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Discussion with Sara Nelson, City Council Candidate

Hacks & Wonks

Release Date: 05/11/2021

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On this mid-week show, Crystal interviews Sara Nelson, candidate for Seattle City Council, Position 9. Sara gives revealing answers to questions about some of the pressing issues facing Seattle. 

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Sara Nelson, at @sara4council. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.



"City and Town Forms of Government (Mayor-Council Form)" from the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC): https://mrsc.org/Home/Explore-Topics/Legal/General-Government/City-and-Town-Forms-of-Government.aspx#mayorcouncil

"Seattle Passes Covid Relief & JumpStart Spending Plans" by Matt Landers: https://thegsba.org/about-us/blog/gsba-blog/2020/07/20/seattle-passes-covid-relief-jumpstart-spending-plans

Basics of JumpStart Seattle: https://council.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/JumpStart-Narrative-Final.pdf

"The JumpStart Seattle Spending Plan Is a Good Step Forward" by Matthew Lang: https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2020/07/20/44125416/the-jumpstart-seattle-spending-plan-is-a-good-step-forward

"Durkan Is Bothching Homelessness Policy and Blaming Journalists for the News" by Doug Trumm: https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/03/02/durkan-is-botching-homelessness-policy-and-blaming-journalists-for-the-news/

"Why does prosperous King County have a homelessness crisis?" by Benjamin Maritz and Dilip Wagle: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/why-does-prosperous-king-county-have-a-homelessness-crisis

King County Regional Homelessness Data Dashboard: https://regionalhomelesssystem.org/regional-homelessness-data/

Basics of SPD Crisis Response Team from the Seattle City Government website: https://www.seattle.gov/police/about-us/crisis-response-team



Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, we are very happy to have joining us with the program, Sara Nelson, Seattle City Council candidate for the second time. And announced for the position being vacated by Council President Lorena González, so an open seat with a few different challengers - her being one. Thank you so much for joining us, Sara.

Sara Nelson: [00:01:13] Thank you for having me.

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:16] What motivated you to run for office again?

Sara Nelson: [00:01:20] Well, in a sense, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The pandemic has really, really hurt Seattle's working families, small businesses, and I am running because I believe that I have the practical experience leadership to get us on track for an equitable economic recovery. My background is already in public service. I worked for Seattle City Council for about 10 years - in way back when - from like 2002 to 2013. And I also own a small business, Fremont Brewing - and I think that's a good combination to work toward reopening our city and bringing back jobs. And also tackling some of the ongoing long-term problems like housing affordability and homelessness that we don't seem to be making progress on.

Crystal Fincher: [00:02:23] Starting with the issue of homelessness, what do you think we need to be doing?

Sara Nelson: [00:02:27] I believe that we, first and foremost, have to stop talking about the homeless as a monolithic block of people, because they're individuals who have become homeless for such a wide variety of reasons - either simply losing the job, can't pay rent, all the way to dealing with mental illness and substance abuse disorder, and then fleeing domestic violence. So we need to meet people where we're at and to do that, we have to understand the people that are living unhoused right now. And we don't have a good grip on those subgroups of people. And so first of all, we need to better understand that and then figure out what services are needed for these different groups. How much will that cost? Who's providing these services already? Are there gaps and overlaps? 

And just really focus on, first and foremost, getting people into stable housing. I believe that permanent supportive housing is something that we should be prioritizing. However, we could bring those units online faster through land use changes and some regulatory changes so those units can be less expensive to build. But before we get there, I'm down with tiny home villages and hotel rooms, whatever it takes, but that should be our focus. And in addition to addiction and mental health services.

Crystal Fincher: [00:03:58] Now, currently there are plans for bringing on tiny homes. There are plans for some transitional and permanent housing - lots of people are arguing that we need more. Do you think those plans are in line with what you are proposing or are they different?

Sara Nelson: [00:04:16] I think they are, but something's not working. Everybody says, "Yeah, I'm for housing." But we've doubled the homelessness budget in the past three years, I believe. And the problem's only getting worse, so something is not working. And I think it lies in how our response is structured. I've already explained that a little bit. We've got service providers who are not meeting benchmarks and their contract keeps getting renewed, so we have to look at who are we contracting with and is that a good use of public resources? Everybody, every candidate will say, "Yeah, I'm for housing." But I am for effective solutions. 

And look, we declared homelessness an emergency five years - six years ago now in 2015. Look around - we're not treating it as an emergency and it should be all hands on deck. Yes, other cities in the region need to pitch in, because Seattle can't go it alone. But we need to respond to this as we would a public health crisis. As if it were something as important as COVID, and with compassion and resolve. That's the energy and that's the approach that we should be taking.

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:43] Gotcha. And in this situation, I think it's important for people to understand how you agree and differ with both the council and the mayor in this situation. Of course, there's a regional conversation, as you've talked about. There are a number of people who have critiqued the mayor for not spending the money that the City Council has budgeted and allocated for some of the housing. And then other critiques that she hasn't moved with enough urgency. Do you see challenges on the mayor's end? Do you see them solely on the council end? What's your viewpoint on that situation?

Sara Nelson: [00:06:23] Well, to your first point, I'm not going to comment on. So basically it depends on where that money is coming from, those new resources. Now I don't know if I'm understanding the specifics well, but when you allocate a whole bunch of money, that's coming from somewhere else. And so if the mayor vetoed that, it might be because she was concerned that those dollars wouldn't be going for a basic service or something like that. And that is what our City should be focusing on also. So Council holds the power of the purse. Therefore, it all does come down to City Council. It's their responsibility to make sure that those dollars are going for the most effective solutions. The mayor can come out with a lot of different plans and initiatives and foci, et cetera, but Council is going to do what it's going to do when it comes to the budget and where those dollars go.

Crystal Fincher: [00:07:30] Gotcha. Now, I think you've previously said that you don't believe any additional revenue is necessary - any additional taxes or allocation is needed - to address the issue of homelessness and to house people. Is that consistent with what you believe? Do you think there's enough money allocated already?

Sara Nelson: [00:07:48] It's a little bit more nuanced than that. I think that statement came up in talking about JumpStart, which taxes jobs, basically. And I'm concerned about that for two reasons - number one, we should not be penalizing jobs. We need more jobs. The companies that have those jobs should - I don't believe even though they're large and people might say they might represent politically something that people can rail against. The fact is that what happens to large businesses trickles down through our local economy and ends up affecting small businesses - supply chain partners and businesses where employees go to recreate - because we're an ecosystem. So if you're - if that statement that no new revenue is needed - it was coming from something that I was talking about related to JumpStart, then I agree with myself still. But I believe when it comes to new revenue, the City has not shown, this Council has not shown that they can spend money wisely. When I say that I don't want, that new revenue is not needed, I want to see a different approach. I want to see measurable results with the money that they have right now, which again, we've increased every single year.

So until Council can show - I don't know - I believe that new revenue will be needed. And I also believe that other cities should pitch in, and that we need to build capacity for substance abuse, disorder, treatment, and mental illness treatment. But just throwing a new revenue stream at a problem without fixing the way decisions are made, or understanding of the folks that are actually suffering, then I'm not going to jump in and say, "Yes, new revenue," until I can see that Council is taking a different approach and committed to spending our resources wisely, whether they're new or existing.

Crystal Fincher: [00:10:18] So I'm trying to parse that a little bit. And so you're saying you want to see results, maybe new revenue will be needed, but you're not sure. So do you think there is enough money right now to address the problem?

Sara Nelson: [00:10:32] I will say, that as a candidate, I am not privy to the detailed information. And I think that it would be irresponsible for any candidate to say, "No." We've seen the McKinsey reports, we've seen - there are widely varied numbers about how much we need - is it $400 million? Is it $200 million? It's a lot of money and we don't necessarily have it right now.

But what some people aren't talking about is jobs. And I believe that that should be a focus in this homelessness conversation because workforce development is a big part of my platform - because my first priority is economic recovery. Because so many businesses have closed or moved away, and so many people are out of jobs - that should be our focus. People need to earn and they need to have work - and that means helping getting out of this crisis while helping struggling small businesses keep the people that they've got hired working. And so Fremont Brewing was hit hard by this pandemic, but we managed not to lay anybody off - we kept everybody employed, we increased everyone's hourly wages to make up for their lost tips. And others were not as fortunate, so I don't see Council acting with any urgency to address the needs of small businesses like mine. 

And why am I going off on what appears to be a tangent, and you're thinking, "She's not answering the question." Because a big part of assessing the need is finding out what do people need to get back to work. And that is why I'm a big proponent of apprenticeship utilization requirements that contractors - and well, that unions fulfill. There are a lot of different apprenticeship programs and different organizations that are focused on helping people that have been taken out of the workforce. Maybe they have cycled through the criminal justice system, or they don't have skills, they're coming out of a foster care history. And I was visiting the Iron Workers and I saw an apprenticeship program focused specifically on this population. So let's also start talking about jobs before we just pick a number out of the air and say, "Do we have enough money? Do we need more money? Where's that money going to come from to address this problem?"

Crystal Fincher: [00:13:16] Well, and that's a really important point. I did not think you were going off on a tangent. I think the recovery is a central issue in Seattle for residents, for small businesses, certainly. There's been a lot of conversation about this - certainly the greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce or the main Chamber in Seattle has opposed the JumpStart tax that you - or the JumpStart recovery package - which includes a tax that you referenced before. There's been a lot of conversation, I think, that you alluded to it - that politically, people may oppose it because that's something that, frankly, Amazon opposed. And a number of people are viewing the Chamber increasingly as almost a lobbying arm for Amazon, and not as much for a number of the small businesses that are there. And seeing some bifurcation of the interests of huge multi-billion dollar organizations - multi-hundred billion dollar organizations - versus Mom-pa businesses, the small businesses throughout Seattle that have struggled and are struggling to get through this pandemic, as you talked about. Having to navigate what are you going to do with employees throughout the meandering maze of opening, partial opening, reopening, and how to navigate that.

I know that the Greater Seattle Business Association called the JumpStart recovery package very important - said that they had worked with the Council on that, and that it included critical economic relief for small businesses and families in Seattle. And called some of the investment, including $18 million that goes to support small businesses, critical to the recovery.

Sara Nelson: [00:15:10] How did - can you - I was trying to figure that out, because I heard Council say that, and I haven't seen the $18 million for small businesses - but what form did that support come in?

Crystal Fincher: [00:15:26] Yeah. So there's $3.6 million for small business direct cash assistance, with 20% going towards childcare, so workers and owners can both go back to business while schools are closed. $14 million for flexible funding to allow businesses to pay staff, vendors, clean, operate - so kind of the immediate business support, and then the other support across the vendor ecosystem. And $300,000 for technical assistance to navigate opening and operating under and post COVID-19 - with navigating regulations and the requirements there. So it's a significant sum of money that the Greater Seattle Business Association, the GSBA, is saying was developed directly with input from their members and that they feel is critical to the economic recovery.

With that, I know you said that you don't support the JumpStart economic recovery. How do you parse that small business relief versus your opposition - as a small business owner? Obviously, we're both sitting here as small business owners talking about this. Do you feel that helps? Do you feel it doesn't help? Where are you at on that?

Sara Nelson: [00:16:50] Well, I'd say that, just like people living unhoused, the business community is not a monolithic block. And Fremont Brewing has been a member of GSBA - and we brew a Pride beer and we have given significant amount of money to their scholarship, or to their scholarship fund, so I very much respect the GSBA. And I believe that they made a decision. I'm not going to comment on what I think about their support, or get into who's right and who's wrong.

I can also say that I know that 70% of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber members are small businesses. Of those, I think 50% have 10 employees or less, so who has more small business credit? I don't know. I just say that, in my mind, we are an ecosystem and we really do have to be careful about how it ends up. Not just how the revenue will end up helping - that is good. Thank you for informing me of that. However, there will never be enough money to help some struggling small businesses - $3 million, et cetera. What we have to do is help small businesses survive through policy. And I've got a long list of policy proposals that I go into in excruciating detail on my website. But so - we can help small businesses. But I'm talking about potential unintended consequences to the business community as a whole, so that is just what I'm getting across when I was talking about how tax policy does reverberate sometimes in unintended ways.

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:47] Well, I got you. And you have talked about - both in terms of your view towards raising revenue, towards addressing the unhoused population - and you talked about needing increased money for substance use disorder and treatment for people who are struggling with that in all various forms. And that you've gone through experiences that have changed your perspective somewhat - 

Sara Nelson: [00:19:15] Yeah. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:19:15] I guess, ideologically. There was an article written saying that hasn't necessarily changed your policy, but I guess, how has your experience -  what has your experience been?

Sara Nelson: [00:19:29] Well, let me tell you - this is what happened. I saw my drinking take an uptick. So this is all contextualized within the framework of - yeah, I own a brewery. So anyway, my drinking took an uptick during COVID and I was working at home isolated, unsupervised. And I realized that it was only going to go in one direction. My dad was an alcoholic and it wasn't until - he tried to quit drinking several times - it wasn't until he went to an in-person treatment program that he was able to get and stay sober for 20 years. So I decided that I was going to skip all those steps of going to AA and trying to stop drinking and all that stuff. And I just went in, and I was able to do so because I have good health insurance, and even if it weren't accepted, I could probably scrape enough money to pay outright. So that is what is wrong - is that too many people do not have access to help. That was driven home to me going through that. 

I also met a lot of people who have lived on the streets, who have had to steal to support their habit. And so I feel like, when I say it didn't change my policies - but it humanized the people that sometimes you don't even get to know, you just drive past on the streets, or walk past in our open spaces. So that is a little bit of how I changed personally through that experience. And that is why I believe that we have not quantified the magnitude of this problem within our broader homelessness crisis, but we should be doing that. And I don't know - I've asked around, I asked the County, I have asked City people - how many beds are available if somebody wants to get clean right now? And I don't know the answer to that. It's probably not enough. And so we need more capacity, and we need to focus our dollars there.

Crystal Fincher: [00:21:54] Well, the answer is definitely not enough. And I do want to absolutely say - I am happy and thankful you were able to recognize that you were dealing with substance use disorder and get treatment. It's what a lot of people, especially through the tough times of the pandemic and the increased isolation and stress, have had to deal with. So you certainly are not alone in that. I'm very thankful and relieved that you are in recovery.

Sara Nelson: [00:22:25] Over seven months now.

Crystal Fincher: [00:22:26] Congratulations, that's very great. And you've talked, as you did just now, about how this helped - in your words - humanize others who have dealt with this issue. Which is, I think, a very useful and helpful thing. One thing I have noticed, you're -

Sara Nelson: [00:22:47] You know what, so I just had this idea when you were talking. It is the human, because we do - this is such a - people respond so viscerally to this - to issues and seeing encampments, et cetera, across the range of a political response. And - I know, but -

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:14] Well, I guess I have a question here.

Sara Nelson: [00:23:17] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go ahead - I'm not going to ramble anymore.

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:20] My question is - the way you talked about homelessness, certainly in your last campaign versus now, is definitely different. From what I've read, you certainly credit your going through substance use disorder yourself for helping you to see and understand the issue. But a lot of the rhetoric around it has not changed. And an abundance of data has been out there - about people experiencing homelessness are not a monolith and the different reasons why, and the counts about people who are out there, and the proposed housing units necessary, and the type of services that have helped. You certainly talk a lot more about the need for treatment and treating the human, even if that hasn't translated to any difference in policy.

So is having to go through it yourself in order to see, or to humanize other people experiencing the problem with that issue - do you see any of that, potentially, in other issues? Whether it's racial equity or policing - that maybe that was a blind spot that you had in similar areas before, because you had not personally gone through it. And there may be context that you're missing in the conversation - that maybe believing other people's experiences, even if you haven't gone through it, may be warranted.

Sara Nelson: [00:24:50] Yes, absolutely. I mean, I've never been to jail. But - that's perhaps a lot to do with the fact that I am white. You know, I never got a DUI. But so I think that I could have got in a lot worse trouble, but I was privileged to not have encounters with law enforcement, and I believe that my whiteness does play into that. So - and I was in treatment with a lot of Native Americans and Black people who talk about how - our experiences are different, basically what I'll say. And so that did help bring that home. I can understand it intellectually. I did my anthropology PhD research on the intersections of gender, race, and class in policing. But it's not until you get into a situation like mine, where you think - There but for the grace of God go I. If your question is, does my experience bleed into other policy areas? Yes, it does. And - go on.

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:10] Oh well, I did want to ask about your perspective on public safety. From what I've read you've certainly been critical of the Council's actions with regard to reducing funding for SPD. You felt that former Chief Carmen Best was treated unfairly, and it was a shame that she left. And -

Sara Nelson: [00:26:37] It was more than a shame.

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:40] And I also read that you applauded work people did to address racial equity concerns in policing. So the - if - I guess - what is it that you were applauding, or what action have you agreed with that the Council has taken to address problems and inequalities, specifically with SPD's policing and approach? And -

Sara Nelson: [00:27:15] I haven't seen - frankly - I haven't seen - I have to interrupt. I have not seen racism in policing being addressed by what Council has done so far. To me, what ended up happening was that - you know, so - what I applaud is that there was a lot of attention and effort to address this finally. But I don't - I do not see, and maybe you can tell me - how cutting the police has addressed racism in policing, or has addressed the numbers of Black and Brown people being stopped. Or any of those things that need to be addressed, which absolutely has to be addressed, through reforms. 

And I think that one way to go about - so basically, everybody is going to say, "We're for public safety, we want communities to be safe." Okay. I think that that is something that we agree on, but how do we get there? What I disagreed on was - committing to a certain percentage of defunding the police without a plan for keeping people safe and without broad consensus in the Black community is the wrong approach. Right now -

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:44] Well, here's a question with that. 

Sara Nelson: [00:28:47] What? 

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:47] Broad consensus in the Black community. Do you see broad consensus in the white community?

Sara Nelson: [00:28:53] No, but - I am - okay -

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:56] So do you expect there to be a difference in the Black community? Do you - that there would be broad consensus?

Sara Nelson: [00:29:03] That is a fair point. Then, let's just say - without broad consensus in the community.

Crystal Fincher: [00:29:12] So, I guess the question would be - is that a number of people would argue that consensus would manifest itself in the elections that we have, and the people that we elect, and the policies and initiatives that are supported and not supported. And the Council that was elected certainly wanted to move in a different direction and largely pushed by community demands and concerns. So my question - 

Sara Nelson: [00:29:50] Which community? 

Crystal Fincher: [00:29:52] What would you - 

Sara Nelson: [00:29:53] I mean, so, so - 

Crystal Fincher: [00:29:55] Seattle. Seattle residents. And so if we look at the vote for the Charter Amendments -

Sara Nelson: [00:29:58] Okay, well I was referring to the Black community because the Black community has been most targeted by systemic racism in policing. So that is why I did call out that community - because we have to be talking about the people that are most vulnerable to police misconduct, and racism, and targeting.

Crystal Fincher: [00:30:22] Sure. So what do you think should happen? What changes would you propose?

Sara Nelson: [00:30:28] I think that - that it would be - that recruiting officers - so there's the police contract, which is for the most part, kind of a closed door negotiation. And then there are other reforms that can be advocated on the part of Council and one - and worked with - is that I believe that recruiting officers from the communities that they serve is a potential way of overcoming some, some - at least language and some cultural barriers - as well as building in accountability because you're less likely to discriminate against somebody that you actually see in a grocery store or in your neighborhood somehow. So that is one way that we can go about it. I think that also supporting bills that really do address accountability at the state level is important. I know that there was a whole bunch of legislation that came out and that is great. So whatever leverage Seattle can bear on our legislative agenda with our delegation is good. And -

Crystal Fincher: [00:31:48] Well, I guess - fundamentally, in your capacity as a Seattle City Council member, not withstanding any other jurisdictional action taken by the legislature or anyone else, are there any policies that would fundamentally change, within the practice of policing, that you would support or that you feel are necessary?

Sara Nelson: [00:32:15] Yeah. I think that we need to bring back the Crisis Intervention Team. Because - that - that, you know - I think his name was Derek - that was a situation that was tragic. And we need to -because we do have folks and unfortunately, police are often called respond to mental health. And that is an area that there is agreement in - I'm going to interrupt myself now - but there are -  the cops are responding to situations that are better responded to by social service professionals. And to the extent that we can offload some of those responsibilities and build capacity in social services - I do agree with. And I think that advocates and officers agree on this point. So how that happens? I would have to understand the budget better and the staffing models that are in place. 

What I think has worked is more of a community policing model that builds relationships. And building relationships that are positive between our law enforcement folks and the community is a way of building trust and also preventing crime. So that is the kind of focus that our - our whole approach should be - how do we make our communities safer and let's do that. And a blanket commitment to a certain percentage cut - I don't think gets us there, because as I was saying - right now, people are less safe simply because the response time to Priority 1 911 calls is 14 minutes. And a lot of bad can happen in that amount of time. So let's agree on the goal - improving public safety, and treating everybody in the community with respect and dignity, and stop racist policing - and then go there. Instead of just picking a number out of the air.

Crystal Fincher: [00:34:31] Well, I certainly think that one, a lot of the discussion on the table goes far beyond the number and does fundamentally get into some substantive changes, and alternative programs, and public safety programs, and models. And I wish we had much more time to dive into this. I think it would actually be fascinating and enlightening if we did. But unfortunately, our time has come to a close for today, but I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to speak with us here at Hacks & Wonks. And if people want to learn more about you, where can they go?

Sara Nelson: [00:35:09] They can go to saraforcitycouncil.com. S-A-R-A-F-O-R-citycouncil.com.

Crystal Fincher: [00:35:22] Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.