By Erica C. Barnett
A lot has been written—including here on PubliCola—about the coming mass exodus from the Seattle City Council. Five council members—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Alex Pedersen, and Debora Juarez— have either said they will not run for reelection this year or that they will run for a different office. At least four, and probably five, council seats will be filled by new people next year; depending on how things shake out, the most senior council member could have just four years’ experience.
Amid that churn, two freshman council members—Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis, whose districts encompass southeast Seattle and downtown, respectively—have said want to stay on the job. (Dan Strauss, who represents northwest Seattle, has not announced his intentions yet.)
In conversations with PubliCola, both cited unfinished business, a need for continuity in the legislative branch, and a sense of optimism about the future among their reasons for running again despite a working environment that has been chaotic, toxic, and full of unexpected challenges—including the COVID pandemic, a racial reckoning whose promise is largely unfulfilled, and a mainstream backlash against people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
“None of us expected the kind of term we had… and it takes a toll,” Morales said. “There were definitely times when I was like, ‘What the hell? This was not what I expected.’ It’s stressful and I don’t begrudge any of my colleagues for wanting to find a different way to give back to the community.”
That said, Morales added, “given that I represent a district that has historically been ignored, I don’t want to lose momentum.”
When Morales ran for her seat four years ago, she focused on issues like preventing economic displacement and ending encampment sweeps. Four years later, she says she’s still focused on those issues, but with a deeper understanding of how the city’s policies promote gentrification and make long-term solutions to Seattle’s housing crisis a complex challenge. “I’m especially interested in seeing through the comprehensive plan”—a planning document that guides housing, parks, jobs, and transportation in Seattle—”and really trying to change the way we manage growth in the city … so we’re not just rubber-stamping a perpetuation of the existing strategy,” Morales said.
“We know that transit corridors have high rates of pollution associated with them, at least the way we have allowed them to be built. Now we’re saying, ‘put a lot of poor people there and let’s use them a as buffer between homeowners and the road.'”
For example, Morales said, one major reason for the housing shortage is the city’s decades-old “urban village” strategy, which concentrates dense housing along busy, polluted arterial roads while locking up most of the city’s residential land for suburban-style single-family houses. Next year, the city will adopt a new comprehensive plan that will guide development for the next 20 years, and some of the options under consideration would concentrate development along “transit corridors”—those same busy, polluted arterials.
Morales wants to work to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“We know that transit corridors have high rates of pollution associated with them,” Morales said, “at least the way we have allowed them to be built,” with buses and cars competing for space along fast-moving arterials like Rainier Ave. S. “Now we’re saying, ‘put a lot of poor people there and let’s use them a as buffer between homeowners and the road.'”
Morales, who has a background in urban planning, emerged as a vocal advocate for pedestrian safety during her term, a time when almost half the fatal crashes in the entire city of Seattle occurred in her district. For decades, the city has failed to meaningfully address traffic violence along most of Rainier Ave. S., with the exception of the gentrified Columbia City neighborhood, where a controversial road-narrowing project successfully calmed a section of the road where crashes were once frequent.
Morales has been critical of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s uninspiring traffic-calming efforts, like lowering the speed limit on arterials by five miles an hour and posting signs encouraging drivers to slow down.
“We need to design roads differently so that people slow down” while also enforcing traffic laws in places where people continue to speed—for example, with automated traffic cameras that result in warnings, then fines, Morales said. “I drive down Rainier and I see people blow past me in the bus lane, the turn lane—that is a problem. But we’re not going to solve it with a public education campaign.”
If she’s reelected, Morales said she plans to focus on building generational wealth for Seattle residents of color through programs like community land trusts, which enable low-income people to buy homes, programs that help potential homebuyers qualify for loans, and a pilot program, which she’s introducing this spring, to give developers incentives to work with small, community-based groups to build 35 small affordable housing project throughout the city.
In addition to securing public funds for public parks, beach restoration, sidewalks, and other “quote-unquote back to basics things,” Morales says her office has “really increased the explicit discussion of racial equity” on the council. “When I first got here and I was talking so much about racial equity, I feel like I got a lot of pats on the head,” she said. “Because of the team that I’ve built and the work [we’ve done[ on behalf of District 2, I think other council member are talking more about the need to center racial equity and acknowledging the ways that the South End has been left out.”
Lewis, like Morales, said he’s motivated to run again by the desire to complete work that he started in his first term, particularly when it comes to alternatives to police response. For more than two years, the city has been debating whether and how to establish a program that would send unarmed civilian responders to some non-emergency calls, with little progress; last year, Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to move forward with a small pilot program while his office and the police department continue to analyze 911 call data.
During his confirmation hearing last month, then-interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz estimated that over the next two years, the police department would gain a net total of about 18 officers, assuming the rate at which officers leave the department continues to decline. “We have to have leaders who are willing to soberly acknowledge that even that 982 number may unfortunately be an optimistic one,” Lewis said. “We have a civic consensus that we need more police, but where that conversation never goes is that it may be necessary, but it’s not in and of itself sufficient.”
While Lewis noted that Harrell has been far more willing to work with the council, in general, than his predecessor, Jenny Durkan, the time could eventually come to “call the question” on civilian responders by amending the city charter to create a new department dedicated to certain kinds of non-emergency calls.
“We have this really difficult and intractable public safety challenge that comes down to the fact that—very, very stubbornly—we haven’t been doing the things that we need to do as a modern American city to keep people safe,” Lewis said. “I don’t know what it is about our local politics that holds us back from making similar progress that other cities have,” like Denver and Albuquerque, which both set up alternative response programs in 2020, during nationwide calls to reduce reliance on police for many types of emergencies.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a moderate Democrat, is “not too dissimilar from the folks who tend to be mayor in the city of Seattle, but … they have a very mature (alternative response) system while we are still screwing around on this,” Lewis said.
“To the extent that things are more collegial now, the council didn’t really change all that much but the mayor did. Maybe that is a clue to where the preponderance of the problem was.”
Lewis currently heads up the council’s homelessness committee, and has advocated for more spending on tiny house villages, in particular, throughout his term. If he gets a second term, he says he’d like to serve on the council’s transportation committee in addition to working on homelessness and police accountability.
“My district has quite a few bridges that need work done,” including the high bridge to Magnolia, Lewis said. “I think bridges are going to be a dominant infrastructure issue over the next decade, because we are going to see more bridge failures.” Part of the problem, he added, is that “there’s been a lot of instability” at the Seattle Department of Transportation, which has had five directors since 2018.
“Despite the fact that we’ve come up with a lot of resources that we’ve directed toward bridges as a council, SDOT hasn’t taken that money and actually done anything to help those bridges. A lot of that money gets reshuffled for other priorities or put on hold.” Urbanists, meanwhile, often understandably advocate for other priorities, like safe bike lanes and pedestrian safety projects, instead of road infrastructure that primarily serves cars.
Lewis says he made his decision to run for reelection during the December holidays, before his colleagues started dropping out. Although some council members, including Mosqueda, have said the way the city does council elections—with all seven district council members on the ballot at one time—is a factor in this year’s high turnover, Lewis says it isn’t that unusual for council members to leave in waves. In 2019, the year he was first elected, four council members—Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, Mike O’Brien, and Rob Johnson—all decided not to run for reelection.
“I think the 7-2 thing is stupid, but that’s not why so many people are leaving right now,” Lewis said. “A more significant factor is just how uniquely toxic the confluence of events was. … I don’t know if that’s a permanent, structural thing. A lot of it is just autocorrection from Durkan leaving. To the extent that things are more collegial now, the council didn’t really change all that much but the mayor did. Maybe that is a clue to where the preponderance of the problem was.”
Still, Lewis added, being on the city council, or in any elected office, now means you’ll be the target of threats, accusations, and potentially violence. “The 7-2 split doesn’t lead people to feel like they can thrown a brick through Lisa [Herbold’s] window with impunity,” Lewis said. That’s a broader issue of cultural fucked-upedness that we have to figure out how to fix.”