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Tuesday, August 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Candidates forum mixes comedy, pinch of politics

Seattle Times staff reporter

By entertainment standards, the show on stage last evening at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre was a comedic success. Plenty of laughs were had by all.

This was no Neil Simon play, but a Seattle mayoral candidates' forum.

What was supposed to be a discussion of the arts was largely upstaged by topics like whether rock star Kurt Cobain was murdered, thanks to the eclectic mix of mayoral candidates invited.

The guy who stole the show undoubtedly was Richard Lee, who wore a purple dress and videotaped himself for his cable-access show, devoted to his theory that Cobain did not kill himself but rather was killed in a music-industry conspiracy.

Sitting next to Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels, Lee demanded that Nickels explain why he was participating in the cover-up of Cobain's "murder" — queries that Nickels declined to answer, collapsing at one point in hysterical laughter.

Lee drew both laughs and jeers from the audience, which he responded to by muttering into his videocamera.

Next to him was Omari Tahir-Garrett, the African-American activist who is accused of assaulting Mayor Paul Schell with a megaphone at a Central Area event last month.

Garrett turned many questions into speeches on his own burning cause — the failed efforts to fund an African-American Heritage Museum. He pledged to withhold all city arts funding dedicated to "rich people's playtime" until the museum effort is given $25 million.

Garrett drew some of the evening's largest applause, mainly from 50 or so protesters who had shown up to decry the candidacy of City Attorney Mark Sidran. Sidran, too, had his comedic moment, despite the hisses from demonstrators in the crowd. Displaying a crude drawing of what looked to be a pirate, Sidran said he supported arts funding so that people talented at art, unlike him, could get a chance to succeed.

Schell, who looked glum when the audience applauded Garrett, remained serious throughout. When Lee approached him with his video camera, demanding an answer to a Cobain-related question. Schell said, "No comment."

Also participating in the forum, which was moderated by KING-TV's Lori Matsukawa, were Capitol Hill businessman Scott Kennedy and former City Councilman Charlie Chong, who got off the last joke.

Chong, making a rare public appearance, said he feared two outcomes of the race:

If Nickels is elected, it would be like "four years of a Bonanza rerun," because Nickels resembles the character "Hoss," Chong said. And if Sidran wins, it would be like a "Stephen King movie."

Then, in a virtual endorsement, Chong said a second Schell term might be "bumpy," but the city would be better off for it.

Some people left before the final curtain.

"Oh, it's just pathetic," said Mark Jennings as he left the theater with Kimberly McNally. Both board members for The Empty Space Theatre, they had hoped for a serious discussion of the arts.

"It was like an episode of 'Saturday Night Live,' " Jennings said.

Jim Brunner can be reached at 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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