District 1 is separate from Seattle, an island of a peninsula connected to downtown by a bridge that only brave people dare tread. When they dare, however, they find West Seattle, a beautiful place that encompasses everything from the bathhouse at Alki Beach to the industrial areas to the south.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold has represented the area for the past four years, and is one of only two sitting council members who put their hat in the ring for their current post. She has cast controversial votes, such as those both for and ultimately against a tax on large businesses to fund homeless services. She is also steeped in policy, coming to the elected position after serving as an aide to former City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Challenger Phil Tavel is a former public defender, video game executive and high school physics teacher. He says that he has his finger on the pulse of West Seattle in a way that Herbold does not. Tavel takes a more conservative approach to politics and funding than his opponent, aiming to reduce spending in some areas in order to boost support for services to benefit homeless people and other marginalized groups
The race for District 1 will be a testing ground for Seattle politics — will Herbold, an old hand in Seattle politics and sitting incumbent, win against Tavel, a two-time challenger with more conservative poltics?
You decide. The election is on Nov. 5.
Real Change: Why are you running for City Council in District 1?
Phil Tavel: The simple reason is because I think Seattle can do better. Years ago — actually right before my son was born —I looked around and I saw a city with all of this incredible potential. I mean, intellectual resources, financial resources, environmental resources - they just felt like the city didn’t ever realize its potential.
So, I ran in 2015 just sort of took a look at who was running we had just gone to districts, Tom Rasmussen decided not to run for District 1. So I put my hat in the ring, finished third and got involved. I got a much closer look at the dysfunctional city politics that we have here in Seattle. Over the last four years I really watched nothing that we talked about in 2015 get addressed. And so, last summer, I was approached by some people in West Seattle and asked me if I was going to do it again, and I said, “Absolutely.”
And so here I am.
RC: It sounds like whether [Lisa] Herbold was going to stay or not didn’t impact your decision?
PT: No, it didn’t. There are things she’s done quite well. But the fact is she’s part of the council that has really failed to address our biggest issues. I also think, over the last 25 years, I have accumulated a list of skills and experiences that I think would be great to bring to the political spectrum.
If you don’t bring those new experiences and skills to something like the council it gets stagnant. I just really feel this was my time and I just I think I’m built for it.
RC: What would be different if you replace Herbold, and are there any particular votes that you agree or disagree with?
PT: So the two big things are: One, I am an everyday part of the West Seattle community. I run the trivia night at Talarico’s, I’m vice president of the Morgan Community Association, I’m on the board of the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition and I’m there all the time.
Unfortunately, Lisa, you don’t run into her. She’s not really on the street in West Seattle as part of it.
And then the other thing is also listening to the small business owners is a big part of what I want to do that isn’t happening. The group that approached me last summer to find out if I was planning on running again, they feel that they are not talked to before there are decisions made by the council, they’re not consulted with in terms of impact, they’re not asked if they have ideas. They really aren’t part of the conversation.
RC: I’m kind of curious. Where do you see yourself in the political spectrum?
PT: Overall, I feel kind of as a centrist. However, the truth is I’m very much a progressive Democrat. For a lot of what I do — being a public defender and a lot of the people a lot of the things that I do, giving to my community from the charitable side — very socially liberal. I believe in people having that freedom to make their choices and support it in every way possible, but I’m a little more fiscally responsible and conservative. Even though I’m a public defender, I really want the police force to work properly for everybody.
RC: The district is really diverse. It’s not just a single-family neighborhood, it’s not just a business neighborhood it also — and then correct me if I’m wrong — I believe there’s an industrial area. These are a lot of different competing, and potentially opposing, interests. How do you plan to balance them?
PT: The two things that I do that I think allows me to balance that is: One, I’m really friendly. I believe in being friendly. I believe in a smile. I believe in leaving people with a laugh if you can and being very open and present. So, I will listen to everybody. Having been a public defender, having to sometimes walk that line between my client and a victim’s advocate and the victim and the victim’s family and the police department, the prosecutor and the judge or the court staff, you have to be able to talk to everybody.
I’m a renter and having been a public defender and a renter I don’t have a lot of money. What’s funny is I’m getting painted as this corporate person because Amazon wants me to win, the downtown [Chamber of Commerce] has endorsed me. I love how people talk about that I’m a corporate shill. I’ve been a public defender for 15 years.
I volunteer in my son’s bowling league and I’m really not that person. Yes, I’m a middle-aged White guy and that seems like that’s put me in a spot where it doesn’t really represent who I think I am in my heart. I think people know me and my community, also that I like to give. I like to give back. I like to volunteer at festivals. I like to help out when people need help. I do a lot of pro bono work and I think, just, when people meet me they realize that I am, I’m open, I listen and I care.
RC: Are you surprised that you’ve been painted as a “corporate shill”?
PT: No, because I think from my opponent’s standpoint that’s what she has to attack. I’ve got the endorsement of the downtown chamber and Tim Burgess’ People for Seattle and the Washington Technology and Industry Association and so from that standpoint they get scared because they put money into their PAC, which does the independent expenditures, which sends out tons of mailers — most likely way too many of them — and doorbellers into communities who don’t actually know who I am. And so their decision strategically is to just paint me as the corporate candidate because he’s backed by them.
But the truth is, they want me in there because I’ll listen, that I believe in public private partnerships, that I believe in including businesses in the conversations before you bring out legislation that impacts them, that truly anybody should be consulted before there’s legislation that impacts them, especially if they’re a large community that does a lot for this city.
RC: Amazon has backed you. We’re looking at, let me get the number here, almost $162,000. Given that and given your reaction to that, how do you feel about this amount of political action committee spending in the race? Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez has put forward a proposal that would limit contributions to $5,000. How do you feel about that?
PT: It’s interesting. When I ran last time, I didn’t have any support from anyone. At that point I didn’t have a fundraiser so I was doing my own fundraising and I wasn’t given support because I wasn’t one of the two big candidates. At that time it would have been great to have someone come along and say, “Hey, we’d like to spend tens of thousands of dollars to help educate your voter base about who you are as a candidate.”
This time I happen to have it. And what’s funny is now I get to see the backside of that which is you get all of these mailers sent out and I get letters from people saying, “Hey, look, stop. We keep getting these mailers I don’t want to hear this anymore, that’s enough. I voted for you. Please stop it.” And like I said, there’ll be doorbellers that’ll go out, that’ll hand out literature but won’t know who I am. And so now I get to see the side of this.
I’m like, look I appreciate the support. I’m flattered by it, but maybe I don’t need it.
RC: What policies will you prioritize if you are elected, and how do you plan to work with your other council members and the mayor to get those things done?
PT: I would really like to create a transitional program for anybody coming out of jail that is still designated as homeless. They would not just be released onto the streets. Literally hundreds and hundreds of clients of mine over the years have been in this situation where they’re released from jail, they’re still homeless. They have nowhere to go.
The next thing is we need to look at how we’re spending our money and what we’re getting for it. If it’s an audit of departments like [the Seattle Department of Transportation], City Light, Public Utilities, looking at Human Services. I don’t feel, as a citizen of Seattle, that we know what we get from our money that we spend and also how much really things should cost.
And then the next thing is I think we need to work with the Mayor’s Office on the — there’s something called the [Multidepartmental Administrative Rules] that I’ve really come to learn about this year and they need to be fixed and streamlined because I feel there was a lot of that came about because people didn’t know how to break up the pie in terms of which department get what money for dealing with the homeless crisis in Seattle. That’s letting economics rule a decision about human beings.
RC: Funding is obviously a critical issue. What kind of progressive sources of funding are you open to or would you suggest?
PT: Well, obviously one thing we’ve got to wait and see now what’s going to happen with the Supreme Court with the possibility of doing an income tax. That’s one thing that we’re going to have to look at. When the head tax came out and said, oh, big companies like Amazon are paying all these people lots of money and they’re coming here and you’re getting young people with six-figure salaries and a lot of disposable income means they don’t mind spending $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment with a beautiful view, and look at what that does to the city and affordability. When that’s talked about, the thing that comes to mind is, well, you tax the income. If that’s the place that is creating this inequity with affordability, you should go there.
And I’m sensing now that there is a desire, or at least a willingness, to participate with a city to say, “Hey, we’ve got billions. We would kick in to help things be better.”
And so having a council member that’s got a great working relationship with those companies to say, hey, if we need to develop affordable housing and we need $750 million over the next decade, why don’t we have Microsoft, Gates, Vulcan and Amazon step up and help pay that and ask them to be a part of changing this city for the positive?
RC: The U.S. economy, as well as the international economy, is showing signs of weakness. If we face another recession, what will you do to protect Seattleites?
PT: Mayor [Jenny] Durkan, about a year ago, we talked about the fact that she wanted proposals from all the city departments for a 10 percent budget cut because we will at some point have a downturn in our economy and at that time we should be thinking ahead that while we’re in a boom time, prepare for it. So, I liked that idea. That resonated with me — that right now things are still showing a really good trajectory, although there obviously are those little bits and pieces in the signals that are saying things could change.
And so we should be preparing for that right now.
RC: Housing affordability is clearly an issue everywhere, but certainly in West Seattle. How would you like to tackle that in your district and in the city as a whole?
PT: One of the first things I’d do is find a way to preserve the affordable housing. I said this four years ago that when you tear down something old that’s affordable and you build something new, it doesn’t get cheaper.
I’d like the city step in and identify those potential buildings now. And so when the time comes to be able to purchase it, maybe they could work out a deal with the owner ahead of time that the owner would like to keep it affordable and would like to make that decision while they still hold that property. And so go around, identify those properties purchased by the city, potentially.
Or be the matchmaker and find someone not for profit world that would like to keep that affordable.
RC: What’s your policy on homeless encampment sweeps?
PT: I truly don’t like the idea of the sweeps from the standpoint that it’s not effective. It’s not humane.
It basically treats it like this is a horrible, awful problem. What a lot of people in the city when they see it and they see a homeless encampment they feel like, oh my gosh, why is that there? Some people — I don’t want to look at that. But you’ve got to look at both sides which is nobody should be forced to be in that situation. You should not, especially in an area as rich as Seattle, ever have to live in a tent by the side of the road.
RC: What’s your favorite place in the district?
PT: The Emma Schmidt’s overlook. So it’s right off of Me-Kwa-Mooks park and there are these stone steps that go down into the water. So at high tide, they’re lapping up in the middle of the steps, and at low tide you can walk all the way down far out towards the water and check out all this stuff. When I first came out and visited my friend who lived down near there, every night for a week.
I went and I sat on the stone wall there and I watched the sun go down over the Olympics and I was living in Manhattan at the time where my apartment had about six inches of space in one window that if you looked a certain way you could see the sun sometimes. And I sat there and I just saw beauty. That was what I wanted to experience for the rest of my life.
RELATED ARTICLE: Vying for Votes: City Council District 1 candidate Lisa Herbold
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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