PubliCola Questions: Brianna Thomas

Brianna Thomas 2021 Questionnaire – Seattle City Council Pos. 9 | The  Urbanist
Image via peopleforbrianna.org

As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Today, we’re highlighting two of the leading candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9, the seat currently held by council president Lorena González, who’s running for mayor. First up, González’s lead staffer, Brianna Thomas. Stay tuned for candidate Nikkita Oliver.

A third candidate for this position, Sara Nelson, is the only candidate in any race who did not respond to our questions.

Brianna Thomas worked on campaigns to raise the minimum wage in SeaTac and fund public financing in Seattle—and ran for office herself, losing in the crowded 2015 primary for the District 1 council seat that ultimately went to Lisa Herbold—before joining council president González’s office in 2016.

Since then, she’s gained an insider’s perspective on how the council operates, working on police accountability legislation, proposals to reduce corporate influence on elections, and a “secure scheduling” law that provides more predictable schedules for hourly workers. Thomas talks almost reverently about leadership and service, and her answers to policy questions often contain a reality check about process and political capital. If elected, she says she’ll work to pass “legally defensible progressive revenue” to address homelessness, reform cumbersome design review and permitting processes, and work toward 24-hour affordable child care, among other priorities.

Here’s what Thomas had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to the Position 9 candidates.

When responding to people living outdoors, the city has historically focused on large or highly visible encampments, and reserved resources and enhanced shelter or hotel beds for people at encampments removed by the city. This focus on large, visible encampments tends to exclude many unhoused people of color, such as Native Americans, from access to the most desirable services. What would you do to improve equity in access to services for unsheltered people of color, particularly the Black and Native homeless populations?

Maintaining the hoteling program would be a great way to get people off the streets and into a temporary indoor location. There they can have access to toilets, showers, clean water, and privacy, whereas outdoors on streets they couldn’t. Allowing people to live on streets as a permanent solution is inhumane. As Black and Native people are overrepresented in homeless populations, we must focus on wraparound services that will prioritize them (i.e. the Chief Seattle Club), including working with partners that are dedicated to serving these specific communities, in a way that isn’t predicated on such onerous/micromanage-y requirements that take away from the time needed to do the actual WORK.

I am prepared to work with all stakeholders in the region to ensure our budget reflects the urgent need for housing and wraparound services. Programs like JustCARE center getting folks out of tents, and into appropriate shelter that restores our community and our neighbors’ dignity.

In 2020, a majority of the city council said they supported defunding the police by at least 50 percent. Was it a mistake for them to make this commitment? What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

I had a front row seat to last year’s discussion, debate and subsequent action around the movement to Defund the Police. I do believe that this commitment was well intentioned, and that the commitment was made in earnest. Unfortunately, the realities and restrictions on our current ability to fulfill this promise made it an empty one.

I stand by the council’s decision to divert millions of dollars from the general fund and SPD budget to reinvest in community based alternatives. The Council also identified approximately $30 million for a participatory budgeting program, which is unprecedented in the City’s history.

“As a Black woman, I deeply understand the call to dismantle the current carceral system, reinvest in community, and right generations of race based violence suffered by my community.”

One of my top priorities is criminal justice reform, beyond the police department’s budget. I was part of many of the difficult conversations and resulting council actions around police funding, informed by community. As a Black woman, I deeply understand the call to dismantle the current carceral system, reinvest in community, and right generations of race based violence suffered by my community. As a public servant and policy advisor that has been working on issues surrounding the reform and reimagining of policing since 2016, I feel trapped between the limitations of our continued monitoring by the [Department of Justice], which community called for, and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that patently refused to accept many of the calls for accountability set out in the City’s 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance.

I don’t believe there is a magic number that we can commit to until we do the thorough work of looking at what the police should actually respond to. What I am certain of is that we don’t need a gun and badge holding officer to respond to things like folks facing houselessness needing help, mental health calls, or giving out parking/speeding tickets.

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

Due to the impacts of the pandemic, hundreds of Seattle businesses have permanently shut their doors, including many with BIPOC owners. That is why I will propose a temporary abatement of B&O taxes for new small businesses, so we quickly fill empty storefronts. The Council should continue to work to simplify and improve permitting processes for businesses, like we saw with the extension of outdoor dining and Safe Street permits. I will also lead on expanding the Office of Economic Development’s budget, as it has the potential to become an incredibly important resource for BIPOC business owners, as well as creating a small business liaison. This is something I’ve heard would be beneficial directly from small business owners.

“I deeply and truly support our continued work to turn our upside down tax structure around, but I have done this work long enough to know that passage of legislation isn’t enough. We must find solutions that not only meet our most pressing needs, but will also withstand the inevitable legal challenges that we have become accustomed to after passage.”

Our zoning laws also play a role in economic recovery and neighborhood vitality. I’m a firm believer in 15-minute neighborhoods that are walkable and transit accessible. COVID highlighted the importance of having healthcare, childcare, grocery stores, recreation, small businesses, and work close to home. We have to prioritize changes to our restrictive zoning that currently keeps businesses and housing density out of our neighborhoods.

Assuming Charter Amendment 29 becomes law in Seattle, what city programs would you cut or deprioritize in order to dedicate 12 percent of the city’s general-fund budget to human services, and how would you go about adding 2,000 new shelter or housing spots by the end of next year?

I would like to take a good hard look at the current commission structure in the City. With over 80 commissions currently, many of which have disparities on technological access, requirements for inclusion of those with subject matter expertise (including lived experience) and staffing shortages, the system as built simply isn’t delivering. However, this sort of restructuring will not lead to the additional $16M needed to cover the investment gap laid out in the proposed amendment.

I adamantly believe (and know from experience on the inside) that we can address everyone’s needs if we work in tandem and pass legally-defensible progressive revenue streams.

We absolutely need to tax multinational corporations in every sector, not just Amazon. The passage of JumpStart, followed by the subsequent litigious position of “The Chamber,”  remains unfortunately the rule and not the exception. I deeply and truly support our continued work to turn our upside down tax structure around, but I have done this work long enough to know that passage of legislation isn’t enough. We must find solutions that not only meet our most pressing needs, but will also withstand the inevitable legal challenges that we have become accustomed to after passage.

We have got to build meaningful and stable buy-in from the business community. We see how popular progressive tax proposals and capital gains policies are among voters, and we know that it’s very feasible to enact, but we need to overcome the perennial resistance of the biggest players in the room. Instead of Amazon spending over $1 million on preventing progressive candidates from becoming elected in 2019, and decrying ANY legislation being considered, they could have saved money, and brought our community together, by coming to the table. This ongoing tug of war simply isn’t working.

“If law enforcement officers had to procure the sorts of insurance that we require of doctors or lawyers to pay out in instances of malpractice, then we would have a system that centered on individual officer accountability. Being a ‘bad apple’ simply wouldn’t pay.”

How would you build upon the police accountability ordinance the city council adopted in 2017, and which of your plans could be implemented without approval from the city’s police unions?

Keeping track of how the police spend their money is an immediate way to hold them accountable. The use of [budget] provisos has proven to be an effective mechanism to daylight the ACTUAL costs incurred by the Seattle Police Department, and bring a greater understanding to the Council and community on how police budgets work. Or in many cases DON’T work. A proviso offers the opportunity to control spending before it happens.

We must also take a hard look at the discipline and arbitration processes for Law Enforcement Officers. We must push back against the narrative that this is a “slippery slope” toward the dismantling of collective bargaining rights. LEO’s are afforded a wider range of authorities, and therefore responsibilities, than many other organized workers. I appreciated the decision of the [Martin Luther King County Labor Council] to remove [the Seattle Police Officers Guild] from its membership, and no longer provide them the “cover” of working folks across the county to hide behind. If LEOs had to procure the sorts of insurance that we require of doctors or lawyers to pay out in instances of malpractice, then we would have a system that centered on individual officer accountability. Being a “bad apple” simply wouldn’t pay.

Most local candidates say they support allowing more types of housing in Seattle’s exclusionary single-family areas. As a city council member, what’s the first piece of legislation you would propose to move toward the goal of eliminating or modifying single-family zoning?

I live in an apartment building built in the 1950s; one of my neighbors has lived here for 22 years. We need more diverse affordable apartment options. I’ll commit to ending the ban on apartments on residential land to allow for this. One challenge of the 2024 Comprehensive Plan is its persistent reliance on the Urban Village model, which limits how and where we are creating additional density.

“A partnership program with our community and trade schools to repair these vehicles [where people are living] and get them back into safe operating conditions would help create a new level of autonomy for vehicle dwellers lacking the resources to address these issues independently.”

What is one specific transportation project you will propose funding to enhance racial and social equity in the city?

Multimodal and frequent, reliable transit in South Seattle should be a priority for the council working in partnership with the County. Currently, this area has significantly less frequent bus and train connections and availability as a byproduct of our historically racist city planning. We must reckon with that history and start recovery now. This will also include transit and pedestrian network improvements so that there are plentiful transit connections as well as single seat rides (no transfers) north to south, and east to west across the City. Having to make many transfers to get to a destination, as what’s currently relied on in getting to and from South Seattle (and West Seattle with the bridge out of order) does not allow for accessible and robust transit.

According to the latest Point in Time Count of the county’s homeless population, about half the unsheltered people in King County live in their vehicles. Yet there are very few programs or resources available to vehicular residents, and little public awareness of the size and circumstances of this population. Name one action you would take to specifically address the needs of vehicular residents in Seattle.

Just like with living on the streets, car habitation should be a case of last resort. With no access to the programs needed to stabilize our neighbors will continue to languish without meaningful support. Years of advocacy to amend our “scofflaw” policies have led to a herky jerky, reactionary series of safe lots across the city. These lots have been sited on the edges of our communities, away from social service providers, grocery stores, transit and stable access to education for the children living in these conditions.

Vehicle living also comes with a separate set of needs. Updating expired tabs, the ability to onboard potable water and empty sewage tanks would be must haves for any safe lot. A partnership program with our community and trade schools to repair these vehicles and get them back into safe operating conditions, and meeting environmental standards, would help create a new level of autonomy for vehicle dwellers lacking the resources to address these issues independently.

And last, but certainly not least, there must be a base level of collective governance in safe lots. As with shelter, it should be up to the residents of safe lots to establish community agreements regarding quiet hours, ingress and egress from the lot, and separate lots for specific constituencies, i.e. families, long term users, short term users etc. This paired with stable, well supported staffing by the City would provide an opportunity for folks to move from dodging 72-hour sweeps and hiding in dead ends and industrial zones, to having an opportunity to stabilize in an environment which prioritizes autonomy and community.

One thought on “PubliCola Questions: Brianna Thomas”

  1. A “…temporary abatement of B&O taxes” will do nothing to “…fill empty storefronts”. Who is making any connection between those two things? This is obviously not someone who has ever owned a business and paid commercial rent in downtown Seattle. In most cases, your B&O tax is only a fraction of the rent cost. In all cases, those who choose to open any business in Seattle will be held hostage by Progressives who are hostile to any economic activity which does not line their pockets with cash. The first question to ask is: why are the storefronts not already filling back up? They certainly are in Texas and Florida. Covid is over, girl (OMG microaggression!) . There are at least 4-6 major flaws in her thinking but I have a real job so cannot take all day correcting her many misunderstandings. This next election is a real race to the bottom. She should just promise more free stuff and buy the votes like all the other candidates. Steve Willie.

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