The Smartest People in Seattle Politics
Above: Rahwa Habte, by Kelly O
They’re Obsessed with Smart Policy, Not Power
Having political smarts isn’t about brokering power. True political geniuses are bringing policy to the table and suturing it to the flesh and bones of our city. They’re working, usually behind the curtain, to change conversations about what’s possible.
Seattle is wealthy. It’s educated. And the voters are liberal. We’ve got everything it takes to become a national model for building mass transit, closing achievement gaps in schools, innovating environmental policy, and treating everyone equitably.
But way too often, the same cast of self-satisfied schmucks hogs the limelight while settling for a career of unmemorable civic housekeeping. For instance, the Seattle City Council lacks a vision for a citywide light-rail system while instead making noisy fanfare over largely inconsequential tweaks to the city budget. The politicians, consultants, and donors who keep city hall buzzing are not the geniuses in this town. Not that we are, either. Just like most of the brain-dead TV news shows and stenographers in the Seattle Times newsroom, The Stranger obsesses too much over pasty politicians and beats our head against the wall when they do stupid shit.
Here, we want to focus on the people who are making this city better—the people talking about substance. They’re the smartest people in town.
Like some sort of social alchemist, Lisa Daugaard turns crackheads into functioning members of society. How? By persuading cops to divert offenders to human services instead of jailing them. “You can rack up hundreds or thousands of arrests, convictions, and jail days, at a dreadful cost, while accomplishing nothing except employing a lot of lawyers,” she says. Sure, that sounds simple now. But diversion used to be considered questionable theory—stop arresting crackheads to make downtown safer?—and Daugaard has made a data-driven argument to make it a publicly funded practice. Daugaard, the deputy director of public defense firm the Defender Association, has played a central role in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which ran a pilot project in Belltown. Cops, neighborhood watchers, and business leaders laud the program for keeping low-level offenders off the street, and it’s also put Seattle at the national vanguard of sensible drug enforcement. A behind-the-scenes mastermind for more than a decade, she is essentially sidestepping the drug war without changing any laws. It’s genius. Daugaard also led a project that measured racial disparity of policing and has fought to change onerous antitrespassing rules. Some may find her ideas incendiary, but her coalitions are powerful, and she stays cool as a cucumber. She is now attempting to muscle through a $1.7 million expansion of the diversion program to cover all of downtown, seeking funding from the Seattle City Council. “We intend to win this,” she says.
Sahar Fathi is not yet 30 years old. But in the last three years, she’s founded the country’s first Middle Eastern law clinic and helped Council Member Mike O’Brien start Seattle’s wildly successful Safe Parking program—which connects people living in their cars with safe places to park, church bathrooms, and stable housing. Fathi now works for the city’s newly formed Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. In this new role, Fathi says she realized that local ethnic media outlets are vital resources for our city’s non-native English speakers, so she tweaked city outreach contracts to require that city consultants making more than $100,000 engage with ethnic media. Fathi is also helping the Seattle Police Department diversify its force: She identified ethnic newspapers with readerships that spoke English well enough to take the police officer test, and then found officers from each population’s home country, bought an ad featuring that officer, and had them interviewed by the newspaper. Thanks in part to Fathi’s work, 30 percent more people of color applied for police officer jobs in 2013 than in 2012.
The morning after the election, NPR’s national news began with initiatives—specifically, the $15-an-hour minimum wage initiative in SeaTac, a story that included US Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s plans to raise the national minimum wage. Nick Hanauer, (@NickHanauer), a local venture capitalist, was a leading force behind SeaTac’s initiative, and his goal, even if the measure loses, was to change the national conversation about worker pay. Obviously, it worked. Hanauer says this is a pivotal stop in reframing the national dialogue on wealth—one that liberal and conservative businesspeople alike should embrace: “People need to understand that if workers earn more, then business makes more. Then it’s a prosperity-based argument, and you are not saying, ‘We want to pay you a living wage because we feel sorry for you,’ but because it’s good for everybody.” Now there’s talk of running a similar initiative in Seattle next year. This is just one of Hanauer’s game-changers. He founded the group running an initiative to require background checks on guns, which, if it passes in 2014, shifts the national gun-control narrative that says the NRA always wins. We hate some stuff Hanauer does, too: He funded deceptive ads that essentially blamed Mayor Mike McGinn for domestic-violence crimes, and he was a backer of charter schools. But what can we say? He successfully defeated McGinn and legalized charter schools. Hanauer is shaping this town. It helps that he’s rich, sure, but there are lots of rich folks who do nothing—so we’ll take the thoughtful, innovative rich guys any day!
When Rahwa Habte (photo above) (@rahwita) was co-owner of Hidmo, the Central District restaurant became a venue for social justice organizing and independent art—which is just the beginning of Habte’s incredibly cool work. She now has a number of irons in the fire: She conducts outreach on behalf of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, runs a new Hidmo—now a coalition of artists and activists—out of the historic Washington Hall community center, and is helping start a multilingual low-power FM radio station for immigrants and refugees. Her latest victory: getting funding to rehab Washington Hall into drafts of the city’s budget. Her next project is changing the composition of government. Getting younger, less wealthy, more diverse people to run for office is “a personal mission of mine,” she says, and she’s building a framework to do it. Habte’s genius is in bridging a host of disparate communities: often-isolated immigrants and refugees, the arts and culture scene, and mainstream government.
According to an October SurveyUSA poll, 68 percent of Seattle voters said they were “very” concerned about traffic and transportation, thereby making mobility the city’s top concern (more than support for or opposition to any politician). But still, the few light-rail lines we’ve approved are piecemeal—and there’s been little urgency for a citywide rail network. That is, until Seattle Subway came along, an advocacy group led by Ben Schiendelman (@BenSchie) (who also writes for Seattle Transit Blog). Schiendelman mapped an inspiring complete light-rail network that could get folks from the South End to Ballard in less than 20 minutes at rush hour. It’s based on the city’s unfulfilled Transit Master Plan. Thanks to Schiendelman, the new transit goal is a comprehensive mass transit system built within one generation, not a century. “Instead of frustrated or checked out, a lot of people are excited,” Schiendelman says. His next steps: working with the legislature to authorize new funding sources that city voters can approve, and then, he says, “pass[ing] a ballot measure for expansion.”
Eighty-seven-year-old Dorli Rainey rocketed to fame during Occupy Seattle, when a photograph of her pepper-sprayed in the face by police went viral, but she’s been a progressive rabble-rouser for decades. “I’ve done much better things than getting pepper-sprayed in my life,” she says, reminiscing about demonstrations in the 1970s that kept schools open and created bike paths.
Rainey is a principled, prescient voice. She’ll explain how the Occupy movement paved the way for Kshama Sawant’s socialist city council campaign, then, unprompted, switch gears and argue that Washington needs to get rid of its nuclear missiles.
That said, Rainey acknowledges that the police treat her with kid gloves now, and she’s taking tactical advantage: She was (gingerly) arrested twice in recent months for protesting an unjust home foreclosure. After a lifetime of activist work, she’s honed herself into a progressive weapon, ready and willing to use herself as an icon to highlight institutional hypocrisies. She’s a local treasure.
The best school watchdog in town hands-down is Melissa Westbrook, (@WestbrookMel), who runs the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog with cowriter Charlie Mas. Few citizen journalists operate with the tenacity of Westbrook, who practically submits public disclosure requests in her sleep. She has a telescopic picture of the school district, state, and country, from new curriculum standards to hazing incidents to the growing political influence of corporate education reformers. If she says to keep an eye on something—like folks spending big bucks in school board races—said thing is about to explode. Her next project: focusing on the mounting data collection by school districts on their students, which is the hip new thing in education, and means that reams of personally identifiable data—like adoption and discipline records—could be in the hands of outside contractors working with school districts. “These are children who have no way to protect themselves,” she says, name-checking the NSA. “Once you start down this road, I think that it’s going to get more and more tricky. Who’s going to see it? What are they going to use it for?”
Reuven Carlyle (@Reuvencarlyle) has heard enough goddamn whining from Republicans about taxes. These teabagging fucks say Seattle is the welfare queen, sucking money from the hardworking teats of country folk. Bullshit, says state representative Carlyle (he didn’t actually say “bullshit”). He’s been requesting data from the state’s Office of Financial Management for years. He’s revealed that socialistic, diverse, urban King County is a net contributor to the state while white-ass Republican counties, by and large, are siphoning our money. (King County only gets 62 cents back for every dollar it sends the state.) “The lack of open data about how taxes travel… creates a lowest common denominator sentiment that all taxes are too high, all services too low, all government too inefficient,” Carlyle wrote on his blog this summer. Now Carlyle and other lawmakers are working to chip away at undeserved corporate tax breaks and pass new revenue for schools, so hopefully the next generation is educated enough to ignore divisive right-wing bullshit about taxes.
With four restaurants and 180 employees, Tutta Bella (@MyTuttaBella) owner Joe Fugere proves that taking care of your staff doesn’t hurt business. He was an early supporter of Seattle’s paid sick leave legislation—in fact, he’s voluntarily embraced paid time off at both his Issaquah and upcoming Bellevue locations. After talking to an employee about her worm bin, Fugere launched a food-composting program, which became the model for Seattle’s restaurant composting program. What’s next? Fugere can’t say. “Ninety percent of decisions we make, in terms of enhancing the work environment, don’t come from me,” Fugere says. “My biggest job most days is listening to my employees.”
Marsha Botzer founded the Ingersoll Gender Center in 1977, when trans issues were in the dark. “Transgender is no longer unknown, alone, hidden. We live in the open world, with support and with real futures,” she says. In her tenure, Botzer has been involved in virtually every change in city and state law to help LGBT people. Antidiscrimination, antibullying, domestic partnership, marriage equality—all of it. “The great and real difference in my understanding is that now people do not fear gender-identity issues as being different, or dangerous, as they used to,” she reflects. “Of course, there are those that oppose, but they must do it willfully and with intent, for the evidence-based research and the real-world experience of trans clearly proclaim that transgender identity is simply one part of human diversity.”
Got Green, this Southeast Seattle group parks at the intersection where social justice meets the environment. They created two of the coolest projects ever to fly under your radar: (1) a program to match food stamp money dollar-for-dollar when it’s spent on fresh produce at farmers markets, and (2) a local hire program to guarantee some work in city contracts for local folks hardest hit in a divided economy. Thanks to their work, both projects now appear in drafts of the city budget. Next up: an as-yet-unannounced “Young Workers in the Green Economy” project. Expect to see whatever issues they raise to be seriously considered by establishment politicians within a year.
You’re probably a Kathleen Taylor, (@ACLU_WA), fanboy even if you don’t know it. Legal pot? Gay marriage? Police reform? All roads lead back to Taylor, who has led the ACLU of Washington since the 1970s and deploys her powerhouse to define political priorities. She led the effort to pass Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana, was among the quarterbacks working to pass marriage equality, and was the chief signatory of the letter that requested the US Department of Justice to probe the Seattle Police Department for misconduct. A mastermind and field marshal in her office, Taylor is essentially a regular activist wearing a superhero cape. “There is nothing more fun than reading a story of outrageous injustice in the paper in the morning, and then going to work and saying, ‘We are going to do something about that!’” she says. Her motto: “Read, fume, act.” Tackling overzealous surveillance, keeping Catholic morals out of hospitals, and stopping racial bias in schools are her next projects. Does that sound like more than one person can tackle? Maybe if it weren’t Kathleen Taylor.
Who has the shittiest job in town? The dude in charge of public relations for our minority beating, now-obeying-a-federal-court-orderthat-makes-them-cut-it-the-fuck-out police department. That dude is Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, (@SeattlePD), who owns up to the department’s mistakes—“Public trust in the Seattle Police Department has eroded significantly,” he concedes—while showcasing the good cops (like the ones catching runaway murderers in less than a day). Also under Whitcomb’s watch: that hilarious, nationally recognized Twitter feed, an enthusiasm for pot legalization that included handing out Doritos at Hempfest, and a snappy crime blog. He’s a true diplomat between a disturbed bureaucracy and a skeptical public—and he’s mending very old wounds with honesty and humor. What’s next for Whitcomb? “More innovation in communication. More transparency and access. More Harry Potter memes.”
“If you wanna be involved, be involved,” says Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Seattle’s busiest ninja at the intersection of art, social justice, and education. “Policy is about people doing things.” Spreading a gospel of engagement and the tactics of what she calls “covert curriculum,” Jackson-Dumont teaches youth, convenes panels of thinkers in policy-influencing circles, and provides stages for artists of color. Her main posts: head of education at Seattle Art Museum, chair of education at the Seattle Arts Commission, and board president of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas. Her main goal: “To create more policy workers.”
Name the topic, and the sharpest environmental talking points can be traced to the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, (@Sightline). The 20-year-old think tank excels at meticulously thought-out, well-researched arguments. This 11-person brain trust came up with the idea behind Walk Score, which rates neighborhoods based on the amenities within walking distance. They helped make car-sharing legal in Washington State and drafted the state’s neighborhood safe streets legislation, which allows cities to set their own speed limits. Their book Tax Shift inspired British Columbia to institute the most aggressive carbon taxing policy in the world. And then there’s their work documenting the potential environmental, economic, and cultural ramifications of coal trains running through the Pacific Northwest, which contributed to the state Department of Ecology’s decision to study an array of environmental impacts before granting permits to a coal export terminal outside of Bellingham. “People who are concerned about these issues need to have more than just talking points—they need really good facts,” explains Clark WilliamsDerry, Sightline’s program director. “We’re the nerdy kids in the back of the room whispering the answers to our friends—or anyone who’ll listen.” Next up? Tackling the affordable housing crisis. (They literally just wrote the book on it—Unlocking Homes.) “Housing rules are standing in the way of affordable housing,” Clark says, citing microhousing, mother-in-law apartments, backyard cottages, and Seattle’s onerous roommate rules. “One way to make housing affordable is to make affordable housing legal.”
The newspaper industry is thriving—at least in the world of Tim Harris, founding director of the homeless advocacy newspaper Real Change, (@RealChangeNews). The struggling paper vendors keep some of the proceeds, and the buyers get a dose of perspective from Seattle’s streets. In running this operation, Harris does a staggering number of things at the same time: providing social services, running a media outlet—a newspaper that is growing steadily—while most newspapers are shrinking and closing, and parlaying that into a political body that converts the most down-and-out scapegoats in society into a virtually unassailable constituency. In November, vendors started selling in Kitsap County and East King County, and in January, the newspaper will also go digital. “We’ve been working with a team of volunteer developers at Google, who are creating an app for iPhone and Android,” Harris explains.
Nobody represents Seattle’s moneyed establishment more than Kate Joncas—and we can’t imagine anyone doing it more effectively. As president of the Downtown Seattle Association, (@downtownseattle), (DSA), a conservative business lobby and neighborhood association, Joncas operates some city council members like remote control toys and makes certain news reporters transcribe her group’s agenda in print, all to the effect of making downtown more appealing to her members (and shoppers). For instance, she started an alarming meme about downtown crime rising when, in fact, it’s mostly down. (Those are the basics for business lobbies.) But Joncas’s true brilliance is getting her members to think outside the box. Two decades into her role, Joncas is uniquely positioned to green-light progressive experiments that initially scare constituents, such as a wet house where chronic alcoholics could drink. “The board said we may not like our tax dollars being spent this way, but let’s give it a shot,” she recalls. But once it was implemented, downtown inebriation dropped. The DSA has ultimately given the nod to plenty of controversial programs, including a needle exchange for junkies, a hygiene center close to the symphony hall, and a program that diverts chronic drug offenders into treatment instead of jail. “When you can get over the assumptions—and I think that goes both ways—about what the other side is like, you can find things to talk about,” she says. Joncas says raising red flags about downtown crime got the result she wanted: an innovative Center City Initiative roundtable, which includes Joncas and historical rivals, to collaborate on programs like the ones mentioned above. “You don’t have to agree with somebody on everything, but at the end of the day, we have the same vision for the people involved and for the neighborhood.”
Nobody—absolutely nobody—knows more about the Seattle City Council than Lisa Herbold. She’s the senior staffer for Council Member Nick Licata, and she’s encyclopedic on every policy from protecting tenants and to helping the poor, to serving the homeless and balancing the budget. You name it. She knows it. Which policies does she shape? Virtually anything progressive passed in our city has Herbold’s fingerprints on it.
Nobody paid much mind to the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs in recent years— unless you count snoozing as an art form— but that changed when Randy Engstrom, (@RandyEngstrom), was named director last year. Engstrom has saved and improved arts education, established a program to preserve and create spaces for artists in neighborhoods, and is working on building a single coherent cultural plan for Seattle for the first time in two decades. Engstrom’s revitalized the office by increasing the visibility of its programs and slickly rebranding the organization as the much-less-clunky Office of Arts and Culture. Engstrom does this job like he was born for it.
The ladies of NARAL, (@ProChoiceWA), canvass rural Washington educating women on crisis pregnancy centers (religious anti-abortion clinics masquerading as medical clinics). They run an abortion access network that connects red state and rural women, who must come to Seattle for abortions, with volunteers offering housing, emotional support, and transportation. And right now, they’re helping combat Catholic hospital mergers—which could restrict women’s access to things like birth control, tubal ligations, and abortion—by working on an interactive map of all Washington hospitals showing exactly what procedures they provide. Kick-ass.
The City of Seattle has rarely bothered to enforce laws against bosses stealing wages from workers (e.g., withholding paychecks, forcing employees to work off the clock, or refusing to pay overtime), a crime that primarily affects low-wage earners and people of color. But since 2007, Seattle Solidarity Network, abbreviated SeaSol, has been responding to calls to their hotline about precisely that sort of crime. Aggrieved workers attend SeaSol meetings, deliver a demand to the party that wronged them, and help organize escalating direct actions—pickets, phone blasts, and more—until justice is served. For example, this year the group won back $11,140 in unpaid wages owed to two undocumented immigrants who weren’t getting state-required breaks or earning the minimum wage in food service jobs. If the city council is serious about protecting workers’ rights, it should look to SeaSol’s example.
After years of behind-the-scenes political work, such as running her uncle Bruce’s two successful bids for city council and organizing a Central District community group to lobby for affordable housing, this year Monisha Harrell, (@equalrightswa), elevated her profile as the new chair of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equal Rights Washington. The 38-year-old small-business owner plans on using her platform to help homeless gay youth. “Approximately 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ,” Harrell says. “I’d love for these kids’ biggest worry to be whether or not they can get married. Instead, they’re worried about basic needs like sleeping under a roof.” Harrell and the ERW are throwing their weight behind a $750,000 King County Council proposal that would pay for facilities and services—including counseling and work training—to help these kids out.
Hollis Wong-Wear, (@wongweezy), a young artist and woman of color, is bedrock, not decoration. Her band The Flavr Blue opened Bumbershoot this year, and she had a voice backstage on the Bumbershoot advisory commission. “I’m firmly anti-oppression,” she says, whether working as a poetry slam coach, on the board of directors at 4Culture, on the Seattle Center advisory commission, as a hiphop/dance/ jazz/soul/improvisational performer, or singing the hook on Macklemore’s “White Walls.” Macklemore credits her with inspiring him to write the song in the first place. In other words, powerful dudes actually listen to her. She says, “In the conversations that happen in higher civic circles, people just need to chill, and listen, and bring more people to the table—and forego the table, and be humbly welcomed into other people’s tables.”
A full 52 percent Seattle’s residents are renters, yet state law treats property owners like demigods and renters like serfs. So the Tenants Union, a membership-based organization, has been scrapping to shift that power balance since 1977. Executive director Jon Grant says that they’re behind “every tenant protection bill that’s been passed in Seattle” since they opened (like the rental housing inspection bill that took five years to pass and, finally, makes landlords responsible for keeping property up to code). Hurrah!
Seattle had a journalism genocide a few years back, and lots of veteran reporters were laid off while wet-behind-the-ears baby reporters kept their jobs. What the fuck? Reporters still had to report—but they also had to tweet, blog, write persuasive essays, and post on Facebook at the same time (for less pay!). One old-guard veteran, Joel Connelly (@joelconnelly),, took to it like a reporter to whiskey. Now at Seattlepi.com, Connelly might seem politically stodgy (everything reminds him of an anecdote from 1972), but he’s got encyclopedic knowledge of Seattle history (that anecdote from 1972 is surprisingly incisive). Blogging, posting on Twitter, and engaging in Facebook wars, he’s been particularly dogged on supporting social justice and environmental policy—and getting attention from Washington, DC. Connelly recounts a recent battle: “I brought up the proposed San Juan Islands National Monument on every Obama fundraising visit. The irritation of the White House at being criticized for the president’s ‘cash and dash’ visits was palpable. Seattlepi.com was blackballed from all press pools. Still… by God, Obama did eventually designate the monument.” And he’s not quitting: “I’m not ready to hang it up. I cherish the work, I cherish my workmates. I cherish working in a not-yet-used-up corner of America. It’s a place that sets social trends for the rest of the country.”
The Bus, (@WashingtonBus) is changing not only politicians, but the entire electorate. In 2012, young voters registered by the Bus turned out to vote at 81 percent, the same rate as the state at large. Other young voters? They only turned out at 61 percent. A 20 percent bump’s no joke.
In the moribund cave of City Hall, Council Member Mike O’Brien, (@CMMikeOBrien), is a ray of sunshine. He’s as liberal as ousted mayor Mike McGinn, and he supported many of the same policies, but O’Brien actually got reelected. How? He was effective. He banned plastic bags, supported the homeless, and reformed elections, all while remaining cordial with his vindictive colleagues. What’s he gonna do next? Create a “district energy system” in South Lake Union to capture heat from Amazon computer servers to heat nearby buildings.
College economics instructor Kshama Sawant, (@VoteSawant),has changed Seattle. Starting in 2012, Sawant was adamant about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and, in declaring so in her run for city council, she became a political bellwether. Paying a living wage is a litmus test for all politicians now—as it should be. Sawant also injected rent control and taxing the wealthy to pay for mass transit into the civic dialogue. Those may be out of Seattle’s legal reach, admittedly, but she wisely focused on policy while other politicians dwelled on petty issues of style and relationships.
What was Jim Pugel’s, (@SeattlePD), first announcement as acting police chief this year? Apologizing for a mistake. He voluntarily released a long-lost 1980s training video of him and other cops performing a parody of homeless people singing to the tune of “Under the Boardwalk.” A terrible indiscretion, admittedly. But in his repentance, Pugel cut a new path for the scandal-tarnished Seattle Police Department handling internal problems. Asked about his greatest policy accomplishments, he cites helping lead Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which places low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead of jails. “We have to examine and reform how we approach both people with addictions and general drug-use issues,” he says. For years, police just locked up offenders, “but the results were negative.” The Drug Policy Alliance, an international think tank and advocacy powerhouse, honored the SPD for being a national role model at the “forefront of health-centered innovation in drug law enforcement,” while specifically noting Pugel’s “outstanding leadership with projects such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.”
Besides looking like an eagle—seriously, look at him (eeeeeagle!)—Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, (@CouncilmanTim), knows how to throw a bone to liberals. For instance, consider what he’s doing for universal preschool. It’s been widely known that pre-K education is the best way to close achievement gaps and increase long-term academic success, but it costs money. Now that this expensive, progressive-ish idea is being backed by the council’s most conservative member (Burgess is studying a levy to pay for it), the idea can suddenly fly (because it’s being sponsored by an eagle!). Burgess is the council’s bellwether (he’s a sheep-eagle!), and if he wants something to happen at city hall, it happens.
Ryan Boudinot is probably best known as the author of the short story collection The Littlest Hitler and the novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, but within the next year, he may be better known as the man who made Seattle a UNESCO City of Literature. Besides making us a sister city to other great UNESCO literature cities like Reykjavik, Dublin, and Melbourne, the UNESCO program would provide for cultural exchanges and introduce Seattle to a greater international arts community.
Both Macklemore and Mayor Mike McGinn cite him as an influence. “This is something you want to participate in,” says Blue Scholars’ Prometheus Brown, (@prometheusbrown), (also known as Geo), of the “huge cultural shift” happening in Seattle. Behind the scenes, Geo is at the forefront of a creative class of musicians, activists, teachers, and media makers who don’t see clear delineations between the disciplines. “It hasn’t gotten us on MTV, but we’re doing what we want to do, so why change it?”