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 City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Southeast Magnolia. District 7 was reshaped dramatically during the decennial redistricting process last year, when the city’s redistricting commission moved the west half of Magnolia (which is consistently more conservative than the district as a whole) into District 6, represented by Dan Strauss. Lewis, a former assistant city attorney, just finished his first term.
PubliCola [ECB]: You became a proponent of the drug law and ultimately voted for it, saying it represented a “plan, not just a statute.” Now that the mayor’s budget has come out, it’s clear that there is no plan to add funding next year for diversion, treatment, or the other programs the bill talks about using as alternatives to jail—just the pre-existing opioid settlement money, which amounts to about $1 million a year over almost two decades. Were you expecting more out of this budget proposal, and why do you still consider the drug bill a “plan” if there’s no funding to implement it?
Andrew Lewis [AL]: Well, I disagree with your characterization of the [opioid] settlement money not being new money. I would say it is new money that we have a lot of discretion in how we program.
We’re not without resources right now to organize what we have and tackle the crisis that we’re seeing on our streets, and to give direction and instruction to the police to do warm handoffs to those institutions instead of arrest and remand to a court, which is distinct from what we were essentially being asked to endorse in June [when Lewis voted against the bill]. There’s a reason, candidly, that the city attorney’s office is grumpy about this new bill. There’s a reason the Seattle Times editorial board was grumpy about this new bill. There was a preference to resolve this in a cursory way. And that’s not what the council or the mayor is endorsing.
We’re going to get the October revenue forecast. We’re going to likely get more money. I imagine my colleagues will be very supportive of increasing our support for programs like LEAD and CoLEAD. I would imagine that’ll be a very high-priority for additional investment.
“There’s going to be hard decisions around revenue, there’s going to be hard decisions around cuts, there’s going to be hard decisions around reform. Because what has been made clear through our process—to my progressive friends who only talk about new revenue—is that new revenue, in and of itself, is probably not sufficient to close that gap.”
ECB: Given the prospect of a $200 million-plus budget deficit next year and beyond, why is the council revisiting new initiatives like ShotSpotter, which the council rejected just last year? [Editor’s note: After this interview took place, Lewis expressed his support for the mayor’s gunshot locator and CCTV surveillance programs, which would cost $1.8 million as a pilot and more in the future if the program is expanded.]
AL: Last year, I wasn’t convinced. [This year,] I appreciate that the source of funding is salary savings instead of the general fund. And I need to do more research to determine if the reported problems with acoustic gun detection systems is with the technology in general or with the specific vendor, ShotSpotter. I need to do more digging into exactly how it’s being packaged this time. Obviously, in last year’s budget, I think we did the right thing in reprioritizing the investment. But I want to look at how this proposal is different. And there’s a couple of other technologies that are in the package.
ECB: If you’re reelected, you will—by virtue of being in your second term—be a bit of a veteran on a council full of newcomers. Are you concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge on the council, and how do you plan to tackle the looming budget deficit as one of the few council members with any experience?
AL: I absolutely think it is going to be bad for the institution to lose people like Lisa Herbold, who by far is the model example of when a council member should be in terms of due diligence, reading everything, and asking good questions. The council is the board of directors for the city, and making sure that we have enough council members who have been through at least one budget process already, I think, is important.
Part of my pitch in running for reelection has been that we have a lot of projects that we’re making good progress on, and it would be bad to switch leadership in the middle of it. If you want to get the Queen Anne Community Center rebuilt—in my first term, we secured the money to do it, but money can go away. We funded it in the first term, and I want to get it built in the second term. Same goes for the alternative response department. We’re at the beginning of having a new civilian leader, Chief Amy Smith, who’s great and has a great vision for what that department is going to do. But we need to make sure that that remains a permanent priority and that it has a permanent base of funding in the general fund. And the crucible for all these decisions is going to be that budget next year.
I presided over the Metropolitan Park District renewal, which in essence was a mini budget process, and navigated that to an 8-1 vote—I even got Councilmember [Sara] Nelson’s vote for that package. There’s going to be hard decisions around revenue, there’s going to be hard decisions around cuts, there’s going to be hard decisions around reform. Because what has been made clear through our process—to my progressive friends who only talk about new revenue—is that new revenue, in and of itself, is probably not sufficient to close that gap.
Similarly, I do think there are opportunities for reform rather than cuts—like, there’s opportunities to do departmental consolidations. I think there’s lots of strategic adviser positions that might not be absolutely necessary for the running of certain departments. There could be a deregulatory component when it comes to some of our land use stuff. Those things have costs associated with them. So I think that that has to also be part of the discussion. And I think progressives should take that on.
ECB: The city recently filed an amicus brief seeking Supreme Court review of a case that could overturn Martin v. Boise (the Ninth Circuit ruling that says jurisdictions can’t sweep encampments in most cases without offering shelter). I’m curious what you think about this decision and what the implications for Seattle will be if the Supreme Court overturns Martin.
AL: I’m honestly, at this point, kind of ambivalent about Martin v. Boise, because there’s a lot of loopholes in the ruling where I actually don’t think it’s going to be that material of a difference if it’s overturned. I think the entire discussion is a distraction from what we really need to do to get to the core of this problem. I don’t think this is a problem of insufficient will or capacity to enforce. In cases where an encampment rises to the level of producing a threat to public health and safety, the city has shown that it is capable of remediating that site and doing it within the law.
At the end of the day, the thing that I’ve seen work under incredibly difficult circumstances is JustCARE [which partnered with KCRHA to clear encampments in state rights-of-way, moving people into hotel-based transitional housing with case management]. Encampments went away and they didn’t come back, and we tracked the outcomes of how it went, and the outcomes were good. Something like 45 percent of the participants ended up going to market-based, voucher-subsidized placements.
“[Defund the police by] 50 percent sounds like you’re basically going to cut the police force in half. And it’s not clear what’s going to replace it. That was where the wheels really fell off the wagon for a whole host of critical discussions.”
ECB :Your opponent has focused a lot on the council’s statements in 2020 that the city should reduce the police department by 50 percent, and you’ve called those statements a mistake made in the heat of the moment in 2020. That strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, since the intent of “defund,” including among councilmembers, was always to fund alternatives to policing, rather than just cutting the police budget. Why do you think this was a mistake, and with the benefit of hindsight, what should you have said instead?
AL: I think assigning the percentage, 50 percent, was the bigger mistake. I think the general concept that was pitched—have a look at ways that you can capture some additional savings and move that money into something else— warranted debate and discussion. But the place where we really, really tripped up was the 50 percent number, which was perceived by the public as arbitrary. The way it was effectively spun and represented to the public by people who opposed the council was, the council is going to pull the rug out from under the police and they’re not going to replace it with anything. Or they’re going to replace it with something goofy, and you’re not going to be safe.
Because 50 percent sounds like you’re basically going to cut the police force in half. And it’s not clear what’s going to replace it. That was where the wheels really fell off the wagon for a whole host of critical discussions. It’s taken three years to get this dual dispatch thing going. And I think that we would have been able to move faster, because I think we injured the credibility of those discussions. Because it sounded more like the council wanted to be engaged in a project of punishing the police then engaged in a process of actually building true community safety. And I’m just talking about public perception. I’m not talking about what the intent of the council actually was.
“I think the police are going to make sure everything looks good, clear the call, and they’re going to move on, just because there’s so much demand for police responses. But that said, it’s really easy to just take those [dual-dispatch] teams, and just make it a full alternative 911 response. It would be harder if the officer was embedded in the vehicle; it would be harder if it was within the police department.”
ECB: At the time, your message seemed to mostly be about funding a fully civilian response team like the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. I got so sick of hearing the word “cahoots”! And what we got out of that, three years later, is a renamed 911 dispatch department, which will initially include just six new dual-dispatch responders who will be accompanied by police as they respond to a tiny subset of low-priority calls, which is pretty far off the CAHOOTS-style program you advocated for.
AL: It’s a type of CAHOOTS. I mean, look, we have different laws than Albuquerque, Denver, and Oregon, as relates to collective bargaining, and how these things have to get stood up. But the important thing is, it is a system that is like 90 percent of the way to being CAHOOTS. And getting that last 10 percent is an achievable policy goal in the near future.
I do think that, in practice, these guys are going to just be doing their own thing. I think the police are going to make sure everything looks good, clear the call, and they’re going to move on, just because there’s so much demand for police responses. But that said, it’s really easy to just take those teams, and just make it a full alternative 911 response. It would be harder if the officer was embedded in the vehicle; it would be harder if it was within the police department. It’s in a fully civilian independent department, led by a civilian director, who is committed to this work and knows it really well. They have their own equipment, their own vehicle, their own supervisors, they’re not within the chain of command with the police. And the only thing that’s keeping it from being the full CAHOOTS is that the officer has to essentially take a look at the scene and make a professional determination that the scene is safe. But the officer doesn’t have to stay or do anything else.
ECB: The downtown waterfront is partly in your district. What do you think of how it’s shaping up so far, and do you think the south end needs to be nine lanes wide? Can anything be done to make the road more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists?
AL: I’m always down to increase the amount of pedestrian and multimodal spaces. I do think we need to let it be finished to see what the complete lay of the land is going to be when it’s done. That’s the only kind of pushback I have on my urbanist friends. I mean, yeah, the whole thing looks like a big concrete slab, because we haven’t done like the landscaping yet. We haven’t put in the plantings, we haven’t finished the bike path—although I do think the bike path should be slightly larger than it is. On the whole, it’s going to be a great new public space. And I think it’s a matter of how do we work to continue to improve it? And I think in the short term that can include conversations around a road diet [which would reduce the number of lanes without narrowing the roadbed itself].
ECB: Is there any issue or project you’ve worked on during your term that you feel is not getting enough attention and that you would want people to know about?
AL: We did really, really cool things with the Metropolitan Park District. But I think the park district didn’t get a lot of attention because it was, dare I say it, handled so well. Things that could have been controversial were resolved. We were able to take care of concerns about the park rangers. We really went to Parks and said, ‘We want a plan that is going to have our parks be clean, safe and open—like, have the bathrooms open and not be disgusting, and make sure that you’re cleaning them on a regular basis. We made massive investments in community centers, to decarbonize them and make them extreme weather sheltering sites, essentially. And we got very little attention or recognition, but I think it’s partly because there was no big shit show.
If we went back in time two years, parks was a big issue, because a lot of them had big encampments and everything else. Now our parks are activated, they’re well maintained. I don’t think anyone thinks the Parks Department is a poorly run department anymore. And that’s partly because of the reforms we drove forward.