help him. That is my role, I am the lawyer. It is always the client’s choice what to do.”
The transparency question came up again last week when four members of the City Council — not enough to vote — planned to meet with Mayor Greg Nickels in a closed-door session to discuss budget cuts in the face of a $43 million budget deficit.
A Seattle Times reporter wrote that she was pulled out of the meeting room by her bag strap when she tried to attend.
Carr said City Council members didn’t ask his advice. Later, he said the meeting was questionable. The real problem, he said, rises when the four council members meet with other council members and create a “rolling quorum” that could violate the law.
Holmes called Carr’s eventual response to the closed meeting an “election-year conversion.”
“For eight years Carr has never missed an opportunity to block public and legal access to public officials and public documents,” said Holmes. “If Carr were truly committed to transparency, he would have shown consistency on these issues over the years.”
But Carr said transparency isn’t an ongoing issue with the City Council.
“Our council seems to lean over backward to do everything in public,” he said. “We are among the most transparent governments in the state.”
Carr’s efforts to keep public records private was criticized a couple of years ago when Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed him to the state’s Sunshine Committee.
Carr said Saturday that the city has had few fines for incorrectly withholding public records, especially compared with the state and other jurisdictions.
Off the campaign trail, Holmes and Carr are both gracious, soft-spoken and mild-mannered. Both lawyers are passionate about their issues and devoted to fighting injustice.
Holmes lives in the Rainier Valley; Carr in West Seattle. Both have two children and are devoted to their families, communities and their profession.
As the challenger, Holmes is expected to take shots at Carr’s record. As the incumbent, Carr is called on to defend the accomplishments of his office.
“I bet Tom is a great guy, but as a lawyer, I am really disappointed in him,” said Holmes. He has a list of complaints about Carr that includes:
* Operation Sobering Thought: Seattle police swarmed bars on a Saturday night, arresting 27 people, including bartenders later charged with serving alcohol to minors. Carr threatened 20 days in jail for all charged, but the cases were either resolved with signed agreements or dismissed. Holmes calls the sting simple grandstanding; the city council was expected to vote on a controversial nightlife ordinance the next Monday.
* Minor drug charges: Prosecution that increases the need for the city to build a new jail because of overcrowding at the King County facility.
* The Seattle Sonics lawsuit: The case was settled hours before a judge was expected to announce her decision in the case. “She was going to hand the city its hat,” said Holmes.
Carr said he couldn’t be prouder of the accomplishments of his office.
“We have done a lot of good stuff. We reduced the number of mentally ill and drug-addicted people in jail. The jail daily population was 400 when I took office, now its down to about 254. We have looked for more effective ways of handling people rather than putting them in jail.”
Carr said a new jail still may be needed.
“We need to have room to put dangerous people in jail, if we have to,” he said.
Marijuana cases are getting less attention, domestic violence cases are getting more, Carr said.
The city has been working with the Seattle School District to clarify trespass policies to reduce gang recruitment at schools, and is working with the city on the effort to reduce youth gun violence.
Besides dealing prosecution of misdemeanor-level crime, the city attorney’s office is also general counsel for the city, and gives opinions on a range of issues including environmental law, employment and utilities.
They don’t always prevail. A Magnolia citizens group recently won a decision requiring more environmental review before homeless housing can be built on property bordering Discovery Park.
Citizens received rebates on electric bills and will get some money back on their water bills because of court decisions that went against the city.
Carr takes the most pride in cases that have helped people turn their lives around, and the variety of cases.
“I think it is the best legal job in America,” he said.
Lives in Rainier Valley
Grew up in central Virginia
Law degree from the University of Virginia
Moved to Seattle in 1985
Partner at Miller Nash, focusing on bankruptcy law, until 2001
Chairman of the Seattle Police Department Office of Professional Accountability Review Board from 2003 to 2008
Leadership Tomorrow, Class of 2006
Seattle Police Department, Community Policing Academy, Class of 2003
Now working in bankruptcy law at Crocker Kuno in Seattle
Seattle City Attorney
Lives in West Seattle
Born and raised in New York
Started career as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, New York
Moved to Seattle in 1991, partner in law firm Barrett Gilman and Ziker
Member of the King County Board for the Developmentally Disabled. Chairman of the Elevated Transportation Co. (monorail project)
Elected city attorney in November 2001, took office January 2002. Re-elected in 2005
Kathy Mulady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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