Yet listening closely to Ken Klein and Bill Blake, different priorities and philosophies became clear. That was particularly obvious when it came to views on land-use regulations.
Blake, the Democrat, sees such rules as necessary for maintaining sustainable urban growth, without crowding out natural resource-dependent industries such as farming or forestry.
In that respect, Blake said his experience running Arlington's city permit center left him well-equipped to chart the county's future.
"I don't like permits any more than anybody," he said, "and so it was good to have me in there to put the common-sense test to all decisions and help the customers, most important to be fair and consistent with every customer."
For Klein, those same land regulations are responsible for driving up housing prices and putting north Snohomish County farmers out of business. He said he's witnessed the erosion of property rights as an Arlington city councilman and as vice chairman of the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He vowed to stop it.
"I will fight every single increase to land-use regulation on the (County) Council," Klein said.
Friday's debate, hosted by the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce, was the first public face-off since Klein and Blake won the top spots in the Aug. 6 primary. In a field of five, Klein took more than 32 percent of the 19,732 votes, Blake about 28 percent. The spread between them was 845 votes.
The general election is Nov. 5.
At stake is the District 1 seat representing the areas of Marysville, Arlington, Granite Falls, Stanwood and Darrington. The term runs for four years. Annual pay is about $106,000.
In a bigger sense, what's at stake is the Republican Party's lone toehold in county government. The term-limited incumbent in District 1, John Koster, is the only elected member of the GOP left.
The other four County Council members are all Democrats. So is County Executive John Lovick.
Klein drove home that point.
"What I would bring is a different point of view," he said. "Maintaining that seat for a Republican is key for the county."
Klein, 34, was elected in 2011 to the City Council in his hometown of Arlington. His day job is working as an operations manager with a food services company on Microsoft's Redmond campus. He's the appointed vice chairman of the county planning commission.
Klein is descended from north county dairy farmers and is the fifth generation of his family living there.
Blake, 54, has similarly deep roots in the area, as a third-generation county resident and a blood relative of Snohomish founder E.C. Ferguson.
Blake has worked for 13 years for Arlington, where he's currently the stormwater supervisor. His past career includes stretches as a Weyerhaeuser mill worker and bank employee. He's the longtime co-chairman of the Stillaguamish Watershed Council.
The two candidates are well acquainted through Arlington city government and even carpooled to a July campaign event.
The tone on Friday was friendly. The candidates chatted before and after the forum at the Tulalip Resort Casino.
One debate question asked about their opponent's greatest attributes, with each offering praise that bordered on effusive.
"He's definitely got me on the tall and handsome and good-looking part," the folksy, bearded Blake joked of his blond, athletic opponent.
After the chuckles, Blake said, "He's sincere and he cares and wants to do the best for his community."
Klein, in turn, said, "Bill's mentality as a staff member is what we need throughout government."
"Constituents -- I think he'd be fantastic with them," he added.
In the audience was Marysville realtor Gary Wright, the Republican who finished third in the primary. Though his two former rivals' government philosophies sometimes diverge, Wright thought their debate responses were largely the same. He would have appreciated more discussion of taxation and its effect on businesses.
"There wasn't much contrast," Wright said.
Koster also took in the event. Afterward, he said he particularly liked Klein's opposition to the state's proposed 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax to pay for transportation projects. Klein said state road projects need reform more than they need more revenue.
"Ken's answer was right on -- let's have the reforms first," Koster said.
Blake had said he'd probably agree with Klein, but admitted he wasn't familiar with the details of the state transportation proposal.
Klein reported raising nearly $29,00 for his campaign as of this week and Blake about $8,200, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Two other County Council races this fall are in east county and south county.
Dave Somers of Monroe, the Democratic incumbent, is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Chris Vallo of Lake Stevens in District 5.
Former Mill Creek Mayor Terry Ryan, a Democrat, is competing against Republican Bob Reedy of Mountlake Terrace in District 4. Councilman Dave Gossett, a Democrat, has the job now, but like Koster, cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Friday's debate will be aired on cable by Comcast channel 21 Aug. 27 through Sept. 2 and on Frontier channel 25 at noon, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., as well as at other playback times.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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