PubliCola Questions: City Council Candidate Ron Davis, District 4

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.

Today’s interview is with Ron Davis, who’s running to represent Northeast Seattle in District 3. Davis is an attorney, tech consultant, and housing activist who touts his working-class roots when talking about the need to build more housing and fix the state’s regressive tax system, which forces cities to rely heavily on taxes that disproportionately impact poor and working-class people.

PubliCola [ECB] Your opponent, Maritza Rivera, has accused you of flip-flopping on the recent legislation that empowered the city attorney to prosecute people for public drug use, based on the fact that you deleted a tweet that said you supported prosecuting drug dealers. What is your position on the law, particularly when it comes to prosecuting people who sell drugs?

Ron Davis [RD]: I sent out a email with a multipoint plan, and then I tried to summarize it on Twitter in six points. Two of the points involved enforcement. The fourth said something about dealers and people who are a risk of harm to others who are, presumably, arrested under the ordinance. And I used the word ‘prosecute.’ And then I sat down with some retired judges, and people in the criminal legal system space. I sat down with [Purpose Dignity Action co-director] Lisa Daugaard, and I said ‘You’ve got a better understanding of what’s happening on the ground, both in terms of the plans of the Harrell administration and what the evidence shows.’

And so what I came to see, and clarify, is that in many of these cases, people who are dealing on the street are [dealing at a] subsistence level and they’re folks struggling with addiction themselves. And it turns out that the remedy for them is the same as in any other case, which is to get them into recovery resources. So I said something like, ‘The answer is diversion, services and, housing.’ And Maritza was like, ‘Ron Davis wants to subsidize drug dealers.’ And then the Seattle Times said, ‘Ron Davis does not support any enforcement ordinance whatsoever.’ Diversion does not imply zero enforcement. I did write to them and say, ‘You’re entitled to call me an extremist, but you are not entitled to your own facts.’

“Shotspotter is a great example where the evidence is really clear that it doesn’t work. And so it seems like a great, great example of actually throwing money away. If there’s technology we can use to reduce crime or make policing more efficient, without violating people’s civil rights, but I haven’t seen it.”

ECB: Where do you stand on the ordinance?

RD: I’ve been asked many times how I would have voted. And my answer is this: After talking to [a variety of] people, I got a really conflicting picture that emerged about what the past practice was in the last 10 years. There are some people who insist that the past practice was that post-arrest, people who were really struggling with addiction were not incarcerated, and we can’t even book people for that. And then there’s another set of people who are saying, that’s ostensibly true, but they tend to have other things on their record that you can book for, and we are using that as a front door into incarceration.

So there was an empirical question I could not get a straight answer to, and I don’t have staff and I don’t have access to city data. So when I’ve gotten like the ‘yes/no/maybe’ surveys, I’ve said ‘maybe.’ Critics say it will reignite the drug war, and boosters say it’s a path into treatment. And I think what is really true is that we don’t have a lot of capacity in either jails or treatment. And so, it will depend on execution and what do we actually fund in the future.

ECB: The mayor’s most recent budget proposal doesn’t increase ongoing funding for treatment or services. Are there specific programs you would push for if you were on the council during this budget cycle?

RD: When I think about where we can get the most bang for our buck, it’s things like LEAD and CoLEAD, plus supportive housing for folks in that process, because there’s a number of folks who get into some of those recovery services and if they don’t get stable housing, they don’t recover. Evergreen Treatment Services has a mobile buprenorphine treatment unit, and I think expanding that low-barrier access is one of the best evidence-based ways to get people into what is now clinically called recovery, right, which is a many-step process.

ECB: The city is facing a budget shortfall of up to $250 million starting with the 2025 budget, which the council will take up next year. Even if the city passes new progressive taxes, the revenues may not be available that quickly and they probably won’t completely close the gap. What areas of the budget will you prioritize for cuts?

RD: I will say, I think expansion of Jumpstart, which has already passed the courts, topping off the progressive tax on extreme capital gains, could generate the revenue in a timely enough fashion.

Look, I was a CEO—I got teased by my investors about squeezing a buck. I do think we need to be smart. But I also think we need to acknowledge that right now, we are spending less as a percentage of GDP at the state local level than we were 10 years ago. So when you get these b.s. statistics that are like ‘Spending is going up faster than inflation’—number one, the cost of doing business when you’re a government is not tied directly to regular inflation, because it’s mostly labor-intensive and land-intensive and construction-intensive. In the private and public sector, those exceed inflation. But number two, any government economist who made it pass their sophomore year can tell you that the way we measure government spending, and if we’re spending a lot or a little, is as a percentage of GDP, and that’s gone down in the last 10 years.

Now, for most of us, that’s not true, because we have a regressive tax system that always, always, always takes from working class folks or little old ladies on fixed incomes, in big houses that are technically worth a lot, but they have no cash. And I do think that means we need to fix our tax system. And, you know, we don’t have to kill the golden goose. We could be the go from the being the [most] regressive state to the [third]. We could rebalance the tax code just a little bit to be, like, remotely in line with Democratic Party values. And I don’t know that we can fix everything, but we can make massive, massive difference in these problems.

“When you build a [police] budget around a staffing plan that is literally impossible, it would be just like me building an affordable housing plan around reducing the price of lumber and interest rates”

ECB: One place the city never wants to cut is the police department—even after getting rid of 80 vacant positions last year, the city continues to fund vacant, unfillable positions and allow the department to use that extra money for overtime as well as other new programs, like Shotspotter and camera surveillance, which are both in this year’s budget. Do you support cutting the police budget?

RD: [Shotspotter] is a great example of one of those places where the evidence is really clear that it doesn’t work. And so it seems like a great, great example of actually throwing money away. If there’s technology we can use to reduce crime or make policing more efficient, without violating people’s civil rights, but I haven’t seen it.

I don’t know how ‘ghost’ positions there are. But as I’ve said in the past, I think false promises are a bad idea. And I think when you build a budget around a staffing plan that is literally impossible, it would be just like me building an affordable housing plan around reducing the price of lumber and interest rates. So I say this often, but I want to say it again. Eighty-five percent of jurisdictions in Washington state are below their [police] hiring targets. Everett, Tacoma, Olympia, and Bellevue have all described themselves as at crisis levels. Memphis, Atlanta, Tulsa are, as a percentage, off [their hiring goals] ] almost as much as SPD. And this is a national, structural problem where hundreds of thousands of people left the profession. So I think any budget or plan that is selling people safety based on doing magic is policy malpractice, and it’s dishonest with voters.

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. Do you think SPD can be reformed, and if so, how?

RD: For me, reforming the culture means reforming the governance. Right now, the culture is one where impunity is allowed, because there’s no genuine independent oversight and accountability. And without that, I don’t know why we would think we would stop having a culture of impunity. We’ve been under a consent decree for 10 years because of that culture of impunity and lack of accountability.

I think that whether it’s OPA or whatever body [is in charge of investigating police misconduct], it needs to be fully civilianized. And they may need to have subpoena power or disciplinary power, extending all the way to firing for cause and putting that on someone’s record. I do think there’s things like Before the Badge, de-escalation training, community policing, that are evidence-based ways to nibble around the edges and improve things, but we’re not going to persuade people to be nice at this point. That’s not working. We’ve been trying that for a long, long, long time.

I also think that will build community confidence that officers who step out of line are going to be accountable for it. And building that community confidence might even make the department a more attractive place to work and more reflective of the community. But given the fact that we’re the department that sent the most officers to the January 6 insurrection, right now we’ve got a department that’s really out of step with the community.

ECB: The city is seeking to have the Supreme Court review a Ninth Circuit panel decision on homelessness involving a sleeping ban in Grants Pass, Oregon. If the court overturns the ruling, it could mean the end of Martin v. Boise, another ruling that says that in the Western states, jurisdictions can’t ban unsheltered people from sleeping in public unless the jurisdiction offers adequate shelter. What do you think the implication will be if Martin v. Boise is overturned?

RD: I don’t know if Martin v. Boise is holding back us a whole lot. We are not allowed to sweep people, in the sense that we cannot clear encampments without either some very, very specific circumstances or offering housing. And often what we call offering housing, I would say we ostensibly offer housing— where we walk into an encampment and we’re offering congregate shelter. I don’t think qualifies for number of reasons. And we’re offering an amount of congregate shelter capacity that does not match the size of the encampment anyway, because we know people will say no, and using it as a pretext for sweeping.

You know, when we do the relationship building, we do the work, and we offer actual, real, viable alternatives, people are very responsive. But we have constraints in terms of how much of that we have available.

ECB: You’ve said many times that you support Option 6 for the upcoming update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—an alternative put forward by pro-housing activists that would add more density, in more parts of the city, than the most housing-forward official comp plan option, Option 5 How likely do you think it is that Option 6, or elements of Option 6, move forward?

RD:  I think it really depends on who gets on the council. I know that there’s at least one person in almost every race who feels pretty strongly that that’s where we should go. So it will really depend on the composition of the council. I also think that the definition of what [Option] 5 is will have the potential to evolve.

What is really important to me is that our comp plan, one, does not make the housing deficit worse, which currently all the options do. Two, actually chips away at or solves the housing deficit. And then three, does so in a broadly spread way that allows us to do things like have reasonable lot coverage requirements, so that we have nice things like trees. And there’s other pieces of it that I want to see that are also essential, that aren’t necessarily have to be comp plan driven, like complete neighborhoods where people meet most of their needs in their neighborhood on foot, with accessible infrastructure. We can do that through the various transportation levies, but I’d like to see that in the comp plan, too.

ECB: If you win, you’ll be a newcomer in a council full of newcomers. What are your biggest knowledge gaps, and where would you turn to fill those gaps?

RD: Although I enjoy incredible support in the labor community, and I have aligned values, I am not an expert in labor relations. I see [Councilmember] Teresa Mosqueda as the model legislator when it comes thinking carefully about labor legislation and working closely with that community, while still having an open dialogue with the business community. Another area where I would really like to increase my knowledge is around utilities. And [former council member] Mike O’Brien was the chair of that committee, and he’s a mentor. On issues of racial equity, I’m constantly learning, and I know that I’m likely to bring in kind of notable blind spots, just based on my own lived experience. Somebody I really respect in that space is[46th District state Rep.] Darya Farivar, who is one of my endorsers.

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