By Erica C. Barnett
The 2023 election will dramatically reshape the Seattle City Council. Four council members are not seeking reelection, while a fifth, Teresa Mosqueda, is running for King County Council and will be replaced by an appointee if she wins. Even if all three of the incumbents who are running win reelection, the council will probably have at least five new members next year—a new majority of freshmen on a council whose most experienced members will, at most, be entering their second terms. If all eight seats turn over, it would make Sara Nelson, an at-large council member who started her first term last year, the most senior member of the council.
Debates over issues and ideology are understandably front and center in campaigns. But with eight of nine council seats up for grabs, I want to focus for a moment on an often overlooked question that impacts how the city council makes decisions and functions on a daily basis: Can these people work together? Among the current council, the answer is frequently no. At best, there’s a sense that council members aren’t talking to each other outside public meetings, which are still largely virtual. At worst, the hostility bursts out into the open—as it has during this election, when one council member, Sara Nelson, is actively campaigning against three of her incumbent colleagues.
In this setting, five—and up to eight—new council members could provide a needed reset and eliminate some of the bad blood that has built up over the past several years.
Less optimistically, an inexperienced council could leave Mayor Bruce Harrell’s exercise of executive power unchecked, allowing the mayor to push through any number of priorities that the current council has shot down—like raiding the JumpStart payroll tax, which is supposed to be spend on housing and equitable development, to pay for general city obligations.
The next council will have to get up to speed fast, because they’ll soon face challenges that are only growing in scope—from homelessness, gun violence, and addiction to a looming $250 million budget deficit that will require tough decisions and could mean significant service cuts.
To get a better sense of how council incumbents, challengers, and first-time candidates would tackle these challenges, PubliCola spoke with 10 of the 14 council candidates, representing every council district.
Two candidates—Rob Saka in District 1 and Tanya Woo in District 2—ignored our emailed requests to sit down for an interview and did not follow up after I asked again in person. One candidate, District 3’s Joy Hollingsworth, set up an interview but then canceled, and did not respond to my request to reschedule. Maritza Rivera, running in District 4, would not sit down for an interview but did provide emailed responses to written questions. And Cathy Moore, in District 5, declined my request in an email.
The number of candidates who declined, canceled, or ignored our requests for an interview is unusual. While PubliCola isn’t shy about expressing our views on issues, that has rarely been an impediment to dialogue in the past. These candidates’ refusal to sit down for an in-depth conversation about the issues they will have to address if elected could bode poorly for transparency on the new council; in our experience, candidates who refuse to talk to members of the press they perceive as critical rarely become more tolerant of tough questions under the pressure of public office.
I’ll be rolling out interviews with the council candidates in every race over the next two weeks. I hope readers will learn more about the candidates from these in-depth conversations and use them to inform your vote. Ballots go out on October 18.
First up: Maren Costa, a former Amazon employee who founded Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, where her organizing helped lead to Amazon’s “climate pledge” to reduce the company’s net emissions to zero by 2040. In 2020, she was fired after circulating a petition on behalf of warehouse workers organizing for better workplace conditions. Her opponent, Rob Saka, is supported by Mayor Bruce Harrell.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
PubliCola [ECB]: Seattle Police Department officers have repeatedly been caught mocking or belittling the deaths of people killed by police—most recently SPOG vice president Daniel Auderer, who was caught on tape joking with SPOG president Mike Solan about the killing of Jaahnavi Kandula by a third officer. These are police leaders, and they shape the culture at the department. Do you think SPD can be reformed, and if so, how?
Maren Costa [MC]: Reform is really hard. A lot of the things that happen in a fight or flight decision—which is where we see, oftentimes, the worst examples of police brutality and overpolicing—those come from the brain stem. In big tech, we deal with implicit bias all the time. We know that there’s implicit bias—it’s just everywhere, and it hard to train out of people. So when you’re dealing with somebody who has a gun, and they’re in an adrenaline situation, it’s just going to be hard for people not to resort to that lower brain and not to go to their fear-based reactions.
I am a proponent of minimizing armed response where it’s not needed—so, standing up that third department that we’ve all been waiting for, whether we call it CARE or civilian response or dual dispatch. I think the community will be safer if we don’t send an armed officer when we don’t need an armed officer.
And then we need to hold people accountable when we see that kind of behavior. Culture comes from the top.
“I do think that treatment for some people might need to be mandatory— enough to give someone a chance to be off drugs, to help them get onto methadone, or whatever will help ease them back to a non-drug[-using] stage.”
ECB: You told me before the primary that you opposed local legislation giving the city attorney the ability to prosecute people for using drugs in public or for simple possession. Now that the law has passed, what policies will you advocate to promote diversion and minimize harm?
MC: I think the evidence shows that treatment works better than incarceration for substance use disorder. So but we need to fund that. But this bill that passed, unfortunately, seemed performative. If you’re someone who wants to incarcerate someone for substance use disorder, I’m sorry, that won’t happen. Because we don’t have time, courts are backed up, the jails are full. If you’re someone that wants to treat substance use disorder, sorry, that won’t happen [either]. Because we don’t have the beds, we don’t have the programs, we don’t have the resources and the diversion set up to deal with it.
ECB: What do you think effective treatment looks like?
MC: Fentanyl is such a beast. And, you know, somebody said, ‘There’s no such thing as a long-term fentanyl user,’ which is so tragic. We know that getting out of addiction can often take multiple tries. And sometimes you just don’t get those chances with fentanyl. So I think it’s just going to be different for every person. You know, ‘is this your eighth time in [treatment]? Have we seen you before? What are you struggling with?’
I think when people talk about, ‘incarceration works,’ they’ll have these anecdotal stories of somebody saying, ‘I sobered up in jail and it saved my life.’ And you can have the same anecdotal stories of people saying ‘I sobered up in the hospital’ because they had some kind of an injury that put them in the hospital where they couldn’t leave [and had to stop using drugs]. So I don’t think it has to be jail. But I do think that treatment for some people might need to be mandatory— enough to give someone a chance to be off drugs, to help them get onto methadone, or whatever will help ease them back to a non-drug[-using] stage.
ECB: How do you feel about your ability to work with City Attorney Ann Davison’s office on less punitive alternatives to prosecution for drug users arrested under the new law?
MC: Oh, great. We agree on the outcomes. We want people to not hurt other people and not hurt themselves. [We want them to] not be doing drugs on openly on the streets. We want to house people. Most of us still want to be compassionate. But we also don’t want to accept harmful behavior. And the devil then is in the details. How do we do all of those things? And then also, how do we pay for them?
ECB: How do we pay for them? Inpatient treatment can be very expensive, to name one example.
MC: We obviously want to make sure we’re spending every dollar that we have as best as we can. At Amazon, there was a leadership principle called frugality: Every dollar not spent on the customer is a dollar wasted. That was drilled into us. So we should make sure we’re spending the money we have as efficiently as we can. This might have to come from the mayor, but I would love to say to all the departments, ‘Filter up 10 ways that your department can save money.’
And it can be anonymous, because there might be people in a department who are like, ‘We have this meeting every week where there’s 10 people sitting around making $300 an hour and nothing comes out of that meeting.’ Or, ‘we’re paying this one nonprofit to do this work, and they have never produced results.’ Or whatever it is—you know, bubble it up. And let’s go after those things and try to save as much money as we can and do that quickly, because we’re going to need to do everything we can.
And then we need to raise progressive revenue, because we have an upside-down tax code where the poorest among us pay the highest percentage of their wages. We have a ton of money in the city. And we have a hard time getting the people who have that money to pay their fair share. So we have to make sure that we’re getting everybody to pay their fair share, and then we’ll have more money to solve our big problems. And that’s where I can’t get my opponent to commit, because the Trump donors that are funding his [independent expenditure] campaign don’t want to hear him say he’s going to raise taxes on big business.
ECB: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is mostly funded by the city, has struggled to find its footing in its first two years and has suffered a number of high-profile setbacks, including the termination of its program to end homelessness downtown and the departure of its founding CEO. Do you think homelessness requires a regional approach, and if so, what can be done to turn the KCRHA around?
MC: I’m not ready to abandon it. But we have to make sure that we’re monitoring it and auditing it to make sure it’s meeting the goals, and if it’s not meeting the goals, fix it or kill it. And I think we’re at the fixing stage. I have hopes for it. I think the regional intent is good. When it comes to [deciding], where are we going to put all the tiny home villages or safe [parking] lots that we want to build, everyone in the region has to pony up. You know, ‘Give me three places where you will be willing to put [shelter] in your neighborhood’ and share the load appropriately. I think it’ll make us more efficient and more able to actually meet the needs of our own homeless population, which is growing every day.
I met with [a policy staffer for KCRHA] recently, and he gave me a lot of hope for the organization. He said that when they are actually going into encampments armed with what they need to solve the problem, they’re having a 90% success rate of bringing people inside. And that’s what I love to hear. Because that’s what we need to do. And you need to tailor that offer. Before, we were offering congregate shelters and nobody wants to go. When we can go in and really help people get situated into something that works for them, we’re getting 90%.
ECB: It sounds like he was talking about CoLEAD, which does encampment work in state-owned rights-of-way in collaboration with the KCRHA. That’s an intensive, expensive model that is unlike how the city itself responds to most encampments, which is to give 72 hours’ notice and offer people whatever shelter is available. And that’s in a best-case scenario where the city doesn’t just call an encampment an obstruction and remove it without notice or a shelter offer.
MC: LEAD works. It’s also very expensive. So if there’s a way to do it cheaper, great. And we can look at that, too. But I mean, these things are just going to cost money. I think we’re all really tired of not solving the problem.
“These decisions we’re making right now are going to impact our city for hundreds of years. And so it’s very short-sighted to worry about years of [light rail] construction. The most important thing we can do is build something that people actually want to use and that meets their needs, because we need to get people out of their cars, and in order to do that, we have to make it more convenient.”
ECB: Sound Transit has recently proposed moving around several stations in downtown Seattle to reduce the impact of construction on businesses and residents. What are some of the tradeoffs you see coming down the road in West Seattle, and can you talk about how you see light rail transforming District 1, for good or bad?
MC: Well, there’s going to be disruptions. Somebody’s going to lose their house, somebody’s going to lose their business. I guess I would want to make sure that we’re fairly compensating businesses and renters and homeowners. My sister’s business was actually under eminent domain for a while. I met with the owner of a daycare center who will probably get displaced for the Delridge station,, and the amount of money that they’re being offered to compensate them is not anywhere near the amount of money they’re actually going to need to reestablish their business somewhere else.
These decisions we’re making right now are going to impact our city for hundreds of years. And so it’s very short-sighted to worry about years of construction. The most important thing we can do is build something that people actually want to use and that meets their needs, because we need to get people out of their cars, and in order to do that, we have to make it more convenient. It’s a long wait. Ten years from now. Where are self-driving vehicles going to be at [by then]?
ECB: Do you support putting self-driving vehicles on our streets?
MC: Yeah. Probably not yet, but like 10 years from now? Sure. Let [other cities] be the guinea pigs for a year or two. We tend to want to rush everything—like rushing AI. And we don’t really just slow down and take a minute to see how well it’s working. So I’m not opposed to it, when it’s safe.
ECB: What are some of your ideas to decarbonize the city, other than electric vehicles and maybe, eventually, self-driving cabs?
MC: Everything we do to bring cars off the road is great, and we can’t just electrify them all because it is still an inefficient way to move people around. Sometimes when I’m sitting on I-5, I like to think about if you could snap your fingers and have the cars go away, the way that like Cinderella’s carriage went away, and then you just had the number of people that were there. It would be empty. It would just be like, ‘Oh my God, we have this massive thing running through our city and it’s only moving this this many people. It’s so frustrating. So we need to get cars off the road.
We have building emissions performance standards coming up—that needs to have teeth and it needs to happen. I would love to find a way to tax carbon so that we’re making the right thing to do the actual cheaper thing to do
We’re currently not on track to meet our climate goals. As a city, as a state, as a nation, as a planet, nobody is on track to meet our climate goals. We are all just numbingly accepting this as business as usual. We can’t refreeze the ice caps, we can’t de-acidify the oceans, we can’t reverse the biodiversity loss. And I don’t believe in blaming the individual at all, because that’s not where we need to change. But we need to have people understanding what the tradeoffs are—we’re currently trading our convenience today for a livable future. We need to help people understand that and then demand better from our government.