The race for Seattle’s District 5 council seat vacated by outgoing city council president Debora Juarez has organized itself along familiar lines: centrist versus progressive. Cathy Moore is endorsed by the Seattle Times, while her opponent ChrisTiana ObeySumner is endorsed by The Stranger; Moore is endorsed by Mayor Bruce Harrell, ObeySumner is not. It’s been a theme in nearly every district this year.
But District 5 is not every district. Something of Seattle’s forgotten district, tucked away up north, it grapples with pressing issues — ones representative of the larger challenges facing the city. Aurora Avenue, running through the heart of District 5, is a pedestrian nightmare and the site of a disproportionate number of fatal traffic collisions — a 2022 study found 17% of all Seattle traffic fatalities occurred there. The Aurora corridor and nearby Lake City are also where a significant portion of our city’s homeless population stays. The district faces the same affordability crisis as everywhere else, but with a lot more car-dependent neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes thrown into the mix.
Moore, arguably the more conservative candidate in this race, has plenty of ideas about how to tackle those issues. A former chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and interim city clerk, she’s intimately familiar with the inner workings of city government. Before that, Moore was a public defender who became a judge with the King County Superior Court, where she upheld Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s ruling against Pharma Purdue. Which is all to say, she may be more conservative than ObeySumner (which is not hard!) but she’s by no means a conservative. Where do they differ? Read on to find out.
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 Seattle City Council?
Cathy Moore: The first job that I got [out of law school] was working as a public defender in Brooklyn. It was really just kind of a clearing house; there was really no justice there. I then came back to Seattle and continued my work in public defense, in family law and other areas. Ultimately, I became a judge. And as a judge, we were at the end of the stream of all of these various broken systems. I felt I had very limited tools to try to help people and make any kind of systemic change. You’re very limited in what policy work [you] can do. I would like to be somewhere where I can do more advocacy work — legitimately — do more proactive and upstream work. Truthfully, I did really get tired of just sentencing a lot of poor Black men and feeling like there’s got to be a better way. I left [my judgeship] not really sure what I was going to do [and] the seat opened up. It’s not something I’d really thought about before, but here’s an opportunity to work proactively upstream.
What makes you better than your opponent, ChrisTiana ObeySumner?
What makes me better? I mean, we each bring different strengths to the job. We certainly are not aligned in all of our policy positions. I think what I bring to the job — that perhaps is something that we need is — I have been in public service for 30 years. I’ve been on the ground in a lot of broken systems, both in trying to work through them and then also in trying to oversee them. Additionally, I have served as the interim Seattle clerk, so I know intimately what it’s like to work in the council, [and] as chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission … [when] the consent decree had been entered. We were also working on police accountability, which we still don’t have.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues Seattle is facing right now?
I think how we address and define public safety is a big issue. Homelessness is a major issue. Affordability is a huge issue. Climate and recognizing that we are in the middle of climate change, and we need to be more proactive in how we deal with that.
If elected, are you willing to fight the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? Would you support higher taxes on the rich?
Yes, absolutely, I’m supportive of progressive revenue. We’ve talked about increasing the JumpStart tax, even though this community’s not in favor of that. I do support a capital gains tax. I would definitely look at a vacancy tax; we had a lot of vacant land banking up particularly [in] Lake City. I think that would be a valuable tool to move those properties [and] make them available for affordable housing. We should look at the CEO employee ratio tax. Where there’s a huge discrepancy, there ought to be a tax there. We need to have progressive revenue. Our state system is so regressive and broken.
Do you want to stop the sweeps? And if so, how would you make it happen? If not, how do you justify them? And do you think sweeps work?
That’s a tricky question. I don’t think that sweeps work in terms of just moving people on. There’s a lot of trauma involved in that, so I don’t support that. That said, I don’t think living in a tent on the sidewalk is a healthy environment. It’s our obligation as a city to help people move from that into shelter. What I would like to see is for the city to be a lot more proactive. When a tent or an RV shows up, that’s a sign that individuals are in distress — they need help. That should be the point of outreach. The other thing is people might be willing to go into shelter, but they can’t necessarily do it on the day the Unified Care Team shows up. And I’m not sure people realize that. So working with somebody to give them time to find a place for their stuff or just make that transition from being on the sidewalk into a shelter of some form. My preference would be for non-congregate shelter or tiny house[s].
So is that kind of, “Sometimes you support it? Sometimes you don’t?”
Well, I support people not living on the streets in a tent because that’s the only option they have. It’s our obligation to work with each individual to find them a safe and secure shelter where they can begin to stabilize and hopefully transition to a better option.
Would it be safe to characterize it as in line with, like, Dan Strauss’ approach to the Ballard Commons? Where they allowed people to remain in place for a longer amount of time before being swept?
I think so. At some point, some people are just not going to want to take the options that are available to them. And that’s a choice they have to make, but the city also has a broader obligation. We have to do everything that we can to try to meet people where they are and get them in a place they’re going to want to go and remain. The point is not to just move people, so that a month down the road we’re moving them again. We’re trying to get people stabilized.
The mayor has made it clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls must follow a co-responder model and involve police officers.
Do you think cops should be at every call?
No, not necessarily. There are a lot of 911 calls that come in that are not emergency calls. We need to allow the 911 center to appropriately triage calls. I definitely think that there is a place for just civilian-only responses. But I also think there’s a place for co-responder responses. Then there’s obviously a place for just police responsibility. We need to sit down and have a conversation about what that looks like. We need to push against the police union, which wants to bargain every single relinquishment of responsibility. That’s a provision in their current contract — that civilianization of duties has to be negotiated. For me, [in] the next contract, that provision needs to be bargained away.
More broadly, what are the main changes you want to make to the city’s public safety approach or policies?
I want to see us in a position where we can implement a fully robust civilian responder model and co-responder model. We have a mobile crisis unit at the moment, and I think it’s all of six people. So [it’s] woefully understaffed; we need to upscale that. I want to look at more outreach to communities and some of the gun violence interruption programs that are being run really well, [like] Rainier Beach Coalition,Community Passageways and Choose 180. I’d like to look at working more with training community members to be able to engage in de-escalation so that’s a first avenue of response before we need to necessarily call in police. It’s always better if people are working with individuals they know — community. I support increasing the number of police officers so we can bring down our response times. But we absolutely need to move forward on transitioning to a more civilian-focused model. To make that happen, we’ve got to address the structural obstacles in the collective bargaining agreement [with the Seattle Police Officers Guild].
Do you know how many 24-hour restrooms there are in Seattle?
I do not, but I imagine that there [are] very few.
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, there are about 65 public toilets in Seattle, only 11 of which are not porta-potties. If elected, what would you do to change this?
I would work with the parks department to provide a lot more sanitation facilities, porta-potties and places for public restrooms. We need to look at the public restrooms in the parks. I know a lot of times they are shut down; they’re not maintained. So making that a priority, to maintain public restrooms in parks, but also then expanding the number that we have available in the city.
Do you support or oppose the city attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use in the Seattle Municipal Court? How would you prefer to go about addressing the fentanyl crisis?
I do see this as a public health crisis, and this is probably where I’m going to diverge from the [Real Change] board and some of your readers. I personally think that we need to be able to utilize every possible tool in the book to deal with the fentanyl crisis and methamphetamine crisis. The way I look at the ordinance is, how [can] we utilize the ordinance to get people into treatment? I know that there’s philosophical differences, and there are people at the UW who say, “That doesn’t work.” I, like so many families, had family members who struggled with addiction, and an intervention was necessary to break the cycle and get them to a place where eventually they could get well. So, I see it as a tool. I recognize the racial disproportionality that is implicit and inherent in our system — we have to be very mindful of that. I am very supportive of the piece of that proposed legislation that requires very deep data collection and coming back to the council with that data so that we can see what is the actual impact.
The guidelines they are proposing, they all rely on discretion. The discretion of police, the discretion of the prosecutor. Do you trust them? Do you trust Ann Davison to not just try to lock people away?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth. There’s legitimate concern. There’s always concern around prosecutorial discretion. It’s unfortunate that we don’t necessarily have the sort of structural checks and balances. This is certainly something I encountered on the bench — the fact that the prosecutor’s office is inordinately powerful. We kind of have to look at the prosecutor’s track record. That’s where the data is so important.That’s why, in order to really answer that question, we need to do a bit of a pilot and then come back in six months and see what’s happening. If we’re seeing that discretion is being exercised in a way that is racially disproportionate, then we need to change it, create more side-guards. But I do think that if you look at LEAD, that [program] does require police discretion. That’s really been a strong program. So we think there is good evidence on the ground that it can work, but it’s something that [you] always have to watch and monitor.
North Seattle’s tree canopy has faced threats from private development. Can Seattle build more housing without cutting down so many trees? How would you negotiate competing interests?
Absolutely. We can build more housing — and affordable housing — without having to cut down all our trees. We need to do a better job of both inventorying the trees that we currently have — the culturally modified trees and heritage trees, and, basically any somewhat big trees — so that we actually know what resources we have. We know trees are critical climate infrastructure. I think we have to shift our thinking from a tree as an amenity to a tree as a necessity. I would like to go back and revisit the tree ordinance, because I think it disproportionately empowers developers to cut trees in a shortsighted way. We need to spend a lot more general fund money on putting trees in the South [End], in the heat deserts, [and] expand tremendously our trees in public space in parks. We need to have more public spaces throughout the city. So how would I balance the interests between environmentalists, housing advocates and developers? By coming at it from “trees are climate infrastructure” and “housing is a necessity and human right.” It’s going to require some to sacrifice a profit. It’s okay in the long run; [we’re] all going to be better off for that, including the developers.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.