It’s safe to say that Councilmember Kshama Sawant and small-business owner Egan Orion come from very different places, politically and stylistically.
Sawant is a proud socialist who has frustrated some but worked to spur changes like a $15 minimum wage, renter protections and a tax on Seattle’s highest earners.
Orion envisions a personal approach, saying Sawant is divisive and her politics impede meaningful partnerships that can aid the city and District 3. Sawant’s mentality and loyalty to a national socialist movement prevent her from fully representing the district, he argues.
One of the few things they agree on is a mutual love for Volunteer Park and cute dogs in the Real Change office, proving that almost everyone can find common ground somewhere.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: Why are you running for City Council District 3?
Egan Orion: I’m running for City Council in District 3 because we need new representation. In my work with the Broadway Business Improvement Area, I had to interact with City Hall, and specifically Seattle City Council, in order to bring back homeless outreach funding to our neighborhood, and I found the current council member to be very unresponsive and very unhelpful in that whole process, and so I had to really go around her.
It seems like it would be a core issue for her, to want to do that, and in doing that, I engaged with a lot of other organizations to build community and capacity for going out there to get this money back into the community. And I started hearing stories about the fact that she was not responsive, that there’s all these important initiatives around affordability and the homelessness crisis that she just wouldn’t engage on. And so, I think we need new leadership. There’s also folks throughout District 3 that I have heard from in knocking on doors who say the same thing.
It’s not that she’s completely ineffective at her job. She’s got a very narrow scope for the things that she champions as a representative of the Socialist Alternative, and she does a very good job being a speaker on those issues. But there are broader issues across [the] district and across the city that we need to address, and I think that I bring that sort of community-building leadership to the table for City Council, which is desperately needed right now.
Real Change: In many races this year, the narrative is that we’re looking at a progressive candidate versus a business-backed candidate. Why is that, do you think, and what are the voters in District 3 choosing between when they choose between you and your opponent?
EO: I would say that that’s not necessarily the race that constituents in the district see. That’s something that the media has fabricated, because the media loves an easy, binary choice. I think that one of the things I’m bringing to this race is rejecting the notion of “us versus them.” It’s just us, and working together, there’s a lot that we can do.
That said, I’m a small-business owner — I’ve been a small-business advocate both in my personal life but also in my work with the Broadway Business Improvement Area. That’s a role that I’m very proud of. There’s a lot of changes that have happened positively up on Broadway, up on Capitol Hill, as a result of my leadership and working together with businesses and organizations across the community. I’m proud of that work, and I think that it distinguished me in this race.
I think that that is why the Downtown Chamber, in particular, wanted to endorse me. I don’t think there was anyone that had a profile that was similar to mine. At the end of the day, business wants what constituents want. They want a city that runs well. They want to see our big challenges addressed: affordability and the homelessness crisis, transportation, how to manage growth. They want to see safe streets, as everyone in District 3 wants with their own communities. The reasons why they endorsed me are the reasons why I have such broad support throughout the district.
Real Change: What, substantively, would be different if you replaced Councilmember Sawant, and talk to me about a few votes of hers that you agreed with or disagreed with.
EO: I think that her leadership has, in many ways, been very divisive, and there are a lot of policies that we need to have — partnerships with the Port and with the King County Council, with the state legislature. But a lot of those folks just choose to not engage whatsoever because they see Councilmember Sawant as rather toxic. And so, there’s a lot of things that we can’t do. We’re entering into an expanded partnership with the county. That vote is going to happen any day, on the homelessness and affordability crisis.
There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done between the City Council and King County Council, and I think that you need people there. First of all, you need someone in this seat that’s going to be open to that sort of collaboration, and I think that those partnerships are going to be key in solving these two big crises that we’re facing. Councilmember Sawant doesn’t have a good reputation. People stay away from her, so they’re not going to partner with her, even if her values align, necessarily, with these big priorities. That’s more of a matter of style.
She also heads up the Human Services Committee at council, and she has canceled about half of the meetings for that particular committee over time — something that didn’t happen with any other committee at council, not by a long shot. If you’re heading the committee that deals with the biggest crisis that our city is facing, and you are canceling half of those meetings, what is that? What does that say about how much you’re committed to actually solving that problem?
There’s other pieces, too, like the head tax. Whether you are for or against the head tax, let’s say you’re progressive and you are for the head tax because it had great goals that it wanted to achieve with the money that it was going to raise. Councilmember Sawant comes in at the last minute and she explodes the whole thing.
It was going to go through, and then she made it about demonizing Amazon instead of bringing everyone to the table to help work on this big issue that we’re trying to solve. That’s something that I would not have done. I would have involved key stakeholders way earlier in the process, and I would not demonize them.
Real Change: The business community was invited to be at the table. They said, “No, we’re not going to be there.” They were rejecting the premise before Sawant ever organized the “Stop Amazon” campaign. Why is this on her and not on them?
EO: Maybe we put it back on the rest of council as well and say that they invited business to the table, but they already had a solution in mind. They weren’t looking at the problem and saying, “How can we solve this problem?” They were saying, “We have a solution. You can get on board with it or not.” I don’t think that it was entered into in good faith on the council side. And as we saw from the voters’ response to what happened later on, they didn’t believe that that was a good process or that the head tax was a good way of going about it.
Real Change: What are some key issues that you see specifically for District 3?
EO: First of all, we have a couple of unique communities. First, the Central Area, which has been — historically, for the last 50 years, 60 years — a community where Black families live. And then you have Capitol Hill, where you have LGBTQ people that have been there since around the ’70s. And I think one thing that’s unique about District 3 is that it’s long been a refuge for people that are marginalized.
You saw the Catholics being pushed out of Queen Anne at the turn of the last century, and they settled into District 3, and that’s why you see so many beautiful Catholic churches in the district. The Jews were close on their heels, and they actually built a number of synagogues, many of which don’t exist anymore. But it was historically a Jewish community as well. Then the Black community was redlined to the Central District starting in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s the predominant historic community you see in the Central District. It’s been a place of refuge, and now you see those communities that set up their lives in this place of refuge being displaced.
Displacement is definitely huge. It’s not an exclusive problem to District 3, but we have a couple of unique communities that are impacted greatly by it. I think the thing that I would want to focus on more are those communities of color that have been displaced in the Central Area. The factors going on with the LGBTQ community are a little more varied, because you have greater societal acceptance of people. There’s not as great a need. There’s still a need, but not as great a need for people to find their own enclave, to be among their own people when it comes to queer and trans communities.
I should say queer communities. I think the trans community still has a great desire for that. Gentrification has taken hold over the area. I think it’s a lot about opportunity. We’re seeing the biggest economic boom in Seattle’s history right now, but we’re also seeing these great disparities of wealth and seeing people being left behind.
As a small-businessperson, I think that there’s still a lot of opportunity to connect particularly communities of color, women, LGBTQ people with the resources they need to start small businesses. I think that one of the big issues in the Central Area, particularly, is on access to capital.
I think that it’s not enough to just keep people in place, and I have a number of different policies about making sure that we stop the displacement, particularly for communities of color in the Central District, around rental protections and emergency funding for people to bridge in emergencies so they can stay put.
It makes way more sense as a city, financially, for us to keep people in the housing they already have rather than for them to be kicked out and then for us to process them through the system and get them into housing again. Many of my policies on that will line up really well with Kshama Sawant, but I’m looking at the day to day — what people are experiencing and how we can address that. I’m not trying to start a nationwide movement.
Real Change: What is your policy on homeless encampment sweeps?
EO: I think that unless we have shelter or permanent housing for people, we should not be sweeping anybody unless it’s for a direct threat to public health, like we saw down in San Diego a few years ago. I think it’s a waste of money. I think it’s retraumatizing people that have already experienced a massive amount of trauma.
Real Change: District 3 is not homogenous. How do you plan to remain accountable to constituents in District 3?
EO: I think just by showing up and listening. There’s lots of areas that have been left out in D3 because they don’t necessarily fit the narrow scope of the goals that Councilmember Sawant has for her movement, but they’re crucial things that are going on in all different parts of our district, and not every neighborhood is the same. In Washington Park and Madison Park, they may be concerned about safety and needles in their public parks. In Montlake or Portage Bay, they’re really concerned about what’s going on with the [Highway] 520 redo and the interchange with [Interstate] 5 and 520 down to Montlake.
There’s going to be three different phases of construction that’s going to last nine years, and there’s going to be overnight construction, and Councilmember Sawant has stepped in briefly to these conversations, but action at council has stalled in committee because she’s not really committed to folks across the district. I currently work on Capitol Hill. I live in the Central Area. My mom was raised in Mt. Baker. I have connections to all different parts of the district. I’ll just be someone that shows up regularly and listens to make sure that people across the district feel like they’ve got someone that’s going to fight for them at council.
We’ve not really seen what the district system looks like in District 3 because we’ve had a council member who’s focused on building that national movement rather than on being the best District 3 representative that she could be. I think that people are so ready to see what that looks like, to have their voices represented in City Hall.
Real Change: What is your favorite place in your district?
EO: My home. I mean, it depends on what you’re talking about.
One of my favorite public places are our parks. We have so many amazing parks, but near and dear to my heart is Volunteer Park and Olmstead Legacy Park, so beautiful, and at different stages in my life it’s meant something different to me.
I was on a kids’ television program on King 5 when I was 14 and 15 called “Flash.” It was a Saturday morning program. There were six of us that hosted. I was on it for a year, and we did the first episode where they shot us going around the lily ponds singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And so, since the age of 14, Volunteer Park has had a special place for me. If it’s rainy, I want to be having some pho at Bamboo on 15th, and I got to give a shout out to my cafés where I’ve written a couple of books — Vivace on Broadway and Victrola on 15th.
Those have been amazing places of inspiration to me. And the people that I’ve met there? Those friendships are sustained. I think the coffee shops are really the town square concept in Seattle, particularly with our love of caffeine, and so I love all the coffee shops both on Capitol Hill and the Central Area, Madrona and all around the district. They’re amazing gathering spots for people.
RELATED ARTICLE: Interview with City Council District 3 candidate Kshama Sawant
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
Read the full October 9 - 15 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.