`SEATTLE used to be America's most livable city,'' David Stern tells voters in a packed community center. ``Today it's getting to be America's scariest city.''
Making crime his No. 1 issue, Mr. Stern is mounting an unexpectedly tough bid to unseat Mayor Norm Rice in elections this November.
Stern has an uphill battle to convince voters that the popular mayor is to blame for rising violence. But the businessman's challenge highlights growing concern here that the Emerald City is losing its luster as a metropolis relatively free from crime, grime, and racial tension.
``People are deeply worried about Seattle's future,'' Mayor Rice acknowledges.
Similar concerns echo in mayoral elections from coast to coast. In New York, for example, challenger Rudolph Giuliani is knocking David Dinkins, another black incumbent mayor, for not making the streets safe. In Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, like Stern a white conservative businessman, built a successful campaign against political insider Michael Woo on the crime issue as well as the economy.
On this evening in Seattle, as the two candidates share the stage to answer voter questions, violence overshadows other traditional concerns in the city, such as traffic and growth management.
Stern, who emerged as Rice's main challenger in a recent primary election, begins his opening statement abruptly: ``The bottom line is we have a 30 percent increase in murder. We had two last night.''
Particularly troublesome is the rise of youth violence connected to Asian, black, and Samoan gangs. Several teenagers and even one nine-year-old girl have been killed this year.
Rice says the solution involves much more than tougher law en- forcement. He recently unveiled an anti-violence program in which the city government will unite with community groups to get at the root causes of the problem. He plans greater recreational and employment opportunities for teens, anti-gang intervention, and education aimed at preventing drug abuse and domestic violence. He also points to the need to curb depictions of violence on television.
``We want to attack ... wherever the seeds of violence are planted,'' he says.
Stern says the mayor has failed to mount such an attack in four years on the job. In a 1989 study paid for by the city, Stern says he recommended lighting up high-crime neighborhoods, disconnecting incoming calls to pay phones where drug-pushers operate, and putting laptop computers in police cars to reduce office paperwork. In addition to repeating his old suggestions, Stern is calling for 200 more police officers and for an 11 p.m. curfew for youths.
The mayor responds that a curfew ``doesn't mean a thing'' without gun control. ``It's the gun that is the problem.'' He says the state should either take steps to control handguns and semiautomatic weapons or allow Seattle act on its own. Stern says he supports gun control, but mentions the issue only when asked by the community-center audience.
Stern's success may depend on whether voters buy into his view of Seattle as a city in crisis, and on the extent to which he can pin blame on Rice. Ironically, this grim picture is being painted by a retired advertising executive who helped popularize the ``Happy Face'' symbol in a 1967 marketing effort.
Stern alleges that Rice has not only been soft on crime but also has allowed downtown business to be stifled by taxes, panhandlers, and exorbitant parking-meter fees.
In reply, Rice points to selective tax cuts planned in his current budget and his efforts to draw new businesses to the city center. His low-key, management-by-consensus style is credited with building bridges with business leaders as well as the City Council.
Several audience members take Stern to task for being too harsh on the mayor, given that problems like violence and homelessness are national in scope.
``Why should I vote for you?'' one woman asks. ``All I hear is negative.''
Rice scores some points on the same front, joking: ``I was worried that if the [University of Washington] Huskies lost I'd be blamed for that, too.''
He wins the biggest applause of the night when he encourages voters to ``look at what's good in Seattle'' as well as the city's challenges.