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 ChrisTiana ObeySumner, a social equity consultant who has worked as a housing navigator at Harborview Medical Center and as a counselor and case manager for the Downtown Emergency Services Center and Compass Housing Alliance; they also served as co-chair of the city’s Disability Commission and Renters’ Commission. ObeySumner is running to represent North Seattle in Council District 5.
PubliCola [ECB]: You worked as a housing navigator at Harborview, which involved securing permanent supportive housing for people who needed it. Can you talk a bit about what you learned from that experience and how that work would inform your approach to housing and homelessness if you’re elected?
ChrisTiana ObeySumner [CO]: When I was at Harborview, my role was grant-funded from a federal grant. And there were certain requirements of the grant in order to continue the funding. One of them was, we had to essentially do a landlord partnership style program with around 50 landlords. So we spent all this energy and time either trying to talk with the grant funder or find some way around how we could fulfill that grant requirements so that we could stay in compliance.
But the issue wasn’t necessarily having partnerships with the landlords. The issue was all these other things people didn’t have, like documents to get their IDs. A lot of my clients who were working, they were working either second or third shift, so there was no shelter space available for them. They may have a disability or a medical condition where living with roommates was not ideal or would not be a perfect solution. Or they had a partner and children where it was really hard for them to find a two- or three- bedroom apartment, even if they did otherwise have the means. There was one person I remember back in 2016 or ‘17 who needed something like $7,500 just for the moving fee alone. And again, we can help him with that, but the thing is, this is going to drain all the savings, and the second month is only going to be 30 days away.
Those were the areas that we needed to focus on. But in order for me to be able to even be there to focus on it, we had to fulfill these grant requirements. It had nothing to do with what’s happening on the ground. And it was really frustrating to feel like I was always having to fight and advocate and get in trouble to do my job.
“The KCRHA is being funded to serve maybe five to 15 percent of those would otherwise be qualified [for shelter and services], which makes a dent. But if you have a credit card debt, and you’re only paying five to 15 percent of the principal, not even the interest, then you’re never going to be making progress.”
ECB: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has seen a lot of setbacks, including the departure of former CEO Marc Dones and the recent decision to shut down the Partnership for Zero program aimed at ending homelessness downtown. Do you think the KCRHA can still be successful, and what would you do as a councilmember to help it succeed?
CO: They’re being funded to serve maybe five to 15 percent of those would otherwise be qualified [for shelter and services], which makes a dent. But if you have a credit card debt, and you’re only paying five to 15 percent of the principal, not even the interest, then you’re never going to be making progress. On top of this, there is a chronic issue of the folks working in industries that make our cities run being woefully underfunded and woefully underpaid, and also having to use the same resources at the clients. I remember, I had to get a conflict of interest waiver because I had to take a client to DSHS, and their case manager at DSHS was the same as mine, because made so little money working full time I qualified for food stamps.
When you really look at the scale of the issue, and you look at what their proposed budget is, whether it’s the KCRHA or the state, it’s still shoestring, and it’s usually for a limited amount of time. And the onus gets put on the folks who have this limited budget and whose staff are underpaid and overworked. I wonder what would happen if we looked at what has been the most successful project, whether it’s KCRHA, LEAD, whatever, and just brought it to scale?
ECB: The initial version of the KCRHA’s Five Year Plan came out and they said it would cost $12 billion. And everybody flipped out and said, ‘Well, we certainly can’t do that.’ So let’s just instead keep doing the same thing we were doing before with no increase beyond inflation. So what do you see as the solution—is it passing more local taxes? Is it just trying to incrementally improve the budgets?
CO: I feel like we’re in that space where we’re sort of trying to pay off our credit card with a credit card. We look at these different budget decisions or plans as these discrete things. People talk about the Comprehensive Plan. And then we’re going talk about the Move [Seattle] Levy. And then we’re going to talk about social housing. And then we’re going to talk about the Green New Deal. But they’re all connected, at the end of the day, to the [same] shared goal. We need to make sure that we have affordable, accessible, sustainable housing that is near that’s transit and pedestrian-focused.[I was talking] at a forum about sustainable development, and I said it would be great to have a building where the apartment is over a preschool, it has a green space, it’s near transit, and it has a retail space for folks who own small businesses to be inside. And someone was like, ‘Can you give an example of what we have [like that] already?’ and I sent him the example of [Roberto Maestas Plaza at] El Centro de la Raza. And they’re like, ‘It’s $45 million. That’s not scalable.’ And I was like, well, the transit levy can pay for the transit part of it, and the Green New Deal can help pay for the eco-village part of it. And then I agree with [the list of potential taxes[ the progressive revenue stabilization task force came up with. I support all nine of the suggestions. I definitely think we need a capital gains tax in the city. I think that is also going to lead to a CEO [pay disparity] tax [and an] increase in JumpStart taxes.
And we really have to talk about the fact that the reason why we have the most regressive tax structure in the country is because of a [state] constitution that says we can only have equal taxation [regardless of income]. And if we don’t change it, it’s never going to be progressive. [The impact of] a 1 percent income tax for someone making $400,000 versus someone making $18,000 is a huge difference. And so everyone’s like, ‘You’re only running for one district in the city, ChrisTiana, are you saying you’re going go up to the state of argue but constitutional law?’ Yes. Yes. Because if my job is, how do we get progressive revenue, my responsibility shouldn’t end at my purview. That’s why we need folks who are going to be able and willing and coming with a network of folks in different jurisdictions. And unless we are willing to fight the systemic inequity, we’re just playing, and I’m not running for office to play.
ECB: What are some of your top priorities for ensuring that police are held accountable for misconduct, and how would you address the fact that the city is unable to hire the number of police many elected officials say they need? How would you start transitioning away from that police-centric model of public safety?
CO: You could add more people or more money. Or you could say, Why don’t we just make sure that we can streamline your purview to what your core job and focus is, and not rely on you for every single thing, since you’re already stressed out? And so you decide what team or department should be created, based on moving these responsibilities out of [SPD’s] purview, you look at the cost of previous team doing that service and start there for budgetary allocation, and then you continue to monitor progress. And from there, you also make sure there’s accountability so that this team that’s been in this hurricane of sorts can get back on track in terms of accountability to themselves, to their job, to the people they serve.
SPD has been saying, for who knows how long, that we have been asking them to do things that they feel is out of their purview. They’re like, ‘We’re not social workers’. And we don’t have the police officers. The entire industry of policing has been having an issue with recruiting and retaining officers since 2018. So really, whether you are someone who wants no police or whether you’re someone who wants more police, we should have a shared understanding that the police are doing much more today than they used to.
And now we just passed this drug ordinance, which is asking SPD, again, to do more things when they are already saying that they’re overburdened, overworked, overloaded and working out of purview. So what I’m wanting to do is go to them and be like, ‘Do you really want to, one, be accountable for more stuff you don’t want to do, that we can easily move over to someone else who does and is more successful at it? And it’s going to help actually increase community safety, because we know that the empirical data shows that just having more police doesn’t lead to increased community safety.
“People think that the majority demographic in District 5 are these rich white homeowners. I think they’re the loudest. And these are the people who have the time and privilege to go down to City Hall at 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon and give a two-minute public comment about something when other folks have work or childcare or something else they have to do to survive.”
ECB: I think the mayor would say yes to everything you said. And then I think he’d say, look, I created this great new department that will do just that.
CO: Bruce is one of those people that I think really wants to show his constituents with that he’s [quotation fingers] ‘doing a thing.’ And I think he feels like shiny and new is better than tested and true. And that’s not the case. And especially when you start something new, there is so much foundational work that’s needed to fund it, to structure it, to staff it, to pilot it. We have organizations in the city that have been making progress with shoestring budgets. I would advocate for Bruce to get to know those organizations and partner with them in a way where he can know enough about the work and the progress that they’ve done to fund that and not always want to create some shiny new thing.
Because really, what we need our mayor to do right now is to help reconstruct this narrative that everything is just this huge hot mess at the bottom of a dumpster fire in the middle of a shit show. And that there are opportunities, there is hope, there is a pathway forward that can lead to progress. And that’s not going to be overnight. So if we don’t do that, and we’re always just looking for whatever quick fix or shiny new toy we have, we’re never going to move forward.
ECB: The lack of sidewalks in District 5 is a perennial problem that candidates in this district always bring up. What are some other issues specific to District 5 that you would prioritize?
CO: One of my first jobs was at Walgreens. There’s a Walgreen’s across from where I used to live on 145th at Northgate, and they have pretty significant natural haircare aisles. The reason why that is important is because I know from working at Walgreen’s that you’re not going to stock products can’t move. It shows that we’re here. And especially since 2020, there’s been more supportive housing, more tiny home villages, more Seattle Housing Authority housing, more folks who are immigrant and refugees, more folks who are renters, more folks who are students. I’ve been living here in District 5 the entire time I’ve been in Seattle, since 2010.
People think that the majority demographic are these rich white homeowners. I think they’re the loudest. And these are the people who have the time and privilege to go down to City Hall at 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon and give a two-minute public comment about something when other folks have work or childcare or something else they have to do to survive. And I really feel like whether it’s sidewalks or anything else that takes investment, we need someone who knows what it’s like to not be that demographic in this district. So yes, we need sidewalks, but I think the [lack of] sidewalks is a product of this deeper issue of North Seattle being seen as the ‘burbs.
We need to make sure that we’re actually investing in having a thriving economy. If you want to have a 15-minute, walkable city that should mean everywhere, including up here. We need to make sure that we do have the infrastructure, because there really is flooding and damage and sewer issues and electricity issues.
ECB: In covering city hall over the years, I’ve noticed that there are eras when the city is focused on neighborhoods and eras when downtown takes priority. Right now, we’re obviously in a part of that cycle where the mayor is hyper-focused on downtown. What would you do to pull some of that focus to District 5?
CO: My question to Bruce about focusing on downtown is unless you’re completely forsaking anyone who isn’t a tourist, where do you think we can get the money to come downtown and spend it. If I have a business in District5, and I’m not getting the support as a small business owner, or having affordable rents, or having affordable grocery stores, or I have to spend more money to travel further to be able to get to the services I need, I’m not gonna have the money to go downtown and spend it on some fancy restaurant or go up in the Space Needle, or whatever it is. So we really have to look at the whole system, not just hyper-focus on what’s going to make the best photo. There’s a disparity here. This has been swept under the rug and someone has to talk about it.