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 council incumbent Dan Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle in District 6.
PubliCola [ECB]: Your opponent, Pete Hanning, has criticized you for saying on your campaign mailers that “defund the police was a mistake,” given that you did vote to reduce the size of the police department by 50 percent in 2020. Why did you decide to stake out this anti-defund ground now, and how do you respond to his criticism that you flip-flopped?
Dan Strauss [DS]: The thing that I found is that those three words mean something different to every single person I talk to. So I was [doorbelling] on one block and a person asked me, ‘Did you vote to defund the police?’ And the answer was, yes. And then just halfway down the block, somebody else said, ‘Did you actually defund the police?’ And the answer is, no.
And when you look at my council colleagues, some wanted to defund completely, some were at 50 percent. And what I said is that we have to define our cuts and we have to scale up our alternatives before we scale down the police force, and that police officers shouldn’t be responding to homelessness or mental health calls or traffic stops.
“Do I want government to work faster across the board on all things? The answer’s yes, I do. I also understand why sometimes it takes time. And so it’s important for us to continue moving forward, continue trying things like the CARE Department and co-response, rather than just saying, ‘Oh, it took too long, we’re done.’”
ECB: So why did you turn around and say that was a mistake?
DS: The reason why [the vote] was a mistake is it didn’t say what we were going to do. It didn’t say that those three words means something different to every single person. And frankly, there was so much yelling going on, that people couldn’t hear my nuanced position, which was that we need to define cuts before we make them, because blanket cuts doesn’t make sense. You know, the really clear answer here is, defunding doesn’t create accountability. So one of the things that was important to me is that we have more accountability.
ECB: Some critics have claimed that the loss of hundreds of police officers since 2020 is because the council support defunding the police, and that that damaged morale. Why do you think retaining and hiring police has been so challenging?
DS: I’ll focus on the positive, which is that we have some of the highest recruiting numbers right now. And part of the role I played in that was fully funding our police recruitment plan last year.
You know, nationwide, there is a shortage of police officers. Almost every municipality in the area is looking to hire police officers. Republican cities in western Washington are down on their police officers. And we know that this is in a situation on the horizon for a long time. And at the end of the day, for me, what matters most is that we recruit the types of officers that meet Seattle’s values, so that the folks that are hired to wear a badge and carry a gun share the values, and the culture of the department shares the values, of Seattleites.
ECB: How far away do you think the current culture is from that goal?
DS: There are clearly some issues that have come out just in the last couple of weeks that demonstrate that there are problems that need to be fixed, because we need our police officers to be caring, to be setting an example for how you behave with your neighbors and using racist slurs or diminishing a person’s life is not in keeping with those values.
ECB: The council is currently discussing the mayor’s proposed budget. Do you think the proposal to pilot a new co-responder model for some low-priority calls is adequate? Will adding six new civilian responders be able to make noticeable progress toward the goal of reducing the number of police responding to calls where they aren’t needed, and is the city acting with enough urgency toward this goal?
DS: I think co-response is incredibly important. And right now, it’s too early to ask, is this a success? Is this a failure? The important thing about a pilot is you try it and you fix what isn’t working and you double down on what is working. I heard the same skepticism about Health One, which we know to be a very successful model.
It took 10 years to get [the Seattle Fire Department’s mobile response unit,] Health One. The time it takes to get to a place doesn’t determine how successful will be. Perfect world, wave a magic wand, and yes. I would love government to work faster in so many different areas. I mean, we’ve got us we’ve got a power outage down the street now that’s been going on for, I think, 12 hours. And that was following a power outage yesterday.
Would I like to see park rangers up here at Ballard Commons Park? Yes, absolutely. Do I want to see the people-only lane on Ballard Avenue implemented four months ago? Yes, absolutely. Do I want government to work faster across the board on all things? The answer’s yes, I do. I also understand why sometimes it takes time. And so it’s important for us to continue moving forward, continue trying things like the CARE Department and co-response, rather than just saying, ‘Oh, it took too long, we’re done.’
I mean, again, when I look at Health One, that was a 10-year endeavor to get to 2019, where we started with one unit, and then that one unit demonstrated its value very quickly. And that’s why it continues to expand.
And I think the missing ingredient right now is, where do people go? We’ve got this post-overdose site that’s being stood up right now. But what happens after that? Where does somebody go for anything from needle exchange to long term inpatient? This is why having the crisis center levy investments coming up as fast as possible is important.
ECB: You voted twice for the drug criminalization bill, but you never gave any speeches about it or publicly explained your vote. Why did you support it?
DS: I voted for the bill because I do believe that that diversion and treatment should be our first, second, and third choice. For some people, if they fail in those avenues, we have to have every option on the table. Jail is the most expensive option we have. It is the least rehabilitative. And for some people, that’s the option that they [reach]. And so for me, it’s having all options on the table.
ECB: The city has challenged a recent ruling that found the city’s practice of removing encampments with no notice on the grounds that they constitute an “obstruction” unconstitutional. The city has interpreted its own policy broadly in recent years, to include any tent or encampment on virtually any city property, including isolated areas in parks. Do you support the city’s position on clearing “obstruction” encampments?
DS: You know, Portland got sued [for violating the] ADA, because they were not keeping their sidewalks passable [because of encampments]. There are absolutely sidewalks that are a half mile from [central Ballard] that are not passable. And those encampments are not being removed right now, because we’re doing a drawdown. The sidewalk shouldn’t be blocked. We have worked in every way, shape and form possible to have voluntary compliance to make sure that the sidewalks are not blocked, and they’re not getting swept.
When we were doing our drawdowns in Ballard Commons Park and Woodland Park, people were camping in the park. And we as the city said, we see a better way to get people inside than just pushing them down the street, because it’s going to make things worse. And so we are not going to enforce that rule right now. At the Ballard Commons, we got 69 people inside. At Woodland Park, we got 89 people inside. And so we see the the broader benefit there.
“When the overall economy downturns, the economic engine in the industrial zones stays the same. And it suddenly is the thing that is keeping us all power as a city through the economic downturn. And that’s why developers are always thirsty to change industrial zones into other zoning, because they can get more money for it.”
ECB: Do you think transportation impact fees are going to pass next year, now that the council’s two most vocal advocates for the fees, Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen, are leaving? [Editor’s note: I conducted this interview before the council voted to move forward with a proposal to incorporate the fees into the city’s Comprehensive Plan.]
DS: For us to take on a complex policy like this, we do need to understand what we are doing, because it’s not just that the two people who are the loudest advocates for it are leaving, it’s that none of the council members who are currently council members, other than Councilmember Herbold and, I’d say, Council President [Debora] Juarez, ever dug deeply into it. And so that’s why I scheduled the public hearing.[Mandatory Housing Affordability] was passed during an economic boom, and a building boom. And I’m not sure that it would pass today, because we’re not in an economic boom. The thing with transportation impact fees is that during a building boom would be the time to pass it. We’re in a building depression, and I have concerns about that.
ECB: Your committee passed a significant rezone of the city’s maritime and industrial areas earlier this year. Controversially, it eliminated an entire proposed zone that would have allowed some limited housing above light-industrial businesses, like commissary kitchens and craftspeople, around the stadiums. Do you think prohibiting housing in industrial areas was the right long-term call?
DS: What I found is that among stakeholders who disagree on almost everything, there was almost unanimous agreement on everything in that plan, except for the stadium district. And so we were faced with the choice. Do we wait until the stadium district has resolved? Or do we move forward with zoning changes that have been desired since 2007 and create benefits to our city?
You were asking me all those other questions. But this is this is the good stuff. Because when our economy does well, nobody pays attention to the industrial zones, because they’re not creating as much economic activity and generating as much economic growth. But when the overall economy downturns, the economic engine in the industrial zones stays the same. And it suddenly is the thing that is keeping us all power as a city through the economic downturn. And that’s why developers are always thirsty to change industrial zones into other zoning, because they can get more money for it.
ECB: What about the “brewery district” in Ballard? That’s a huge change in use from what that area was like 20 years ago, and now there are tons of people coming into the area because the breweries are a destination. Wouldn’t it be better to have housing above those breweries, rather than having people drive in and park?
DS: If you have housing in the industrial area, in in the brewery zone, the top dollar for housing is going to exceed the top dollar that [breweries] can pay for the space. And that space will be sold and turned into housing, and then you won’t have a brewery district.
So what we did change in the brewery district is allowing office space to be above [industrial uses], as long as you preserve an industrial space. And that is a pretty big change, and the brewers already are feeling worried that that’s going to push them out of the neighborhood.
ECB: If you’re reelected, you will be one of the most senior members 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 only four, and perhaps fewer, councilmembers with any experience? Will the council be at the mercy of the mayor?
DS: Man, do you have any non-downer questions?
DS: Mayor Harrell has a very collaborative way of doing business. The thing that I really appreciate about him is that he hires smart people, and listens to them and takes their advice, even if it’s not necessarily the first thing that he personally would have jumped to. I think that that demonstrates real leadership. Mayor Harrell and I both grew up in the city. We grew up on opposite ends of the city, we grew up at different times, and we share a certain kind of know a certain chutzpah for our city.
Something [else] that I share with him is engaging in collaboration. Unfortunately, with some of my current colleagues, when I offer collaboration, they choose conflict. And whenever you choose conflict, it makes our solutions harder. It makes the conversations harder. And so when I look at our new council going on, we need to do some cultural resets. The council picked up some really bad habits and the pandemic. A lot of those stemmed from having to work remotely, because it reduced the opportunity for happenstance conversations—like the ability for somebody to just pop down into somebody else’s office and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ‘What’s your take on this?’ It’s incredibly important.
The majority of us, and I’m including myself in this, are doing council briefing [meetings] from our offices [over Zoom], and council briefing should be done [in person, so] we’re all looking at each other. That sets up a really positive relationship, even if we disagree, that we are all still working together.
For anyone to come in and take on the seat, it will take them a year to figure out what’s going on. And that’s not a disparagement of anyone, it’s just a fact of taking a new job. And you know, what’s most important to me is being accessible to my residents, continuing to hold office hours, continuing to be the only council member with a permanent district office so that people don’t have to have it go out of their way to have their voice heard by City Hall.