When Councilmember Mike O’Brien announced he would not seek another term in District 6, the floodgates opened. Candidates poured into the race. In the end, 16 people threw their hats in, more than in any other district.
Out of the melee, two have emerged. Former City Councilmember Heidi Wills is back with a business-friendly message and words about healing through listening. Rather than new revenue exclusively from Seattle, she wants regional cooperation to pay for the response to homelessness and affordable housing production.
Dan Strauss, currently Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s adviser, is poised as the more progressive candidate, stressing transit and progressive revenue options as well as his deep knowledge of the inner workings of the city and state legislative branches.
As in many races this election cycle, the choice between the two candidates is stark.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: Why are you running for City Council District 6?
Heidi Wills: I am running because I am a mom raising children in our community, and I care very much about our city and the future that my children and all cherished children are growing up in. And I see a lot of polarization in our community, not just on a national level but on a local level, too. And I think that it’s harmful to public discourse and to the morale of how people feel about their city. It seems on a whole host of issues — whether it’s welcoming new housing into our neighborhoods and maintaining neighborhood character, if it’s cars versus bicycles — people are choosing sides. Whether it’s a police accountability or prioritizing public safety, it’s looking like it’s this either/or equation for people.
And I really think it needs to be an “and.” We need both. And we’re a growing city. We need to acknowledge that there’s a lot of competing interests, but we really need to think in terms of “and.” That requires listening to people from all parts of our community and involving them in these decisions that impact our quality of life.
RC: Would you have run if Mike O’Brien had stayed in the race?
HW: I waited to announce for him to be able to make the decision for himself whether he was going to run again or not. But I feel as though the people in District 6 are ready for change after 10 years of service there, and I think that I bring that change. I’ve been outside of City Hall for 16 years. I’ve been a council member. I’ve done the job.
I can hit the ground running on day one, but I’ve also had a lot of life experience since I’ve been on the City Council. I own a small business with my husband. We employ 65 people in our community. We make inspirational gift products. But I’ve also been running a nonprofit in south Seattle for 13 years that works with children from under-served communities, and I see how important it is that we have a youth advocate on the Seattle City Council. As a small business owner and as someone who’s worked with youth development, these are missing perspectives on the City Council, and I think that they’re really important to bring to the table.
RC: The narrative around this race has really been “progressive candidate” versus “business interests.” How do you see this race? How you would characterize it, and what are voters in District 6 choosing between when they choose between you and your opponent?
HW: I’ve knocked on the most doors, and I’ve listened to people in our community, and I think that the narrative of, again, that polarization of “business” versus “neighborhood populism,” what have you, is a false narrative. People want someone who can work collaboratively, who doesn’t demonize the “other side,” or the opposition and other sides, and recognizes that it really will take working with stakeholders representing all perspectives in order to bring progress on a whole host of challenges that we’re facing as a community.
Yesterday I got the endorsement from the Edith Macefield House, which is in my district. I was told when I was given the endorsement it’s because of my dogged determinism and my fierce individualism. I bring an independent perspective of someone who has been outside of City Hall for a long time, but also had worked there a while ago and knows how to get things done. And I think what people want is a problem solver.
RC: You mentioned earlier that you served as council member 16 years ago. You lost that election bid over a rate increase at Seattle City Light and an ethics concern involving campaign contributions. What have you learned from that experience?
HW: I’ve learned that it’s really important to ask a lot of questions to find out what are the agendas of people coming to City Hall. And on the issue with Strippergate — my mentor was Gov. [Albert] Rosellini, and he was a former Democratic governor well respected in our community. I did not know his history with the Italian mob.
So, he asked me if I would help solve what he called “a small business issue,” which was he owned a gas station and a carwash on Lake City Way and next to him was Rick’s strip club, and he said that they had a portion of their parking lot that they couldn’t use because it was zoned residential and he was tired of having cars towed away from his property next door.
So, to me that felt like a win-win situation. I came to a land use committee meeting of Judy Nicastro’s, who was chair, to talk about that issue to illuminate what was happening in that community and vote that out of committee. Council members are allowed to attend all committees and vote on all committees whether they’re official members or not. But what I didn’t know is that I needed to disclose that I had met with a proponent of the issue, and because that was not something I knew or was aware of, that’s why I was fined $1,500. It was not at all in connection with campaign contributions that I received, as well as Judy Nicastro and Jim Compton. An FBI investigation looked into those contributions because those names raised red flags that I had not known about the Colacurcio family and their long history of criminal activity in our community. Once I found that out, I returned those contributions.
But again, I learned from that. I learned to ask a lot of questions, too.
RC: Speaking of independent expenditures and outside money, obviously there is quite a bit in this race and no small part of it is behind you. How do you feel about that? Do you support Councilmember [Lorena] Gonzalez’s proposal to limit expenditures in these campaigns?
HW: I do. And I honestly think that, again, voters want to have that direct conversation with candidates. They don’t want to be influenced by outside forces or special interests. Because of the low limits that candidates have and how much they can spend through the Democracy Voucher program, which is $75,000 in the primary and then another $75,000 in the general, it’s made PACs and special interests more influential in these campaigns, unfortunately.
RC: What do you see as issues that are unique to District 6, and how do you plan to address them?
HW: The top issue that I hear at the door is people want to see the city and the county more effectively address the root causes of homelessness, and there’s fragmentation within this city as we learned from the Barbara Poppe report, and we’ve known for a long time.
I think that we need more short-term solutions. People in District 6 no longer want the city to condone people sleeping in tents in parks and would like to see more services directed towards people who need it.
We also need to have more treatment on demand. So many people are suffering from substance abuse disorder, and we need to ensure that when people are ready and are seeking assistance, there’s a place for them.
We need housing for people that they want to be in. We need 24-hour shelters where people can bring their pets, where couples can be together, that is warm and welcoming, where people have a place where they can keep their possessions that’s safe and secure and locked in a locked box. We need to ensure they have an address, so that if they’re applying for job opportunities or some way to get ahold of them, that they have hygiene services. People sleeping in tents in District 6 — it’s unsafe and it’s unhygienic for them and for the people around them.
And we need to be doing more to meet people where they’re at. We also need more long-term services. Permanent supportive housing is found to be the most effective way to help people.
RC: Funding is always a critical issue in a place with few progressive revenue options. How will you fund your public policy priorities?
HW: I think that, as I’ve been finding in District 6, people want to have an understanding of where the funds are currently going. And, because housing for affordability is such a crisis and some people are having a hard time even making their property tax payments, and that also gets passed down to renters with property tax increases, that we need to be really mindful of public spending and be accountable and transparent with those dollars.
I think that once those programs are communicated to the public, that builds trust with the public. That might set the stage for a regional tax package to address housing and human service needs in our community with a regional approach. It might be beyond just King County, like with transportation, which is a regional issue as well.
RC: The economy is showing signs of weakness, and the international economy may be, too. What will you do for Seattleites to protect them should the economy turn downward?
HW: It’s important that we do have the emergency funds not dipped into, the rainy-day fund at the city for these kinds of situations. The tariffs are a really big issue, and they affect so many businesses in our community, including my own.
I think that recognizing that makes it even that much more important that the city be mindful of the public dollars and really dig in and find transparency and accountability with current spending.
RC: How do you plan to tackle housing affordability in District 6, and what is your take on single-family zoning?
HW: We need more housing of all shapes and sizes for people of all incomes. And the reason why that’s really important is because we need to ensure people can live close to where they work. People of all incomes.
Another way we can get more affordable housing — because we need to integrate it into every district, in every neighborhood in our community — is surplus property. When there’s public land that’s not needed or utilized by the city, converting that property to affordable housing.
The reason why that’s really important is because it lowers our global warming footprint. When people don’t have to drive long distances to where they work it minimizes traffic congestion, means more time that that worker has to spend with their children and their families. It’s less costly, there’s less air pollution, it’s just such a win-win for everyone.
RC: In District 6 — and especially in Ballard — there’s a lot of concerns about vehicle residency. Mike O’Brien really was the champion on that issue. Now that he’s out, is that an issue that you’re going to take on? How?
HW: We need to ensure that we have a place where people can feel safe to live in their vehicles if they have no other options. A lot of people are in that financial position of having to do that. Ways that we can do that are through sanctioned parking lots. Working with churches, for example, to do that. We need to ensure that we have the hygiene facilities to go with it.
RC: What’s your policy on homeless encampment sweeps?
HW: I think that we need to ensure that people have a place that’s safe and warm and dry to sleep, and sleeping in unsanctioned tent encampments are unsafe and unhygienic for a lot of people, particularly women and children.
RC: Specifically, though, what is your position on sweeps and how we’re approaching that right now?
HW: I think that the people living in tents in parks and in open spaces without hygienic facilities is really problematic, and I think that we need to ensure that there’s a place, of course, for people to go.
RC: What is your favorite place in your district?
HW: I would say Green Lake. It’s in the heart of District 6. It’s a common place that everyone’s welcome. There’s the biking community, the walking community, the scooters, people who come to swim and play on the beach. People go out on boats. People walk their dogs, people come play on the playground.
My kids learned to swim at the Green Lake swimming pool. My daughter was a member of the Green Lake Gators swimming team. My son goes there to play basketball, and there’s soccer camps there on the grass.
That is a jewel within the city and not just District 6.
RELATED ARTICLE: Vying for Votes: Interview with City Council District 6 candidate Dan Strauss
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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