The Final Eight

Rent control was also a frequent theme, thanks largely to city council member Kshama Sawant and a large group of her acolytes who stuck around for public comment, in the debate over which of eight finalists will replace Sally Clark until the November election.

The council spent several hours grilling the eight finalists for the position, and although there were some surprises and tense moments (Tom Rasmussen asking Sheley Secrest if her attorney status is active with the state bar association (it isn’t); Sawant giving a very long windup to a loaded question suggesting John Okamoto, who worked as chief administrative officer for the Port, was corrupt), but on balance, I’m going to stand by my original out-on-a-limb prediction: Sharon Maeda seemed to be the least controversial candidate among both the lefty and conservative wings of the council, although both former council member Jan Drago and outgoing Progressive Majority director Noel Frame more than held their own. (Which means, giving my predicting track record, that it’s going to go to attorney Alec Stephens).

This is all going to be decided over the weekend and announced on Monday, barring a mutiny from a council member who can’t accept the candidate picked by the majority, so I’ll just offer a few highlights of a hearing that generally shed little light, for the public anyway, on what these candidates were all about.

• Sawant immediately poked a hole in Okamoto’s balloon, noting pointedly that he hadn’t responded to her widely publicized”10 Questions,” grilling him on why he hadn’t given money to a homeless family for a hotel when they asked for $100 last winter, and suggesting that he was involved in “wrongdoing” at the port (while misidentifying his position there). Okamoto largely held his own, noting that city policy precludes “opening up the pocketbook” of city funds for individual cases, and insisting that he opposed the accounting practices at the Port and said so at the time. Okamoto also had a couple of (for better or worse) memorable quotes, calling O’Brien’s proposed “linkage fee” (a tax on new development to pay for affordable housing) a “wealth transfer” (Okamoto supports it) and referring to Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as the “Housing Affordability and Whatever Committee.”

• Sheley Secrest, who won plaudits from Sawant for supporting rent control and supporting the highest possible linkage fee on developers, got hung up for a second when Tom Rasmussen inquired into the status of her legal license, which, Crosscut reports, was suspended in 2012, and which she never renewed. Secrest also had a weird moment when asked what her transportation priorities would be, responding, “Coming from my culture, I’m not really a bike-ride-to-work kind of person. A lot of African Americans are not. The car is our status symbol. We’re looking for the cars with the rims.”

• Jan Drago had an out-of-body moment of her own, responding to a question about affordability by returning to an issue she followed keenly in her council days: The long-debated annexation of White Center, which, she said, could bring badly needed revenues to help pay for affordable housing. Sally Bagshaw tried to steer Drago back to Seattle and its current affordability crisis, but Drago—who generally came across as competent, prepared, and eager for the job—seemed bent on revisiting an issue that has been on the back burner in Seattle as other, more immediately pressing issues (affordability, police accountability) have taken precedent.

To her credit, Drago also brought her (in this case, more relevant) experience to bear on the city’s recent crackdown on low-level drug crimes at Third and Pine, noting that she’s lived in Pioneer Square for many years and has never seen any result from such sweeps other than the movement of drug activity from place to place. “We’re already seeing it in Occidental Park,” Drago said, where residents pay for private security to patrol the area.

• Another Sawant favorite, Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, got lengthy praise from Sawant (who read Lee’s answers to her Ten Questions verbatim) and applause from the crowd for responding in the affirmative to Sawant’s question about rent control. Lee would have to resign from her position as well as positions on several boards to take the council position, and would be restricted from lobbying the council on behalf of LIHI for a year after leaving—a factor that will likely work against Lee among those doing the appointing, including, potentially, Lee’s supporters (what’s the point of having an affordable housing advocate on the council for eight months if it means she can’t advocate for affordable housing for a year afterward?)

Lee got lots of love from the pro-rent-control crowd, and her conversation with the council prompted Bagshaw to suggest that low-income people applying for city, county, or state assistance should be able, in the future, to provide all their documentation just once, instead of delivering hard copies to each agency or department, as they do now. Lee readily endorsed that idea.

• Sharon Maeda, who talked a lot about the “disconnect” that exists when low-income people think they have to live in places like North Bend and commute to their low-paying jobs in Seattle, suggested a unique approach to enforcing Seattle’s new wage-theft ordinance: Just as some cities have started publishing databases of johns caught patronizing prostitutes, perhaps the city should have a database of miscreant employers who fail to pay employees for their work.

• Noel Frame, a Democratic Party activist and onetime candidate for 36th District state representative, delivered a brave (and baller) opening statement, telling the council bluntly, “I am a survivor of sexual abuse, I am somebody who manages my own mental health with medication every single day, and I am far from the worst off in my family.” The bold intro, which also touched on addiction in Frame’s family, might have been out of place if it wasn’t so relevant to the affordability crisis (many people cope with mental illness in unhealthy ways that leave them impoverished or homeless) and street crime (many street “criminals” are people with untreated mental health disorders and addictions, and the city, state, and county have not funded the resources it would take to help them and get them long-term shelter instead of simply rounding them up and arresting them.)

Editorializing here (as in, these are my thoughts, not Frame’s): While it’s great that the city is putting some minimal resources into “diversion” programs like LEAD to give addicts and people with mental illness a chance, however slim, to get their lives together, programs like LEAD use the stick of arrest and threatened jail sentences instead of the carrot of services before someone’s small-time criminal activities or obvious mental-health issues morph into violent crime or self-harm.