A sprawling but tightly run forum hosted by the Maple Leaf Community Council last night showcased a group of candidates growing more comfortable in the often-parochial milieu of neighborhood politics (seriously: One of the questions for every candidate was, “How long have you lived here?”), and more comfortable in their (sometimes newfound) roles as political figures.
On the most-improved list among those seeking the four seats representing the North End neighborhood (the 4th and 5th district seats, plus Positions 8 and 9): Council incumbent Tim Burgess (seeking the Position 8 open seat), arts and streetcar advocate John Roderick (also running for Position 8), and former Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson (running against Jean Godden in the 4th). That isn’t a knock on other impressive candidates like Michael Maddux (D4), Mercedes Elizalde (D5), Bill Bradburd (Position 8), Deborah Juarez (D5), but a recognition that other candidates have gotten their legs after somewhat shaky starts.
Burgess’ weakness, as I mentioned in a post about an earlier North Seattle forum, has been his Elder Statesman persona–his attempt to project gravitas by dutifully citing all his accomplishments on the council (universal pre-K? check; nurse-family partnership? check) in a way that all but screams, “What the hell do you whippersnappers think you’re doing, taking on Father Time over here?” Let’s remember that Burgess himself defeated an incumbent, single-term council member David Della, in 2007, making him a relative newcomer on the council.
Last night, in contrast, Burgess was on point, specific, and prepared to answer questions about ground-level district issues. Literally: Asked about how he would pay for sidewalks in Maple Leaf, Burgess roled out a three-part plan that involved divorcing the cost of drainage improvements from sidewalk costs (a big reason, he said, that sidewalks are so expensive), help the Department of Neighborhoods determine whether the city should let neighborhoods set up local improvement districts (LIDs) to pay for sidewalks; and prioritize sidewalks in areas where the city will be able to fully fund them, rather than places where Seattle will have to seek matching funds from the state or feds to finish the work.
In general, Burgess acted like a scrapper fighting gamely to keep his job, rather than an beloved leader insulted that his charges would dare challenge his benevolent dictatorship.
Roderick, running in the same race, seemed more engaged and less out of his depth than at previous events (his proposed “ring of streetcars circling the city” notwithstanding). Instead of talking about liquid salt batteries and gondolas, he focused on density as both an inescapable fact (“We have people coming here and we need to accommodate them”) and a solution to gentrification (“we have to build big around Northgate to [help] accommodate all the people who want to live in Seattle.”) Roderick was equally specific about sidewalks (an issue the moderator, Maple Leaf community activist David Miller, asked of every candidate), saying he would dedicate parking meter revenue from streets without sidewalks to building sidewalks there, and put school speed camera revenue toward sidewalks in school zones.
Johnson, meanwhile, was pragmatic but specific in his responses, citing the need to “integrate our environmental priorities between all departments so we can get the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2035 and suggesting the city increase levy funding for sidewalks instead of trying to pass a local improvement district or fund sidewalks out of general city dollars.
District Four candidate Jean Godden, the three-term incumbent who sleepwalked through a recent forum at Roosevelt High School, acquitted herself last night by staying alert and relatively on-point. She did, however, introduce herself to audience members by pointing out her age (84) with a Cathy Allen-imprinted non sequitur of an opening statement: “I have been an incumbent for some time, and people ask me why it is that I want to run again. And I look around at my opponents (two guys under 40, plus one in his 50s), and I think, Oh, my god, I’ve got jeans that are older than most of these guys.” And her go-to line for all questions was still “I like what the mayor’s proposing,” rather than, say, “Here are some ideas of my own.”
Unlike other candidates who seem to have expanded their horizons beyond the issue they hope will define them, District 4 candidate Tony Provine doubled down on his support for impact fees on new development, bringing it up at least three times (my notes at one point just read, “impact fees impact fees impact fees”), including in response to the question, “What committee would you like to chair?” (Answer: Land use, because it would be a platform for legislation imposing linkage fees.)
Planned Parenthood organizer Halei Watkins and Low-Income Housing Institute employee Elizalde, both running in the 5th, had surprisingly impassioned responses to questions about sidewalk funding, also known as The Most Important Issue Facing North Seattle Ever. Watkins declared, with emphasis, that “I firmly do not believe in a [Local Improvement District]” to pay for sidewalks. “I believe it’s an equity issue. When you look at areas with no sidewalks, they’re low-income. Northgate Elementary has the highest ratio of free or reduced lunches in the city. Asking them to double tax themselves is not equitable in any way.”
On a similar note, Elizalde said the city’s frame of “safe routes to school” ignores all the other ways people in North Seattle get around. Instead of limiting new sidewalks to routes that serve schools, she said, “We need safe routes to grocery stores. We need safe routes to transit. We need safe routes to jobs.”
Neither proposed a specific funding source for sidewalks, which are among the city’s most expensive forms of transportation investment.
(Meanwhile, long-shot candidate Kris Lethin suggested he would deal with missing crosswalks by taking a lesson from the Alaska fishing village where he used to live: “Go to Home Depot and pick up a can of paint.”)
Of all the District 5 candidate, only Sandy Brown, a Methodist pastor and former head of the Church Council, dared to suggest that “not everyone wants sidewalks in North Seattle” as their first priority, and said what mattered most to him was public safety and prompt police response. “Why it take four to six hours for police to respond” to property crime?, Brown asked.
Finally, in Position 9, neighborhood and anti-microhousing activist Bill Bradburd was in his element in front of the crowd of longtime homeowners.
vowing fervently to stop “giving away too much to developers” and impose greater impact fees on new development, as well as crack down on what he sees as the rampant misuse of the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which provides a tax break for developers who agree to make a certain percentage of their new buildings affordable. Bradburd said the definition of affordability–in some cases, 80 percent of area median income–is high, and that providing tax incentives for developers to build small studios, or microhousing, is “absurd. They need to be using the tax exemption to produce family-size housing.”
Bradburd also got in a plug for inclusionary zoning—a regulatory system in which a city requires all new development in designated areas to include a certain percentage of affordable units, often accompanied by an increase in density*—and indicated that he does not support Mayor Ed Murray’s Move Seattle transportation levy and does not believe the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update does enough for trees.
Even more details, believe it or not—including outtakes from Alex “Fucking Nazis” Tsimerman and some of the other candidates I didn’t talk about in detail here—on my Twitter timeline.
*Alon Bassok, another candidate in the 9th, has proposed a similar scheme, but his would be universal (one in five units affordable to people making minimum wage, currently $11 an hour) and would increase heights by 50 percent, so that “A four-story building becomes six. A six-story building becomes nine,” and so on. But it’s not that simple. Steel framing, which you need to build much taller than six stories, is much more expensive than building with wood. Add to that extra cost of Bassok’s very expensive affordability mandate, which would force developers to keep rents at an estimated $575 a month for a minimum wage earner, and there’s no way a nine-story steel-framed building pencils out.