The C Is for Crank Interviews: Rob Johnson

Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks.

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Today’s conversation: Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson, who’s running against Michael Maddux to represent Northeast Seattle’s District 4. I sat down with Johnson at Cherry Street Coffee in Pioneer Square.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: Business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Restaurant Association, and the Rental Housing Association have spent more than $80,000 on independent expenditures to help your campaign.  Why do you think they’re supporting you, and does their support help cement the idea, which your opponent is almost certainly going to bring up on the campaign trail, that you’re the candidate of Seattle’s business establishment?

Rob Johnson [RJ]: It’s an interesting narrative that I think Michael’s going to play up moving forward, but I don’t think it’s actually going to be much of a narrative. We had endorsements from the Sierra Club, the King County Labor Council, and the Chamber within a 24-hour period in April. A lot of us were surprised at the amount of spending there was on IEs. I expected some, but not nearly that amount. And I expected them more throughout the city, not just concentrated in a couple of races.

 ECB: Why do you think all those groups are supporting you? What are you telling them?

RJ: I think that the reason I’ve gotten a lot of endorsements is because people know me as a collaborator—as someone who has strong progressive values but can bring people along. Folks in the downtown community support me because I think they see me as someone who has worked with them on social justice issues,  like expanding the low-income ORCA card. And I think a lot of it has to do with experience. I’ve got experience working with these groups. They know my working style. They understand where I am. I’m a collaborator. I’m like Richard Conlin in that way. I can work with different sides.

ECB: Richard Conlin lost in 2013 to someone who no one thought would win. Are there ways in which you are not like Richard Conlin?

RS: Parking is one of the ways I’m different from Richard Conlin. One of the conversations we always had was around parking minimums and maximums, and whether we should allow the market to determine how much parking we needed in new buildings. He came to the council with more of a land use background than I have. I have more of a transportation background than he had.  Conlin came out of the neighborhood planning process, but I think there wasn’t the kind of growth conversation back then that we’re having now. I think that has really put a big spotlight on some of big challenges we have as a city. It challenges people’s comfort zone. I went to school for public planning at UCLA, and in D.C. for two years. I’ve got a unique set of skills.

ECB: What did you think of the mayor’s decision to abandon the HALA committee’s proposed changes to single-family zoning as soon as the report leaked and a group of vocal property owners complained?

RJ: I think he was responding to that very vocal, knee- jerk reaction from a lot of people. I would have liked to see us have a conversation with some of the neighborss before pulling back. I knocked on a lot of doors in Windermere and heard a lot about the changes in single-family zoning. People in Windermere all said they were worried about changing the character of their neighborhood. I think few of them realize that there are several duplexes and triplexes in Windermere. So I would have liked to go on a walking tour with those neighbors and show them what a duplex or triplex actually looks like. It would have been really interesting. We need a more nuanced discussion. If your interest is protecting your single-family neighborhood, we’re going to have a conversation about targeting more growth. If we’re going to choose to build lower in the University District, we’re going to need more duplexes and triplexes.

As a candidate, I was getting five to six emails a day about a variety of different topics [before HALA]. After the HALA report came out, I got about a dozen emails a day, and they were all focused on land use, about where a specific boundary line is, about the Roosevelt Urban Village moving forward. We’re going to continue to have a really big dialogue about land use. I heard from a healthy number of people who said, “I see a lot of old homes in my neighborhood being torn down and large mansion-style buildings being torn down. I would love to be able to see more of those mansions be turned into duplexes. I would love to turn mine into a duplex for my aging parents or my kids at home.” Many neighbors are rallying in support [of HALA]. I heard from a lot of folks who are supporting our campaign that they want [the HALA recommendations].

ECB: You’re fighting against the impression that you’re the conservative in the race, and against the fact that you look like the more conservative candidate. Are you running into people at the door thinking you’re too conservative based on how you look and dress? And if so, how do you counter that impression?

RJ: We did something that not a lot of campaigns do, where we did targeted our field efforts using a trusted advisor model. We did our targeting in such a way that the person that showed up at your doorstep looked like you, talked like you, and was validating me as a candidate. I think that really made a difference.

I had plenty of people at the doors say to me, “I’m not voting for you because you’re a bike Nazi,” or, “Because the Sierra Club’s endorsed you, I’m not voting for you.” So while I may visually look like the most conservative one in the race, I had plenty of people go beyond looks and say, “You’re too liberal for me.”

ECB: Now that Jean Godden is no longer in the race, you and Michael will have to differentiate yourselves from each other. What do you consider the main differences between the two of you?

RJ: Part of it’s going to be about  background. Michael’s going to talk a lot about how he’s the LGBT candidate and about how he supports progressive taxation, and I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about my experience and the diversity of my supporters and my technical proficiency in actually being able to accomplish a lot of this stuff. I think Michael’s got a good civic background with the parks levy stuff, but I’ve got a much deeper history in working with others.

ECB: You obviously know a lot about transportation, but one criticism is that that’s all you know about. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, and what issues are you interested in other than transportation?

RJ: I would say that one of the benefits of running for city council is that you have to learn about a lot of things you don’t have a lot of background on.  City Light is a great example. We’re going to have a new City Light CEO. We need to work proactively between City Light, [Seattle Public Utilities] and SDOT to do a better job of integration on constuction management and greening our portfolios. We need to reform those agencies to compete with each other to be greenest they can be.

The drought makes me really concerned about our overreliance on hydropower. We need to do more on greening the utility—more solarization and more wind energy. We need to invest a lot more in clean energy solutions. It’s not just good for our energy portfolio, it’s also good for local green jobs.

ECB: Your opponent has talked a lot about the need to achieve gender pay equity in city employment and the city as a whole. A recent report by a city consultant found that women are more likely to be in part-time jobs at the city and are underrepresented in the highest-paying, largest departments, like police, technology, and fire. What are you plans to close the gender pay gap at the city?

RJ: As a small employer [at Transportation Choices Coalition], one of first things I did was to do an analysis of people’s pay, and we’ve subsequently made a very strong commitment to hiring women and, in particular, women of color and putting them into positions where they’re in leadership. We’re a majority female office. All the people in leadership are women. As a boss, I’m really focused on that. Fifty percent of our paid staffers are people of color.

We need to do a better job of recruiting women and people of color into leadership positions in the [city] and doing targeted hires. Having SPD do a targeted hire program for more female officers and people of color builds leadership capacity in the organization. We also have to promote those folks, so that people who are starting out see a path forward in the organization. That would be a priority of mine. I think we need to do more than just have studies. We need to spend lot of time on implementation. 


Michael Maddux, District 4

Mike O’Brien, District 6

Catherine Weatbrook, District 6

Tim Burgess, Position 8

Jon Grant, Position 8

16 thoughts on “The C Is for Crank Interviews: Rob Johnson”

  1. I had a Rob Johnson staffer knock on my door before the primary and he mentioned several times that Johnson was a family candidate. To which thought, “Good God, how old does this staffer think I am? Also, what does a family candidate even mean?”

    1. I think the implication was that in drought years rivers run low and hydroelectric output drops. That forces the region to use other sources to make up the difference and Johnson was calling on solar or wind to be a bigger part of portfolio instead of fossil fuels. If climate change makes the region drier as it appears it will, then dips in hydroelectric output could be a frequent issue and obviously you don’t want to just burn more fossil fuels thereby exacerbating the climate change problem.

  2. That guy would make a great director of the SDOT or WADOT. You want people in a position to be their best and I think D.O.T executive is that for Rob and Michael would do better in legislature with his more extensive legal background and personal experiences.

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