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 District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents Southeast Seattle and is running for reelection in District 2.
PubliCola [ECB]: Some of your colleagues have disavowed their support for reducing the police budget by 50 percent. Do you still think the council did the right thing in drawing this line in the sand in 2020, and what does the backlash say about where we are as a city?
Tammy Morales [TM]: I think the thing [to know] about all of that is that nobody [on the council] is talking about that anymore. The important thing for us to do now is to talk about accountability. Because when officers demonstrate contempt for the public, when they’re harassing neighbors, when they’re laughing at the death of a young woman, a death that was caused by one of their own, that’s public safety, too. That’s a safety issue for all of us. And I think we need to really start to have a conversation about this department that takes 47 percent of our general fud—what is the return on investment for us?
My hope is that we can have those conversations about the culture of the department, which is clearly very toxic, as demonstrated by the fact that the majority of members elected two very toxic leaders of their union. And we need to figure this out, because people are frustrated and angry, and rightfully so.
“Pushing a narrative of fear, and [portraying the city as] a dystopian situation is not helpful. And I don’t think just listing off all the challenges that the city has, as so many candidates are doing right now, is helpful either. We need serious solutions, we need to be able to pay for them, and we need to be able to provide our neighbors with the things that they need in order to thrive.”
ECB: You seem pretty pessimistic. Do you think that SPD can be reformed?
TM: Here’s the challenge that we face as a city: We have boxed ourselves into a corner. We allowed the guild to bargain, and to assume that they can continue to bargain, around accountability. I think we are going to have to have a conversation in the legislature about this as we’re trying to move the dial there. But as we’re moving toward the next contract, questions about arbitration, questions about allowing disciplinary decisions to be overturned—these are things that really need to be front and center, and we really need to get back to the accountability measures that we had in the 2017 accountability legislation.
I’m not part of those conversations anymore. I’m not on the [Labor Relations Policy Committee]. Even if it was, I couldn’t talk about it. But I will say that I don’t know how we change the culture. That has to come from the top. That has to come from expectations from the mayor, expectations from the chief. Loudly and clearly calling out when shit happens instead of excuses. I don’t see that happening right now. And so what we are left with as a council is the contract negotiation, and how and whether we support whatever that looks like.
ECB: The new council is going to consist largely or mostly of new members, and if you’re reelected, you’ll be a veteran by virtue of being in your second term. Are you worried that having so many newcomers getting up to speed at once will diminish the council’s ability to serve as a check on the mayor, especially when there are disagreements?
TM: I am actually not worried about that. Well, I guess it depends on the outcome. I do think that there are candidates who are coming in with some pretty clear visions for what they want to see in terms of how the city grows and changes, how we make sure that our communities are vibrant, strong, and healthy, and what that means for the way we hold ourselves accountable as a city and fund the things that need to happen in the city. So, again depending on the outcome, we could be moving in a really positive direction. I do think it is important to pay attention to the tone that’s being set.
ECB: Can you talk a little more about what you mean by tone?
TM: We’re a growing city, and we did not keep pace with the infrastructure or the services that we need to deal with the structural problems that we have. And then on top of that, we have a social service crisis brought on in part by the pandemic. So there’s absolutely a lot of work to do. But pushing a narrative of fear, and [portraying the city as] a dystopian situation is not helpful. And I don’t think just listing off all the challenges that the city has, as so many candidates are doing right now, is helpful either. We need serious solutions, we need to be able to pay for them, and we need to be able to provide our neighbors with the things that they need in order to thrive.
ECB: The council is in the middle of its annual budget process. What are your priorities for new investments, and how are you going to pay for them beyond this year, given that the city faces a looming budget deficit of $250 million a year starting in 2024?
TM: It’s going to be hard. There’s no doubt about that. We’re a growing city with growing needs. We were able to fund a lot of those needs with one-time federal money that we got during COVID. But that money is gone, and the needs still exist, and they are growing. So we’re going to have to talk about raising more revenue. I was one of three council members in last year’s budget who voted to increase the progressive payroll expense tax. And I think that needs to be on the table. I think the capital gains tax needs to be on the table. I don’t quite know how the executive pay disparity tax would work. But that I know, that was also a recommendation, and I think it’s something worth investigating more.
And I think we’re going to have to partner with the county, with the state, with the feds, to try to fill some of these other holes that we have, if we’re really going to get serious about meeting the needs of the folks who are most vulnerable in our community. And, you know, I can certainly think of one place that we could trim a little bit, but that conversation is fraught, and I don’t know that it would be terribly productive.
ECB: You don’t think that talking about cutting the police budget at this point is going to be productive?
TM: What I will say is that I certainly don’t think we should be adding funding there. And I know there is more money added to the department [in Harrell’s proposed 2024 budget] from salary savings, from some other places, for some additional one-time funding [for things like Shotspotter and surveillance cameras]. I don’t think we need to be adding anything new that isn’t going to be sustainably funded.
“As a city, we have a responsibility to protect the safety of our community members, and that includes [drug users’] health and safety. That includes people who are experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder. So in my mind, this bill does not protect them. It doesn’t provide treatment, it doesn’t provide services, and in fact, basically defines the threat of harm as public drug use.”
ECB: What about Jumpstart? Every year, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is a fierce advocate for preserving the Jumpstart spending plan instead of raiding that funding source for other purposes. If she’s elected to the county council, which seems likely, are you concerned about preserving that stable source of funding for housing and equitable developmemt?
TM: I want to have that conversation in the context of whether or not we will be able to increase [the Jumpstart payroll tax]. And I don’t know yet. There are some really important programs that Jumpstart is funding—some really important goals that we have for the city around affordability and housing. And it was really important to me to get the Equitable Development Initiative included in that package. And I fought to make sure that we had at least that 9 percent setaside because EDI needs a permanent funding source. And so the way that was set up was really, in my mind, a value statement—wanting to dedicate resources to the things that we say are important, and not letting it get sort of swept up in the general fund.
That said, you know, it has been an important way to fill some of the [budget] hole, and now that that hole is bigger. I don’t want all of the payroll expense tax to go into that gap. But we may need to at least extend the percentage that has been going [to the general fund]. And if we’re able to increase the tax, then that is another way to try to fill some of that hole.
ECB: What are some of your priorities for reducing gun violence in southeast Seattle, and why do you think the rate of gun violence has continued to rise, both in your district and throughout Seattle?
TM: What I have what I have said my entire term, and even before my term, is that what we really need to be doing is investing in neighborhoods that are underresourced, and investing in things that can change the community conditions that lead to violence in the first place. And part of the problem is we just don’t have a social safety net in this country. So we need to invest in our neighborhoods so that people have housing they can afford, and food security, and access to medical care, and high quality education and job opportunities, and after school programs, and mentoring, and all of those things. We need all of that.
And in addition to that very upstream answer, we need to be scaling up the kinds of programs that provide street activation and diversion programs and violence interruption programs—all of those things that can help activate the streets, that can identify the people who are involved in some of this activity, and either divert them after arrest or try to engage them before they’re arrested so that they get onto a different path. I think identifying the people who are at risk is important, and there are a lot of programs that do that kind of work.
And then trying to mitigate that risk, and making sure that we are providing groups like, you know, Southeast Safety Net and Choose 180—those groups that work on a pathway out of violence are also important. And then I think there is a role for the police to play after the fact in some of this— responding to violent calls, investigating incidents of drug trafficking, or sex trafficking, or any of the other things that that are really harming people.
ECB: You voted against the new drug criminalization bill, which put you in the minority on the council, and I wanted to just give you a brief opportunity to explain why and what you would like to see happen now.
TM: For me, the issue remains that this bill was really about giving the city attorney the ability to prosecute [drug users], more than more than anything else. And I still believe that if our goal is to help people who are suffering from addiction, then we need to be taking a public health approach to solving that problem. And what public health professionals are saying is that we need to expand treatment options. We need to expand harm reduction options. We need to make sure folks can access the medications that they need that could help them with withdrawing from these drugs that they’re on.
I think something like 1,000 opioid-related deaths have happened in the last year. As a city, we have a responsibility to protect the safety of our community members, and that includes [drug users’] health and safety. That includes people who are experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder. So in my mind, this bill does not protect them. It doesn’t provide treatment, it doesn’t provide services, and in fact, basically defines the threat of harm as public drug use.
“The folks in the south end don’t consider [Link light rail] done yet, and won’t consider it done until you make the safety investments that you should have made in the first place. Because it’s great that you’ve learned all kinds of lessons, and you’re doing things differently, or plan to do things differently, up in Ballard or wherever else you’re going. But you learned those lessons at the expense of the folks in the Rainier Valley.”
ECB: You came out in favor of the new “North and South of Chinatown/International District” light rail option, which would eliminate stations in Midtown and the heart of the CID. There are a lot of people in the district who have advocated for a Fourth Avenue option that would provide the CID with a connection to the rest of the system, including the airport, in the future. Can you explain why you decided to support these new locations?
TM: There’s a real fear that if we move with the Fourth Avenue option, local businesses will be disrupted, local businesses will lose customers, and they will shut down. I think there’s something like 20 businesses around there. And the CID is changing rapidly already. There’s a lot of national chains coming in that I think are really changing the character of the neighborhood. And so the initial conversations were really like, how do we make sure that we’re preserving these businesses? And so the conversation started about the other two locations that [some neighborhood] advocates were proposing. This is a community, as we’ve all heard over and over again, that has regularly borne the brunt of these transit projects with very little engagement or seeming understanding from the agencies themselves about the impact they’re having. And they’re fed up, understandably.
So that’s where the conversation started. I will say that I realize the plans weren’t fully developed as we were having those conversations. And now that Sound Transit has identified that as the preferred alternative, and is beginning the process of diving deeper into what these are, I do want to see what it’s going to look like. And I think that regardless of what ends up happening, Sound Transit really needs to step up their community engagement there, and they need to be very clear about what mitigation measures and what community benefits they will commit to.
ECB: In Southeast Seattle, Sound Transit’s at-grade light rail trains continue to collide with vehicles along MLK Way SE on a routine basis, and a number of pedestrians have been struck and killed by trains. How are you working with Sound Transit to make the light rail crossings in Southeast Seattle safer for residents of those neighborhoods?
TM: I have quarterly meetings with Sound Transit about MLK, in particular. And there’s been some movement on [the Seattle Department of Transportation’s] side to add leading pedestrian intervals, different kinds of signal timing, and more lighting around the stations themselves. On Sound Transit’s side, there is beginning to be a conversation about what it would take to add [railroad] arms to the pedestrian pathway so that they can’t cross into the track. There’s all kinds of design and engineering reasons why they say that is problematic. But I think there’s finally a willingness to really have that conversation.
And as I say every time we talk, the folks in the south end don’t consider this project done yet, and won’t consider it done until you make the safety investments that you should have made in the first place. Because it’s great that you’ve learned all kinds of lessons, and you’re doing things differently, or plan to do things differently, up in Ballard or wherever else you’re going. But you learned those lessons at the expense of the folks in the Rainier Valley. And that needs to be addressed.