With eight-year incumbent Lisa Herbold retiring from the Seattle City Council, a new crop of political hopefuls have emerged to replace her. The two that made it through the primary are attorney Rob Saka and former Amazon exec and climate advocate Maren Costa.
While Herbold positioned herself as a policy wonk progressive, Saka says that his views are more aligned with that of District 1, which spans all of Southwest Seattle.
Saka said that he will pair his expertise in law with his lived experience growing up in the foster care system, facing police brutality and experiencing housing insecurity to craft holistic policy. He also hopes to chart a more friendly path with conservative Mayor Bruce Harrell than Herbold, emphasizing the need for more robust policing.
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?
Rob Saka: I’m a public school dad of three. I’m an Air Force veteran, an attorney, [a] justice reform advocate. I live in Delridge with my family. I’m grateful for where I am today personally and professionally, I’m also someone who has overcome the foster care system. For the first nine years of my life cycling in and out of the foster care system, before my dad, who’s a Nigerian immigrant, was able to rescue me from those circumstances. He ended up raising me as a single dad. We struggled a lot growing up together, overcame public housing, free reduced lunch, low income apartments, all those things. And so I know what good government programs and services look like.
I’ve been, personally, somewhat disappointed at the direction of the current Seattle City Council. I’m running because I want to normalize collaborating across differences, finding common ground and getting stuff done — getting solutions accomplished that work for all of us. And I’m running to make sure the city is as safe and affordable of a place as it can be.
What makes you better than your opponent, Maren Costa?
The number one thing is experience — personal, firsthand, direct, lived experience with these issues. As a former foster kid, I know what it’s like to feel uprooted and swept away. And also know what it’s like to wake up one morning and not know where you’re going to rest your head at night. So I am designing policies with that firsthand experience. I have the experience and credibility and consistency to talk about public safety. As a Black man growing up in this country, I’ve experienced police brutality firsthand, which is how I know we need better police.
As someone who served this country in uniform for 10 years in the United States Air Force and Air Force Reserves, I’ve held the top secret clearance, the highest security clearance this country can bestow. As a lawyer in the state, I passed the state bar’s moral character and fitness examination.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues Seattle is facing right now?
What I’m hearing consistently over and over, the top three issues, is affordability — more specifically housing affordability — but affordability in general, public safety and homelessness. And the intersection between all of them.
If elected, are you willing to take on rich and powerful people to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?
If elected, I’m willing to take on anybody and everybody to do the right thing. I am not here to represent any rich or powerful interests. I’m here to represent all interests.
The tax structure in this state is out of hand. As a general principle, we need a more progressive tax structure, just generally: state level, but more specifically locally here in Seattle. I’m committed to making sure everyone pays their fair share
Do you want to stop the sweeps? And if so, how would you make it happen? And if not, how do you justify them? Do you think sweeps work?
I know what it’s like to feel uprooted and swept away. I also believe we need to do better for our unhoused neighbors and better connect them with the shelter and services that they so desperately need.
There’s multiple kind of dimensions to this, there’s a preventative kind of root cause; that’s the housing piece, affordability. Making it easier to build, streamlining [and] improving the permitting process, adding a ton of density, being big, bold, imaginative on all that — making sure more people don’t experience homelessness to begin with. And then once they do, I support expanding and building out our infrastructure to take better care of people.
Specifically on sweeps, like displacing people who are unsheltered or in tents. Do you support or oppose that?
I support better connecting people with shelter and services. When sweeps happen, I support anti-displacement strategies to make sure that we mitigate the impacts. I’m committed to making sure that when we restore encampments, we treat people with the dignity and compassion that they deserve.
I’m still not getting a clear yes or no. Right now, the city has a policy where for some sweeps, they try to connect people with services. Are you okay with the status quo right now, what Mayor Bruce Harrell is doing with about 900 sweeps a year? A lot of those sweeps are not offering services.
I personally reject the either/or framework. It’s easy to say it’s either this or it’s that, or it’s either black or white, that’s the easy part. The hard work is harmonizing. I’m committed to harmonizing the differences and finding solutions that meet all needs.
Mayor Harrell has made it clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls must follow a co-responder model and involve police officers. Do you agree with the mayor?
I don’t have strong feelings about a co-responder model, versus the other model. We literally don’t need to recreate the wheel. We need to look at other cities of comparable size and geographic scope as Seattle, that have been successful in rolling out and expanding their alternative responses, namely Denver and Albuquerque.
I think it makes a lot of sense to have a civilian-led response. We need a model. Three-plus years since we’ve talked about it, and we’re finally getting ready to launch an initial pilot program. We can’t let perfection be the enemy of any sort of progress. We need a model, then let’s jam on it, let’s iterate, let’s make it better, improve it.
What other changes do you want to make to public safety, if elected?
The number one thing that’s been weighing heavily in my mind and my heart is actually standing up civilian-led responses. I understand mental health challenges firsthand and the impact that can have on families and communities. It’s just a formula for disaster right now, when we have a badge and an armed, uniform response to every response scenario under the sun. And yes, part of my plan is to make sure we have a staffed and resourced police department and all public safety across the board, including civilian-led responses.
How would you promote safety for homeless folks?
I’m running to represent all: people experiencing homelessness, and those not. I just heard some traumatic experiences of people being jammed up and harassed by private security and SPD even for just going about their daily lives. And it’s something that as a Black man growing up in this country, I’ve experienced too. I fought to hold bad police accountable. I’m one of the co-architects of this brand new justice reform framework that we have here in King County.
Do you support superblocks and pedestrianizing main streets in every urban village? And would you prioritize private vehicles or pedestrians, cyclists and transit?
I support those, provided they’re rolled out in a thoughtful manner. I don’t support wide-scale deployment across the board. We need to listen and learn from all communities as we build those out. I think that’s a very environmentally friendly and sustainable approach, because it incentivizes and arguably punishes people for taking cars — if there’s nowhere to park, there’s nowhere to go.
What are three things you would do to immediately improve the lives of Real Change vendors?
The number one thing I would do is to address the root causes of homelessness, and that’s things like building out a ton of housing, affordable housing, and adding in some new incentives and requirements for developers to build more affordable housing, adding a ton of density.
Build out our programs and services to better connect people with resources. There’s so many different programs at the state level, at the federal level, at the county level, and now at the regional level — the city level too. But it’s complex, it’s burdensome for most people to figure out how to navigate, so we need to better connect people with the various services and programs and then insist on making sure they’re better.
Do you know how many public 24-hour restrooms there are in Seattle right now?
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, there are about 65 24-hour public toilets in the city, 11 of which are not porta-potties. If elected, how would you change that?
Everyone deserves access to a restroom and shelter. There are certain basic human needs — we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I am curious to learn from the parks department, you all, like Real Change, our unhoused neighbors, what they think the need is. 65, that’s clearly insufficient across this whole city. 65 is unacceptable in the District number 1 that I’m running to represent.
Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use in the municipal court?
I support putting local Seattle city ordinance directly in line with state law. It is a public health crisis. More people have died now locally, from fentanyl and drug overdoses, than COVID.
So that bill that was voted on a few months ago, I would have voted yes at the Seattle City Council level. I would have pushed harder for more diversion and treatment options. This is a highly urgent issue: We can’t let perfection be the enemy of any sort of progress.
How do you grapple with the realities that criminalization disproportionately targets poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous and homeless people?
I’m coming at it from a place of lived experience. So I understand these issues — every last one — firsthand. And again, I don’t purport to have the best view or vantage point certainly, given how privileged I am today, personally and professionally. But I am committed to listening and learning from impacted communities and making sure whatever vote or policy position I do take is 100% informed by communities most impacted.
Would that change your mind on the bill, if you talk to them and they said they don’t want a drug criminalization ordinance?
It wouldn’t change my mind on the need to put local Seattle city ordinance directly in line with state law. It wouldn’t change my mind on the imperative to push for stronger diversion and treatment options and fund them as part of this. It wouldn’t change my mind on those principles. But implementation and what that looks like, [it] might change my mind on that.
The closure of the West Seattle bridge showed the vulnerability of our transportation system. Apart from ST3, what other investments would make in Seattle’s public transit system?
It highlights for me — and I think a lot of people — the need to invest in better funding, just basic maintenance and repair. And so that is a core priority of mine, if elected, is to fund that across the city, across the board. To make sure no one has to suffer through what happened there, the West Seattle bridge and South Park bridge a few years back. It’s not the most sexy thing, maintaining and taking care of what you have, I acknowledge that, but we do need to invest, to make sure that those things are durable and here for tomorrow. And in parallel, also look at expanding transit options and all of those things.
How would you work to support Duwamish Valley residents who are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental racism?
I’m here to work with these communities to build climate resilience into everything we do. Building climate resiliency centers and community centers, enhancing building codes and green energy and efficiency standards. Making sure that these jobs and services and [the] building that we’re going to do to drive a more equitable and sustainable environment for all, that they’re built with union jobs and union wages. Making sure that everyone has the opportunity to win in this new green economy.
Read more of the Sept. 20-26, 2023 issue.