Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks.
Today’s candidate: Ballard neighborhood activist Catherine Weatbrook, who’s running against council incumbent Mike O’Brien in Northwest Seattle’s District 6.
The C Is for Crank [ECB]: I know that you’re a longtime neighborhood activist, and I know that you oppose changes to single-family zoning, and I know that you spoke out against the Market Street encampment site in Ballard. What I don’t know is why you’re running, and why against Mike O’Brien, one of the most popular council incumbents.
Catherine Weatbrook [CW]: Since I participated in the comprehensive planning that went on in the ’90s, I’ve seen a gradual shift away from the grand bargain of the ’90s that had to do with the urban village strategy. I felt that there were definitely voices that were not being heard and conversations that should be happening in 2015 that were not happening.
There’s a continual challenge bringing people to the table. We have what I’m going to call a meeting culture. There’s a good part of the world that cannot attend a 7pm meeting. That can be socioeconomic, that can be cultural. So how do you include the single parent with a young child who clearly cannot attend a 7pm meeting without incurring additional childcare costs? That’s a barrier. We still have about 40 percent of folks in the city who are not comfortable taking an online survey. They either have accessibility issues, or they’re intimidated by it, or they don’t trust it. There’s a whole host of reasons. So those are voices that I just don’t see represented. What I hear consistently from the departments on outreach is, if they can’t come to a meeting, and they can’t fill out a survey, we don’t know what to do. And I’m like, let’s figure out how to solve this, whether it’s racial equity, or gender equity, or speaking for the homeless.
ECB: How do you think council member O’Brien has failed to stand up for gender equity?
This is public record. Mike O’Brien has flat-out said that he is not comfortable speaking out about gender equity. He implied in a public statement that he wanted to get to a time where women didn’t have to work and they could raise their families. [You can read what O’Brien said here.] He was asked by a reporter about this and he flat-out said that was an unfortunate choice of words, but he again circled around to this time when both parents didn’t have to work. It’s a fundamental lack of understanding the context of women’s contributions to society and completely not understanding what his own biases are. What can I say? I can’t let that go unchallenged.
I’ve always coached, I’ve always nurtured, I’ve always pushed. My father had a wonderful woman working for him. She was labeled as his secretary, but she did so much more than that. I encouraged her to go get her technical writing certificate, and I gave my father the look that said, she’s going to get a half hour off to get to class on time, and ultimately I hired her. I feel it’s at that micro level where I’ve always worked to nurture people along, to give women, particularly, that nudge. In my most recent job, I again took a single woman who had been. quote, simply a janitor in her job title. I coached and taught her and ultimately got her to a job as a facilities manager. That kind of fundamental dedication to bringing folks along gives me a perspective where it’s just so ingrained [to ask], who are we shutting out? What barriers are we putting up?
This hookah lounge debacle is an example. [Last month, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he would shut down 11 immigrant-owned hookah lounges because, he said, they were associated with gun violence and were breaking a state law against indoor smoking at businesses. Murray has since walked back that hardline position.]
ECB: Why do you call it a debacle?
CW: I cannot find a single example where we have vilified an entire business sector because of the supposed bad actions of one, whether it was nightclubs or bars or noisy car repair shops. We haven’t closed every car repair shop in seattle because somebody was grinding off an axle at 11:20 at night.
These [hookah lounges] are a cultural component for residents of our city, and as such, I think we have to make sure that we show great discretion. If there are incidents that can be tied specifically to a specific bad actor or the carelessness of a particular club or business, then I think you have to have that conversation with that club or business. But to close clubs [without] any actual evidence or legal conclusion that a bad act outside or in the club led to this violence—it would be like taking my house away because some drunk crashed his car into my rockery. I didn’t give him the alcohol. I didn’t invite him over. I don’t see what responsibility it is of mine. Are there legal grounds? Is there actual evidence? Have we had a conversation with these folks? Do they understand that there’s a serous problem? We went from, “There’s a problem” to “Let’s shut them down citywide” in, as far as I can tell 1.3 seconds, I’m much more deliberative, process-based and fact-based than that.
ECB: You said at the Ballard encampment meeting that you had taken a homeless person into your home until he could get back on his feet. Can you tell me about that experience and how it came about?
CW: It was someone who had come to Seattle chasing the tech dream, slept in his car, lost his car, and basically had worn out his couch-surfing welcome. It was not that I went under a bridge and took somebody in. I had a minor child at home. I’ve gotta draw the line somewhere.
It was really an eye-opening experience from the standpoint of how quickly it could have gone far much worse without someone stepping up. [Having an address gave him] some stability where he could apply for jobs. We made sure he had wheels, made sure that the car got fixed up so he could get extra shifts and move up at work, and within three or four months he had an apartment.
It made me think a lot about, how do we catch people before they’re in the depths of homelessness? Looking at the whole spectrum of homelessness, there’s folks we catch and there’s folks we don’t catch who are just on our streets.
ECB: Knowing that, why are you opposed to the Ballard encampment?
CW: I am so disappointed that that is the best we can get. I was told that in their last encampment, the city of Seattle’s human services director had failed to release the funds that they needed to pay for garbage, and [my Tent City tour guide] showed me the pile of garbage they were waiting to collect and take to the dump. My criteria for “well-run” would include a Dumpster and regular garbage service. No one deserves to live next to a pile of garbage. There’s got to be a bathroom facility. What I worry about with tent cities is, I’m not seeing the city’s commitment to making sure that they are well-run. I am concerned about the people in the tent city being safe. We have a few folks in Ballard who are homeless who would be a threat to those in tent city, and there’s no way to keep them out of the area.
ECB: Wouldn’t the alternative, letting them sleep in parks and on benches on the street, be far worse than letting them set up a temporary encampment?
CW: Yes, but when you have 50 people in a vulnerable spot, that, in my mind, has the potential to be a more likely target.
I think we’re going to have to have tent cities in the short term. However, I really want to hold the city accountable to making sure we do them right. If we do it right, I think it could set the precedent, going forward, to lower the resistance and help get the funding we need for housing, mental health services, and other things.
ECB: A lot of people who objected to the encampment at the meeting claimed that the city hasn’t let them know what’s going on. Is that their real objection, or are they just opposed to having homeless people in their neighborhood?
CW: Some people have life experiences where it’s not going to change their minds. [But] the way that the city rolled out this information, and failed to respond to the voices of concern in the community in a timely way, said to me that they had lost control of that meeting before they ever stepped in the doors. A lot of misinformation was allowed to circulate and it built momentum. I think what you saw in that meeting was a lot of frustration boiling over, and it reflects, in my mind, far more than the frustration around the homeless encampments.
There’s a deep, deep frustration in the Ballard area about the lack of services that have been provided to our existing homeless population. Tent City is not going to accept those who are self-medicating, and we have a lot of them [already]. That is some people’s vision [of the homeless]. You say, we’re going to bring 50 more homeless people to Ballard, that’s the vision.
And I think there is a group of folks who are not only concerned about the process, they’re concerned about the impacts of a lack of process going forward on actually getting the housing levy doubled in the next two years. There’s this fear that we’ve now made it harder to find long-term solutions.
ECB: What are your objections to the HALA plan?
CW: I think we missed the opportunity to empower individual homeowners to add detached accessory dwelling units and accessory dwelling units, because there was never a conversation about what are the barriers to getting homeowners to build those. It’s a way of empowering the middle class to be part of the solution.
I think HALA missed the entire conversation about complete communities. It’s great to have frequent transit service, but part of a massive reduction in car use is having things like a corner grocery store, healthy food, restaurants. Suggesting an increase in simply residential [capacity] without taking into consideration anything that supports that kind of density was an oversight. We could do far better to encourage [supportive infrastructure] to happen in a much more concurrent manner. I think we need some creative ways to kick-start development around places where we have existing capacity and really fast transit, like down at Othello [in the Rainier Valley. They have transit capacity and our E line is leaving people behind. I’m not trying to shift the development somewhere else, but we’ve got an infrastructure capacity problem.
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