This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Toby Thaler did not sue the city to stop backyard cottages; instead, he spent years filing legal challenges to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which, after significant delays, allows slightly more density in a sliver of exclusive single-family areas that make up the vast majority of residential land in Seattle. Marty Kaplan is the activist who worked to prevent the expansion of backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments.
UPDATE: Since this post was published, a GoFundMe has been set up for people to contribute to the college fund of Lhorna Murray’s son Carter. Find out more and contribute here.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just days before protests against anti-Black police brutality and injustice exploded across the country, Seattle City Council member Alex Pedersen fired his lone Black staffer, Lhorna Murray, on May 20. A white Pedersen staffer, Alexa Halling, quit in solidarity with Murray, both Murray and Halling confirm.
Murray, a longtime community organizer who joined Pedersen’s campaign as a volunteer after he was “the only candidate who came to my community”—Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing development in Magnuson Park—says she believed she was hired “to bring the voices of the people who aren’t heard to the table, and who I feel like desperately need to be part of the conversations and part of the solutions. But the circumstances of my employment and the culture of the workplace made it pretty difficult to authentically be able to accomplish that.” Instead, Murray says her job was limited to checking emails and responding to constituents, plus scheduling Pedersen’s weekly in-district office hours.
City Council member Alex Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, fired his lone Black staffer in late May, in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented unemployment. One of his white staffers quit in protest.
Pedersen, who has a Black Lives Matter sign on his office door, directed questions about the upheaval in his office to council communications director Dana Robinson Slote, who said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters.
His campaign platform included reinvigorating traditional neighborhood groups, restricting density (often framed through the lens of “protecting trees”) and protecting street parking in neighborhoods. His top policy hire was longtime neighborhood activist Toby Thaler, best known in recent years for suing the city to stop modest upzones in a sliver of Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Density is a housing accessibility issue, which makes it a racial justice issue as well.
Multiple staffers on the second floor expressed surprise that Pedersen would fire his council aide without providing her with a path to another job at the City in the middle of an epidemic that has caused massive unemployment and cratered the job market. Employees of council members can be fired at will, but no one I talked to in council offices said they were aware of any issue with Murray’s performance that would justify firing her without notice.
I have filed a records request for any confidentiality agreements or NDAs signed by staffers for every council office to see if any other offices require staffers to sign NDAs. The confidentiality agreement, which I have seen, says that the employee will “never” reveal any information that “is not generally known outside the context of the employment and is disclosed or obtained by the Employee as a consequence of his or her confidential relationship to the Employer.” With few exceptions, all communications by city council staffers are a matter of public record under the state Public Disclosure Act. Pedersen’s campaign focused on accountability and transparency, as has his rhetoric on the council.
“Racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.” —Former Alex Pedersen staffer Alexa Halling
Ex-Pedersen staffer Halling says she quit “to protest the firing of my coworker Lhorna.” Although a nondisclosure agreement Murray’s colleague Halling signed when she took the job prevented her from talking on record about conditions in Pedersen’s office or the specific reasons why she quit, she said that, in Seattle, “racism isn’t always as overt as a knee on your neck. White progressives love to pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit when we protest racism racism, but racism doesn’t start with murder.”
The fact that Halling quit to express solidarity with Murray speaks to “who she is at the core,” Murray says. “She totally forfeited her livelihood, whereas most people”—those who consider themselves “allies”— “don’t even want to have an uncomfortable moment. …Every day that I knew Alexa, and every time there was something happening that wasn’t right, Alexa spoke up.”
The diversity of the council’s staff has increased as the council itself has become more diverse, but there are still only a relative handful of Black staffers, and no Black council members, on City Hall’s second floor. And, as Murray notes, “there’s a difference between having a diverse office and listening to a diverse set of opinions.”
Murray says she’s confident she’ll land on her feet. But she says her experience working for Pedersen, and her firing, has served as “a really valuable lesson” for her 18-year-old son, who volunteered on Pedersen’s campaign and who cast his first-ever vote for him.
Murray says she spent considerable personal capital convincing friends and neighbors in her community to vote for Pedersen over activist and filmmaker Shaun Scott, who is Black, telling them that “what he didn’t know, he was willing to learn.” Last week, she says, “he was having to make phone calls telling his friends he’s not going ot be able to go to [college] with them” because Murray, who’s a single mom, can no longer afford it.