The C Is for Crank Interviews: Mayor Ed Murray

Until a month ago, Mayor Ed Murray had what looked like a clear path to reelection. Critics from the left and right certainly assailed aspects of his record—his response to homelessness, his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the phased-in $15 minimum wage—but no credible candidates had stepped forward to challenge Murray on his record. And, it seemed, none would.

All that changed on April 6, when the Seattle Times broke the news that a 46-year-old man, later identified as Delvonn Heckard, had filed a civil lawsuit accusing Murray of sexually abusing him when Heckard was a teenager and Murray was in his late 20s. In addition to Heckard, two other men had accused Murray previously of sexual misconduct, but neither pursued legal action and Murray vehemently denied their allegations; a fourth accuser stepped forward after Heckard filed his lawsuit. Initially, Murray seemed committed to staying in the race and trying to weather the allegations, but his  polling numbers  apparently suggested that the path to victory was not just narrow but nonexistent. Earlier this month, Murray supporters sought guidance from the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about the feasibility of creating a legal defense fund to help defray the costs of defending against the lawsuit.

I sat down with Murray in his campaign office last Friday. (Incidentally, as I was leaving, Martha Choe—a former council member for whom Murray was once a legislative aide—walked in. Choe, according to the Seattle Times, will oversee the defense fund if it is approved.) The purpose of the interview, at the time, was to talk about the campaign, Murray’s legacy, and whether there was a path to victory in spite of the scandal. But with the news today that Murray he will drop out of the race instead of seeking reelection, I’m highlighting the parts of our conversation that deal with Murray’s legacy—a legacy that has been sidelined, and perhaps made beside the point, by the shocking allegations against him.

ECB: How did the allegations against you sideline your agenda? 

EM: They have certainly made it harder.  But I work a lot, and I work all the time. I’ve had to work since I was 12 years old in one way or another—to buy school clothes, to pay for my dental work—so I just work a lot. I love this job, and yeah, it gets to be a strain, but man, we moved forward with a big announcement on homelessness with the Allen Foundation that we’d been working on for months, we continue to implement [the homelessness strategy] Pathways Home, we continue to work on the arena proposals, we’re doing HALA [the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda], I’m doing Find It, Fix It walks. I’m going to be at something like 6 to 10 events this weekend, as I was last weekend.

ECB: Earlier this year, you announced the formation of a Navigation Team that is supposed to go out when the city clears an encampment and offers shelter and services to the people living there. In the absence of abundant affordable housing and accessible 24/7 shelter, though, it’s inevitable that the city will simply be pushing the majority of those people from place to place. Is there a point at which you would say, “stop the sweeps, it isn’t working”?  

“I think this idea that we’re just doing sweeps is kind of borrowing language form the 1990s, when they did do sweeps. I look at the tents we’ve set up with donuts and coffee and social workers who are there to try to get them out of these encampments, and it’s very, very different than a sweep.”

EM: So first of all, we don’t do sweeps, and I would really encourage you to go back and look at when they used to just go in there, the sheriff and the police department, and just throw everybody out. As you know, the Navigation Teams are made up of folks that are police officers with deescalation training, an outreach worker who’s often a homeless person themselves, somebody with some medical skills, and others that may have addiction-related skills. So what we’ve done is, we have gone out there and tried to connect people with services. And what we have been told by these teams is, you know, you move someone three or four times, they eventually come in and say, ‘I want treatment.’ In fact, a woman I met the other day in one of the encampments, she said she broke her hip, and she decided she had been moved before and she didn’t want to be moved again. She took shelter. But it took moving her two or three times before we were able to get her to take [the shelter and services] she needed in the first place.

ECB: It seems to me that the problem isn’t so much that people refuse shelter, as that we don’t have actual housing and treatment beds for the people who are homeless or need addiction treatment.

EM: We don’t, but remember, I’m the guy who doubled the housing levy and tripled the number of affordable units that are being built. And that can’t be the end of it. My predecessor [McGinn] wasn’t able to get legal authorized encampments on public space; I did. We’re doing tiny houses in conjunction with nonprofits. We’re experimenting to see what we can do to stabilize people. So I think this idea that we’re just doing sweeps is kind of borrowing language form the 1990s, when they did do sweeps. I look at the tents we’ve set up with donuts and coffee and social workers who are there to try to get them out of these encampments, and it’s very, very different than a sweep.

ECB: How many sanctioned encampments do you think we’ll ultimately need?

EM: I actually don’t know. The growth of homelessness up and down the I-5 corridor in Washington State has grown exponentially over the last year, and now we have cities up and down the corridor in Washington asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ You have parks being taken over in California and suburban cities. I think the answer is not how many tent cities do you set up or how many little houses do you build. I think we have to have a much more significant conversation about what we’re going to do about housing affordability in this country and how we’re, once again, going to have to subsidize at the federal level.

“We weren’t seeing the county step up, and we weren’t seeing the level of leadership on homelessness from the county. So that’s why we put it in our proposal. Now that will be in a county proposal that will be paid for by, hopefully, county and city residents. So I see us as benefiting from that situation.”

ECB: Do you still stand by the Poppe Report, even though it has been used by people who oppose new taxes as a political weapon to argue that we don’t need more money for homelessness?

EM: First of all, [homelessness consultant Barb Poppe] never said that. You know what she said about the levy I proposed? She said she would vote for it. She recognizes that Seattle does not have enough [housing] stock. We asked her to look at our existing services and our existing programs and how our existing services were funded. So we created a box to put her in, because we wanted to know how to reform what we have, and that’s exactly the report that she offered.

The city is going to stick with Pathways Home. Pathways Home identified housing early on. It identifies diversions before people even become homeless. It wasn’t especially strong on the addiction part, but the county knows this.

There are people, particularly in the business community, who think that the city is the reason we have homelessness, and that if the city reforms its delivery of services, according to Barb Poppe, homelessness will go away. If they believe that, they are seriously spending too much time in our new legal marijuana stores. I mean, that’s seriously missing the entire problem.

ECB: What are they missing?

EM: They’re missing the fact that the middle class in this country has shrunk considerably. They’re missing that literally two-thirds of the housing that allowed working families to live, that kind of money that used to come through HUD for working families—that money is gone. That we have an addiction treatment crisis that’s the largest, at least according to the New York Times, in our country’s history, and we are not treating it. We are not paying for it. That we have a mental health system that we took apart the old fashioned way and we replaced it with nothing. So that’s what we need to be looking at. Homelessness, actually, is a word that does more harm towards trying to solve the underlying problem than any other phrase I can think of because we have more than homelessness crisis.

ECB: Barb Poppe did sort of say that she doesn’t consider homelessness an affordability issue—that she thinks the main problem is just that we aren’t we’re allocating our services efficiently. Do you think it’s an affordability issue?

EM: I believe it is both an affordability issue and an issue about how we’re allocating our resources. Look at our shelter system. One of the things that she pointed out is our shelter system is basically broken. We haven’t competitively bid that system in 10 years. So we just write checks. We don’t ask [providers], ‘Did Jill Smith stay stable when she left your shelter for two years?’ And then we find out we have people living in shelters for 16, 17 years, and we’re calling that housing.

“There are people who think that the city is the reason we have homelessness, and that if the city reforms its delivery of services, homelessness will go away. If they believe that, they are seriously spending too much time in our new legal marijuana stores. I mean, that’s seriously missing the entire problem.”

So she’s absolutely right that there’s a resource issue, that the existing resources are absolutely broken. We definitely have a system that’s disconnected from itself and we can reduce the problem significantly. Just look at the fact that homeless kids—these kids who are first-graders, fifth-graders. who are sleeping in cars or couch-surfing with their parents and going to school every day—those kids would go to the county and be put on a list. And the list, not intentionally, had a perverse incentive that said, ‘You need to be homeless longer.’ We went with the Pathways Home reforms and we now house those people immediately. We have a goal, I think it’s probably an 18-month goal, to try and house all of our school-age children and their families.

ECB: You announced recently that the city is postponing the opening of the Navigation Center [a 24/7, low-barrier shelter for homeless men, women, and pets] because of objections from the Chinatown/International District community. Is the Navigation Center still going to happen, and do you regret how you handled the outreach for that project?

EM: I have regretted things about the outreach in every single neighborhood that we’ve tried to place services for the homeless, because every single neighborhood has had a problem. So I have not found yet, as mayor, the way that you get people to approve a homelessness facility in a process that doesn’t veto the facility itself.

I believe it will be built. We are having discussions with the community. We are identifying issues that we can work with. And I have also made a commitment to the community, as I’ve made around all these things: If it doesn’t work, we’ll close it down. It’s an experiment. It’s a pilot project. Maybe it works in San Francisco and it doesn’t work in Seattle .

ECB: Does the pushback you’ve received on the Navigation Center, and the delay on that project, bode poorly for a safe drug consumption site, if neighborhood protests are enough to derail a controversial project?

EM: I think it makes it very difficult. It’s going to be a really difficult discussion, and it’s not just difficult because of the siting problems.

But it was very interesting in Canada, talking to people who deal with this issue, they saw it as a value, because at least it keeps the person alive. They leave hope for another day for treatment. What I hear a lot in Seattle, or maybe just up and down the radios on the West Coast, is that there’s some kind of, like, Puritan aspect in our DNA. It’s like, ‘Well, if they’re using it, it’s immoral. It’s this idea that if you’re using something that might kill you, that’s your choice. So I think there’s going to be a pretty significant battle over this issue.

ECB: Do you feel that HALA has accomplished everything you wanted it to, given all the compromises you ended up making, such as taking small-scale density increases like backyard cottages off the tbale?

EM: When a version of the proposal was leaked before it was even written or even in a final form, the issue of accessory dwellings—ADU, DADU, whatever you want to call them—was the first issue to blow up, and [council members] Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess and the Times thought we might need to take another look at it. We get most of our growth not from ADUs or DADUs—we get most of our growth and most of our affordability from the [HALA] Grand Bargain. I didn’t want to let anything upset the Grand Bargain. We are proceeding now on a separate track on the ADU/DADU thing. And you know, I have done this before—you break things in pieces and you do it incrementally and you get the whole. And we’re really close to getting the whole.

ECB: Traditional neighborhood groups were furious at you when you cut ties with the neighborhood district councils. What are you hearing from them now, and how have the city’s efforts at community engagement worked out since then?

EM: It’s probably the thing I’ve heard the least amount of criticism about, maybe because the different techniques we’ve been using to engage people in civic and city issues seem to be getting people excited.

 We used to have a town hall meeting when I was in the legislature, with whoever my seatmate was—Pat Thibadeau and Frank [Chopp], and then Frank and Jamie [Pedersen], and every year we’d have 100 people from one side of the spectrum, very, very, very loud and often very, vert angry. And then we started doing these telephone town hall meetings, both in the legislature and on issues like HALA, where you’d have 3,000 to 7000 people on the phone, who stay on the phone for an hour and ask questions and give you input. That’s very, very different than the people who show up in one room.

Let me just give you one example: Millennials don’t give up summer evenings to sit in a room of people yelling at each other. We have to change. The world is changing how it communicates and we in the city need to change how we communicate. And the fact that [the district councils] took it as a threat—they shouldn’t have. They should have taken it as an opportunity to say, ‘Wow, we can do something really exciting. And in regards to [the funding the city provided district councils], it didn’t meet our [Race and Social Justice Initiative] demographic requirements for when we spend money. We were basically asking a group of people like me –older white homeowners, almost entirely—to make all these decisions, and to me, that is a violation of our own city policy.

ECB: Bike sharing is starting or expanding across the country—except here. Was the failure of Pronto a failure on your part? Why did you abandon it rather than trying to emulate what other successful cities have done?

EM: I’ll take responsibility. We chose the wrong model. We chose a nonprofit model that didn’t work. The way it was run, the administrative cost overheads of that nonprofit, their financial model didn’t work, and probably we should have had a better understanding of that from the very beginning.

We probably have read  20 articles on a loss of a million and a half dollars to the city of Seattle [on Pronto] versus a 70-and-a-half-million dollar loss on the seawall that sort of had a one-page article [in the Seattle Times] on my first day in office and then disappeared. So yeah, we made a mistake. But will Seattle have bikeshare? Yeah, Seattle will have bikeshare some day, and it’ll be bikeshare that is based on a much better model, a financial model that pencils out—and also, I think, an equipment model that pencils out and is more usable in a city that has topography like we do.

ECB: You were a supporter of the tunnel project. Even though Bertha has broken through, there is still heated debate about who will pay for the cost overruns on the project. Do you consider the tunnel project a success, and will the city ultimately be on the hook for overruns?

EM: I think it was the right move. This is a city that has grown exponentially since this project was conceived, and if we’re going to keep that corridor moving, we need the tunnel. We need the street level [roadway]. We need the transit that’s going to come through that corridor between West Seattle and Ballard. That’s the only way that system is going to work. We’re going to get a world-class park that will become the most iconic thing that’s happened to Seattle since the World’s Fair.

The attorney general of the state of Washington at the time [the tunnel was approved], a Republican [Rob McKenna], issued an opinion that said that you cannot make a local jurisdiction pay for a state road. And by the way, I would love to see this pass the legislature, and all those Republican legislators would have to realize, ‘Oh, if we’re going to enforce this, we’re going to have to do some follow-up legislation based on the attorney general’s opinion which means I’m going to put my small city in my rural Republican district on the hook for having to pay for a state road.’ It’s not happening. As someone who spent most of my legislative career on transit, I feel pretty strongly that Seattle will not pay for the cost overruns for a state road.

ECB: What are your biggest regrets from your term?

My biggest regret is that one of the thing I focused on in my inaugural address was the need to focus on partnerships for education. And while the Education Summit was a success—as successful as the one 25 years ago under Norm Rice—part of the work we haven’t gotten to is taking it to scale—identifying the money, building a different relationship with the private sector in our school system, and taking it to the next step. We made some good progress in building a relationship with the school district—[Seattle School Board member] Betty Patu told me this was the best relationship she’s ever seen between the city and the school district —but these things are all in just their beginning stages. I had thought this, not homelessness, would be one of the key issues I would be working on reforming.

ECB: And your legacy? What do you want to be remembered for?

EM: I ran it [the office of the mayor] equity. Ninety percent of that growth you’ve seen out there was permitted before I became mayor, but we had no successful plan to grow affordably. HALA is a huge accomplishment in getting towards affordability. The minimum wage could easily have turned into a ballot measure; instead, we phased it in and we had a process that other cities are hoping to copy. The police department has gone from a city with a mayor that was fighting with a justice department – the Obama justice department – and the federal court and the federal monitors, to a city with the new chief and new leadership cooperating with the federal monitor, cooperating with the federal judge. Again and again, we have seen progress, and we have seen that progress recognized. A lot of public pensions are sideways. Ours isn’t. I inherited a seawall that had $71 million in cost overruns because they basically hid the numbers. We now have that back on target and balanced.

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One thought on “The C Is for Crank Interviews: Mayor Ed Murray”

  1. Take a survey to see if he would be reelected. Contrary to the media he has a proven record of helping the most vulnerable populous in King County! I would vote for him. Please stop making it about sex! Cordially, Accessory Unit Dweller!

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