Did you know there’s a primary August 1? That’s not very far away. So if you haven’t been paying attention to the open Seattle Mayoral and City Council Position 8 races, now is the time to get caught up.
The deadline to register or change your address online is July 3. That’s the Monday sandwiched into a potentially very long weekend, so don’t wait. In-person voter registration ends July 24. Ballots will be mailed July 14.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and a long list of partners hosted a candidate forum focused on transportation and housing Thursday. Erica C. Barnett of The C Is for Crank moderated. The full video and a recap of the mayoral forum is below. Stay tuned for a recap of the City Council Position 8 forum next week.
Seattle Bike Blog has not yet endorsed in this race. We want to follow-up with candidates before we do that. So below is my honest read of the candidates’ performances at this forum and in general. I looked for the good things everyone said and tried to highlight challenges for their campaigns. So if you can’t handle a little criticism of your favorite candidate, you won’t like this post. But, as a word of caution, like basically everyone I suck at political forecasting. So please feel free to disagree with my assessment of the race in the comments below.
Seattle has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality candidates for these positions. My home state, for example, appears to be on the verge of passing a law that would make it legal to fire a woman if she takes birth control. So when the “worst” of the top-tier mayoral candidates stands out because he believes municipal bank financing is “the solution, actually, to all of our problems,” we’re doing alright. I mean, I like the municipal bank idea, too.
For a blow-by-blow recap of the evening, check out #GrowingSeattle on Twitter.
Mayor (term: 2018-2021)
Starting in the order they were seated on stage:
Mike McGinn was clearly very comfortable in the room last night. As Mayor for one term (2010-2013), he pursued a lot of forward-thinking transportation and zoning policies, though not all got through an often hostile City Council.
“The first thing is to think of street not just as streets, but as the center of places,” he said in his very first answer of the evening. That’s pretty much a home run in this room.
But he was perhaps a little too comfortable. After all, he lost in a close race to Ed Murray, so he needs to convince Seattle that he is a new candidate, and not just the same one who ran for reelection in 2013 and fell short (Seattle Bike Blog endorsed McGinn). He’s also a white guy running for a position that only men have held since 1928. While it’s never wise to doubt the power and reach of male privilege, I get the sense Seattle is eager for a woman to be mayor. Few things say “status quo” like electing a man for mayor for the 90th year in a row.
“I feel that the times are catching up to us, and they’re catching up to me,” he said in his closing remarks, making the case that he was right about housing and transportation as mayor, but the City Council (and the electorate?) just hadn’t caught up to him yet. Now the Council has dramatically changed, and the city is ready for his ideas.
There is some truth to this. For example, Mayor Murray made headlines when he launched Vision Zero in Seattle, but “the objective of zero deaths and serious injuries was announced in 2012 in our Road Safety Action Plan,” he said. He’s right.
McGinn also has practical examples of how his safety policies have worked. For example, school zone speed cameras:
“The number of tickets is going down not just because people are getting tickets, but because we’re actually using the money to make streets safer,” he said. Again, true.
And when asked about what he would do as a member of the Sound Transit Board, he had the clearest focus on the importance of walking and biking access to stations.
But in this race, being “right” just isn’t enough. Jessyn Farrell and Cary Moon also deeply understand these issues. Jenny Durkan has the most money and is perfectly comfortable talking about biking, walking and transit as priorities, too. And Nikkita Oliver is trying to flip the whole table on mayoral politics by forging a new path to electoral victory that starts at the grassroots.
McGinn can’t rest on his laurels and trust people will see him as the agent of change he represented in 2009. A recent poll (of landlines only, so take its accuracy with a grain of salt) found that though he may be a frontrunner, he has very high negatives (46 percent), too. That suggests that he can’t lose very many undecided voters if he’s going to become the next mayor.
Until very recently a State Representative and formerly the Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition, Jessyn Farrell was also very comfortable in the forum Thursday. These are clearly issues she knows like the back of her hand.
She was very good at tying transportation and development (especially affordable housing) together “so we have people living near these great [transportation] investments we’ve made.”
She also talked about the need to focus on non-commute trips when we talk about car trip reduction efforts. Major employers have to do things like provide bus passes to employees to reduce driving trips, but what about all those other trips we take? What if we had a bus pass program for neighborhoods?
Farrell has a strong understanding of how Sound Transit financing and public process works, and she was the candidate most clearly excited about the Seattle Mayor’s seat on the Sound Transit Board. She not only talked about how to speed up the delivery of light rail projects, she also talked about a state law she helped pass to make it easier to develop affordable housing on Sound Transit’s surplus property. Again, tying the issues together in a concrete way.
She also had a clear political strategy for increasing density and affordably housing across the city, including in single family zones. The idea is modeled off regional growth planning efforts.
“We need an affordablitiy plan that lets no neighborhood off the hook,” she said. “We need plans that have affordability infused throughout our city.” Basically, the city needs to figure out how many new homes we need, then allocate an amount of growth across the city. Then each neighborhood can work with the city to decide how the growth happens, and different neighborhoods may take on growth in different ways. But no neighborhood gets to just say “No” to growing.
Farrell made the case that as a legislator, “I have the skills to work with City Council to deliver on these things we care about.” But her legislative experience also opened her up to the biggest slam in a mostly slam-free forum: When talking about how to speed up Sound Transit projects, Jenny Durkan said, “We need to contact our legislators to make sure there is no $2 billion hit to Sound Transit.” Farrell and Bob Hasegawa both voted in favor of a Democrat-led bill to adjust the motor vehicle excise tax part of the ST3 funding, essentially cutting funding. She did not talk about the vote in the forum, but she spoke to Erica C. Barnett about it in this interview.
Overall, Farrell was very right about transportation and housing issues. But like with McGinn, being right just isn’t going to be enough to get through the primary. Her campaign is getting a late start because she only resigned from the legislature weeks ago to focus full time on her mayoral bid. To get into the top two by August 1, Farrell needs to find a way to stand out even more as a leader. Her effort to tout her experience as a legislative compromiser just doesn’t pack enough punch in such a crowded field (even if that skill is what Seattle needs).
Nikkita Oliver came to the debate with her focus on displaced people and how the city needs to shift transportation and housing policy to address their needs first. She even talked about the needs of people who have already been priced out of the city, which was refreshing even if Seattle can only do so much to help people who don’t live inside its borders.
“What I would propose is we figure out where those who have been most displaced in our city — who are trying to get into our city on a regular basis — Where are they at and where are they trying to get to? So we can make our routes more efficient and more accessible.”
This idea came up again later when candidates were debating how to speed up Seattle’s Sound Transit projects. While every other candidate was tripping over each other to explain how they would speed up the public process and reorient bonding capacity or use city funds to help get Seattle projects sooner, Oliver asked a much more basic question: Is Seattle the part of the region that needs speeding up the most?
“If it’s not, then we’re being inequitable,” she said. This was notably unpopular in the room, but it’s a good question. In the end, Seattle can’t tell other jurisdictions what to do, but it’s just so easy to disregard anyone in the region who lives outside the Seattle city limits, even if they only moved out because rising rents forced them to. Of course, these displaced people won’t be able to vote for Oliver, but they deserve to be part of the discussion.
Oliver got off to a very bad start among pro-density housing policy wonks when, back in March, she praised a terrible column by Seattle Times Editorial Board member Brier Dudley and called for “a pause on development.” She walked that statement back in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald shortly after.
If Thursday evening was her chance to reassure people she is ready to dramatically expand development across the city, she didn’t go all the way. She embraced the city’s need for “strategic density,” but always with a caveat.
“As a city, we need to recognize that neighborhoods like Ballard have taken on inequitable amounts of the density in ways that have actually disturbed the stability and culture of the neighborhood,” she said.
Like most candidates, Oliver called for getting more from developers and major employers to fuel the creation of affordable housing. And while all candidates were all about backyard cottages, Oliver had the interesting suggestion that easing ADU construction rules could come with a rent stabilization agreement. I have no idea how such a rule would hold up against state law banning rent control, but it’s certainly a fresh take on the issue.
Oliver gets that “we are not going to be able to make our streets wider to make cars more mobile,” and she talked about using developer impact fees to help beef up bus service.
She also shared her experience with traffic danger as a runner in West Seattle.
“In my neighborhood over in Delridge we have no sidewalks, so it can be very scary,” she said. “As a runner, there are multiple times when I’ve almost been hit.” She suggested expanding student access to Drivers Ed, “but also Cycling Ed.” Oliver may be happy to learn that nearly every public schooler in third through fifth grades already goes through a cycling education course. Drivers Ed, on the other hand, has been cut.
On public outreach, Oliver had another idea no other candidate suggested: “Having folks from underrepresented communities and paying them for their time.” She also suggested “paying people to do their own organizing work in their communities.”
Oliver championed bringing back the downtown Free Ride Zone for buses, which King County Metro got rid of just a few years ago. She also suggested that transit agencies shouldn’t spend money on advertising at sports stadiums as an example of how she says transit budgets could be reprioritized to be more fiscally responsible and stop relying on renewing property tax levies.
Bob Hasegawa definitely had the worst showing Thursday. His answer to most questions was to create a municipal bank. At one point while pitching the bank idea, he even said that bank financing is “the solution, actually, to all of our problems.”
I mean, I guess that’s sort of true. And he’s totally sold me on the bank. But the city needs a lot more than that from the mayor.
In the end, it felt like he relied on talking about the bank because he didn’t have anything fresh to add to the policy issues everyone else was talking about. When asked about how to change Seattle’s car-dominated streets, he talked about freight trucks and “the problems these long, 60-foot vehicles are facing when they are navigating our streets.” He then touted his work to get the Lander Street Overpass funding in the state budget, a project this blog has been very critical of.
When asked about how to increase density across the city, he said the city should “empower the neighborhood councils” that Mayor Murray has recently moved away from due to the fact that they are much more likely to be white, wealthy and own their homes than the population as a whole. “In return for that privilege, make them resposnible for figuring out how they are going to absorb this new density,” he said, somewhat echoing Farrell’s idea for how to increase density citywide.
Hasegawa did have a call for free transit, which was pretty cool and not mentioned by any other candidate. And he called out the at-grade light rail alignment on MLK as dangerous to people walking, which is true.
For increasing affordable housing, Hasegawa called the HALA plan insufficient.
“We have to increase our housing supply dramatically by building public housing,” he said. And — you guessed it — finance that housing through a public bank.
Overall, Hasegawa didn’t seem plugged into Seattle’s top issues the way the other candidates were, and his platform of ideas for what he would do as mayor was much less complete. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that he is still working in the WA Senate and not fully committed to this mayoral run. Which then, of course, begs the question of why he should stand out as a candidate when all these other candidates are all in on this race.
Cary Moon probably had the clearest walking, biking and transit priority of all the candidates, and that’s really saying something with McGinn and Farrell in the race.
She talked about the need to focus on “space efficiency by mode” when rethinking the city’s car-dominated streets.
“Our city used to prioritise level of service for cars,” she said. “As we grow so quickly and grow so dense, we have to shift to metics that measure: How many people can we move? And guess what. Transit, walking and biking are the most space-efficient modes. We have to be sure we are prioritizing them and giving them the investments they need so they work as modes of transit.”
“We have made this committment to Vision Zero, but there is not funding to make it a reality,” she said. The city also needs to design streets and intersections to encourage safer behavior. “When cars feel like they are on a highway onramps when they are on an arterial, they go fast. And that’s when people die.”
She also challenged the city’s history of investing inequitably.
“The squeaky wheel — the wealthy white neighborhoods — get the bulk of the money,” she said. “We have change that.”
And it’s not just transportation, of course. Our housing and zoning rules have also created inequities and continue to make them worse.
“We need to all get on the same page about what conditions we’ve created as a socieity that have created these gaps,” she said. “How do we correct these historical injustices?”
Instead of focusing on one silver bullet housing solution, Moon brought a wide range of changes that all need to happen.
“We need to keep looking at multifamily and single famliy zones,” she said. And the city should “stop speculative development.” She also called for more public and nonprofit affordable housing.
“We’re going to need all these tools if we are going to keep up with growth,” she said. “Yes, all of it.”
Reading the words on the page, Moon is probably the most right of all the candidates when it comes to transportation and housing policies. This stuff is right in her wheelhouse, which obviously wows people like me who write and think about these issues every day. But is she the candidate with the best leadership skills and experience to steer the gigantic city machine in this direction? This was likely the most friendly room for her that she’s going to get, and I didn’t get the sense that she totally stood out and won the crowd.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the whole night was when Mike McGinn landed a subtly deadly joke. Deflecting from an unanswerable question (“Would you keep Scott Kubly as your SDOT Director? And if not, who would your SDOT Director be?”), McGinn wrote on his white board, “Not answering.” Then below that, he wrote, “Jessyn or Cary.”
The joke got a lot of laughs, but it was also a hella shrewd debate move on his part. He conflated the two of them together, sort of absorbed their expertise on the issues, and then diminished them. The joke is basically a microcosm of the challenge the three of them have in this race. There’s a big, engaged block of voters who care deeply about the kinds of transportation and housing policies they champion. Right now, people are either split or waiting to see if someone emerges as the most likely to win the primary. The problem is that they are all good on the issues, so they could just end up splitting the vote. Then maybe none of them make it through.
The (questionably accurate) polls suggest that McGinn has the early lead among them, in large part perhaps due to his name recognition and established crew of supporters from his previous campaigns. But there are a ton of undecideds out there, and like we noted above, one landline survey found that McGinn had high unfavorables. With 39 days until the primary, it’s getting to be time for someone to make a big move.
Jenny Durkan has the most money in the race, reaping a lot of the financial support from people who had supported Mayor Murray. She also has an impressive C.V., having served as US Attorney from 2009-2014.
She played it mostly safe during the forum, often saying, “I agree with most of what’s been said.”
She didn’t say much to dislike, and she also didn’t equivocate on her support for walking and biking.
“To get people out of cars, we need to make it safer for bikes and pedestrians,” she said. “We need sidewalks in all neighborhoods.”
She also gets the connection between transportation and housing, saying, “We have to have more affordable housing, and it’s directly tied to our need for equitable transportation.”
She had ideas for speeding up Sound Transit projects, such as accelerating funding for planning using city money. And, as mentioned above, she also got in a slam against Hasegawa and Farrell for their votes to cut motor vehicle excise taxes that were part of the ST3 vote.
For affordable housing, Durkan had one idea that no one else mentioned: Tax breaks for landlords “who are providing good affordable housing, but … keep jacking the rents because their property taxes go up. I want to give those people a property tax break — either freeze or lower their breaks — if they agree to keep affordable housing on the premises.“
She also said local investment firms could help build more workforce housing.
“There are some really exciting projects going on right now where some of the investment funds — locally owned — are seeing that they can build workforce housing and know that their returns are going to be less for now, but in the longterm it will retun more,” she said. “I think we need to have private partnerships with those people to really bring on board more workforce housing immediately in neighborhoods and provide what government assistance you can do.”
If you made it this far, good job! I want to pick your brain. What follow-up questions would you like me to ask any of the candidates? Let me know in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also email me to tell me how awful and terrible my read of the race is at this point :-)