Discussion with Sara Nelson, City Council Candidate

Discussion with Sara Nelson, City Council Candidate

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: /content/files/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.