After eight turbulent years in office, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold has decided to vacate her position. Two candidates made it past the primary in the race to replace her: former Amazon executive and climate activist Maren Costa and lawyer Rob Saka.
The two say that District 1 voters — who include residents of West Seattle, Delridge and South Park — should choose their model of governance.
Costa, a longtime Amazon employee who got fired for supporting a strike by warehouse employees over COVID-19 safety during the start of the pandemic, says that she has the chops to negotiate city politics just like she did in big tech. During her time at Amazon, she helped push the company to embrace more ambitious climate commitments. If elected, she says that she will combine her experience with a vision of prioritizing the most marginalized people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read all of Real Change's 2023 elections coverage here.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for city council?
Maren Costa: Recogniz[ing] the huge problems that our city — and even our planet — face today. I want to do whatever I can do that I can have the most impact for the good. In part it is because I have kids and I want them to see a future. We have a lot of problems and a lot of people suffering and it just seems like it doesn’t have to be that way.
What makes you better than your opponent, Rob Saka?
I think the skill set that I bring to the table is going to be very effective and valuable on council. I do come from big tech, where I was managing big teams and million dollar budgets and solving big problems. I can do the kind of hard skill stuff. But I also organized Amazon Employees for Climate Justice to try to pressure Amazon to address its massive carbon footprint and its environmental racism.
We see aspects of environmental racism and [of] climate justice not happening right here in District 1. The Duwamish is a Superfund site, there was flooding in South Park because of an atmospheric river combined with a king tide. South Park is historically underinvested in. Highest rates of asthma, 13-year life differential between South Park and Laurelhurst. All of the commerce goes through South Park and Georgetown, none of the money stays there — just the pollution. When I stood up for warehouse workers’ safety during COVID, when Amazon was just patently putting profit over people, they had fired me illegally. So all of those things pushed me into the race.
You can’t survive in big tech as long as I did without having a really thick skin, but also being able to stand up and speak truth to power. I’m not afraid to do that. I think I’m really good at listening and taking things in and coming up with solutions that actually work for people. I can also build bridges and collaborate and that’s the way I would go into council first.
What are the biggest issues Seattle is facing right now?
For me, it’s homelessness. That’s my number one issue. We aren’t addressing the upstream causes of public safety. When we as a country force people out of their homes, because they aren’t getting a livable wage, we don’t have enough subsidies, we don’t have affordable housing, they’re one paycheck short of making rent and there’s no safety net, then we end up in situations ultimately with where we have people maybe committing crimes, because they’re — crimes of people just trying to stay alive. Homelessness is much easier to solve if you prevent someone from becoming homeless in the first place. It’s absolutely affecting our whole city.
If elected, are you willing to take on rich and powerful people in order to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?
Of course, and yes. So I’ve already done that, obviously, at Amazon — I took on Jeff Bezos, who was at the time the richest man in the world.
We absolutely have to tax rich people and the rich corporations more. We have tons of money in the city, but it’s not coming back in for all the people that live here. We’re going to end up with a city where nobody can live inside the city limits, and it’s gonna be like a theme park where everybody comes in and then disappears because all of the people that make the city run can’t afford to live here.
Do you want to stop the sweeps? And if so, how would you make it happen? If not, how do you justify continuing sweeps? Do you think sweeps work?
I want to stop sweeps. I don’t think they work. From what I’ve heard from people who have been swept, they don’t like it. $37 million [went] in sweeps last year. If we put all of that money into affordable housing and shelter, I think we would be in a much better situation. It’s Whack-a-Mole, it’s expensive, it doesn’t work and it’s inhumane.
Mayor Bruce Harrell has made it clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls follow a co-responder model and involve police officers. Do you agree with the mayor? If so, why? And if not, how would you convince the mayor to get on board with a fully non-police crisis team?
I do think that we can have multiple tiers of response. There are some that we know we probably need to send an officer with a gun for sure. Then there are some where we could send an officer with a gun backed by a civilian of whatever expertise is required, then we could have one where [it is] civilian-led, officer backed; and then civilian-only. We want to keep minimizing the number of times that armed officers come in contact with the community when they don’t need to be there because we know that the response from someone carrying a gun in those situations can so often backfire. And it’s almost impossible to root out racism and sexism in the police force.
It will save armed officers time to respond to the calls they really need to respond to and have a better outcome for communities. I think the best way to convince the mayor would be data.
We need to really open our minds to sort of reimagine policing in a way. Because we want to rehire 400 police officers, but we’re netting about 15 per year. If your plan for public safety is to hire more officers, you can do the math and figure out how long you’re going to put public safety on hold. So now is the time for us to stand up all of the police alternatives that we possibly can.
What changes would you make to our city’s approach to public safety?
We need to address the upstream causes. The more we can keep people housed, the safer everyone will be. I would love to really minimize guns in our communities. Try to connect with disadvantaged youth before they end up with no alternatives but to get into gangs and gun violence. There’s great programs like Choose 180 and YouthCare. Just making sure that as much as we can, [we] build in those support systems that give people alternatives.
How do you promote safety for homeless folks?
The first thing is to get people into housing. You could do sort of community support groups where you have people watching or monitoring or helping nearby encampments. But the best thing is to just get people inside with four walls and a door they can close and lock. That’s safety.
Do you support superblocks and pedestrianizing main streets in every urban village? And if elected, would you prioritize private vehicles or pedestrians, cyclists and transit?
Yes, I support superblocks. I’ve been walking in the streets of Alaska and California, that junction there in West Seattle, and talking to the small business owners and saying “Would you be open to this?”
In general, I would prioritize walking, rolling, biking, public transit — anything other than individual cars. We need to get people out of individual cars, just for our own future. Gas cars are responsible for 60% of our carbon footprint as a city. So it’s one of the best things we can do for clean air, for a livable future.
What are three things you would do to immediately improve the lives of Real Change vendors?
One of the things that’s top on my list is climate resiliency hubs. We’ve made a few community centers [into] climate resiliency hubs already, so they have backup power, heat pumps, air conditioning, and air filtration. We should do the same with all of the community centers, all branches of the public library and all schools. Georgetown in particular doesn’t have some of these things, so we might need to build a community center or build a branch of the library, just to make sure there’s a place where, no matter where you are, especially if you’re homeless, you have a place to go in an extreme weather event.
Do you know how many public 24-hour restrooms are in Seattle right now?
This is from the Seattle Parks and Recreation website: there are 65 for the entire city, but only 11 are not porta-potties. If elected, what would you do to change this?
I would definitely advocate for more. I like the idea of bringing in sanitation and water. I don’t know personally what the levers are to make that happen, but I would be voting for it or advocating for it — whatever I could do.
Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use at the Seattle Municipal Court?
I opposed, and I wrote a detailed statement as to my reasonings why and published that on social media at the time. Incarcerating single-use drug users doesn’t work. And it makes things much worse; you have a 15 to 40 times greater chance of dying of overdose when you come out of jail than you do otherwise. Now you have a record, which is going to make it harder for you to get a job or a place to stay. The courts are backed up, the jails are horrible and understaffed. Our police officers are busy doing other things. And then, right when Ann Davison was trying to make that change, she closed community court. We need to have those diversions set up and be able to offer people drug treatment. Right now, I hear you call and [when] you’re ready to get drug treatment, you have to wait three weeks to three months. That’s not gonna work.
What would be your alternative plan for addressing the fentanyl crisis?
Somebody said to me, “There’s no such thing as a long-term fentanyl user.” It’s hitting people so hard, so fast. And we know [that] with substance use disorder, you might have to try and fail to get off the drug multiple times before you’re successful. But with fentanyl, before you even get to that point, you’re probably dead.
I have a son who is adopted out of the foster care system. He has special needs, reduced impulse control, you know, reduced executive functioning, trauma. He checks so many boxes for somebody who could end up there doing fentanyl on the streets. We have the wherewithal of, as much as anyone, to be able to do our best to not make that happen. And it still feels like I’m a toothpick in a tidal wave most of the time, you know? It’s almost like if it was my kid, I would always want mandatory treatment, but I know that mandatory treatment is so unsuccessful. You would certainly want them to have the choice for treatment and make sure it’s available right away, and someplace they can stay, like residential treatment.
The closure of the West Seattle bridge showed how vulnerable our transportation system is. Apart from ST3, what other investments would you like to make into Seattle’s public transit system?
I would love to see more bike lanes and connected bike lanes and safe bike lanes. I would love to see more buses. I know that but I know that hiring bus drivers is a big problem right now, but buses are so flexible, we already have the infrastructure in place. I would be an advocate for free public transit. The more safe, accessible and convenient we make it, the more people will ride. We need to get a north-south route going in West Seattle. So do we do that initially with really solid bus lines, do we ultimately need light rail there as well?
How would you work to support Duwamish Valley residents who are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental racism?
I’ve been meeting with the Duwamish River Community Coalition — love them. I would want to partner with them and other groups, the longhouse and let them lead. We have the Inflation Reduction Act with hundreds of billions of dollars on the table right now, once in a lifetime [opportunity] — [it] might go away with the new administration. We need to get our act together as a city and submit projects to leverage that money, that could be something that could fund climate resiliency hubs. We need to reverse the damage and the decades and centuries of racism that have put us to where we are now and you know: right the wrongs.
Read more of the Sept. 20-26, 2023 issue.