City council candidate ChrisTiana ObeySumner does not have fellow candidate Cathy Moore’s professional experience. But they do have a wealth — an overabundance even — of lived experience. And they’ve parlayed that into a significant career themself, as a disability rights advocate, permanent supportive housing staffer and social equity consultant, among other things. They are fluent in the core issues affecting our city — homelessness, public safety and housing — in a way that indicates they’ve really seen them from all sides.
District 5 faces major issues with each of those things. Aurora Avenue represents an especially pernicious threat to public safety, being one of the city’s most reliable sources of fatal car-pedestrian collisions. There’s also the fact that a significant portion of the city’s 11,000 blocks of missing sidewalks are in District 5, which is, in general, eye-wateringly car-dependent.
ObeySumner beat out Tye Reed (Real Change’s operations director, full disclosure) in the primary for the blessing of the progressive kingmakers over at The Stranger, providing a tamer horse for them to bet on against Moore. That said, ObeySumner is not tame. Their burlesque routine at The Stranger’s Candidate Survivor event should be proof enough of that, but their policy positions certainly help. Will they get the chance to enact them? We’ll find out in about a month. For now, read on and familiarize yourself with them.
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?
ChrisTiana ObeySumner: I came from a family that’s always been politically engaged. My grandma was a Black Panther. My mom and my mom’s contemporaries really fought for racial equity, economic justice and especially for folks who are under-resourced. I’ve always just been encouraged to speak up, use my voice, organize. It has gotten me into a lot of good and otherwise types of trouble. And especially being a Black, under-resourced child, chronically unhoused or housing unstable, autistic, you know, there was a lot of things that there was to advocate for. So then fast forward to today, I have worked as a drug social service worker, I have been a disability justice activist, community organizer — I have my business Epiphanies of Equity. Coming to this election, you know, I had thought about running for office previously. I think I was still in that space of, like, really I’m a wonk more than a politician. I really had to think long and hard about it, but I felt like it was a natural progression to the work that I’ve been doing in Seattle for the last 13 years.
What makes you better for this position than your opponent, Cathy Moore?
I’m not going to say better, I’m going to say different. And I’m going to say different in a way that feel that I could bring more progress, more sustainable, effective and collective progress to the city. And here’s why. I think there is a construct that District 5 is this conservative district with a bunch of white homeowning folks who think a certain way. I think that it’s important [to have] someone who understands the district, the actual majority of the district and not just those who are the loudest. I think that’s why I did so well in places like Lake City [and] along Aurora Avenue. And those different places where there are going to be renters and diversity. I’ve got my MPA or whatever; there’s definitely that knowledge set of what it means to do this job. But what’s more important is the wisdom of intersectional lived experience and how this actually plays out in actual reality on the ground, as opposed [to] a theoretical perspective. Because of the multivariate experiences I’ve had, I can bring both and I’m known for bringing both.
In your opinion, what are the three biggest issues facing Seattle right now?
The top three when people [are polled] are going to be housing, homelessness and public safety, right? The thing is that all of those issues are products of larger issues. If I had to say, the top three issues in my opinion [all stem from] economic inequality. The top 20% of the city makes 22 times more than the bottom 20% of the city. The bottom 20% makes about $18,000 a year. That’s a huge issue. We need not just a living wage or serving wage, we need a Seattle wage that is going to be between $35 and $50 an hour, because that’s what we [have to] have if you look at the cost of living. We need to make sure that we are really rooting our values and practicing what we preach around unionization around labor and economic justice.
Are you willing to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? Do you want to tax the rich more?
Yes, yes and yes. I mean, we have to. We have the most regressive tax system in the state. And we’re the most regressive tax system in the country. We don’t actually address that income disparity I’m talking about. I really liked Bernie Sanders’ economic inequality plan, but I think that there could be some more pieces to it.
Do you want to stop the sweeps?
Yes. Shouldn’t even exist in the first [place]. It’s so violent. It is like what do you think’s gonna happen? [What] people don’t understand is that these are usually folks who are part of the community, they’re going to school there, they’re working there, they used to live there. When I first became homeless on my own, I was 17 years old. Our house was sold. Like, we were renting a home in South Jersey, and it got sold. And I still had high school. I couch-surfed a little bit with some friends; that was not the best. I did what I had to do. But you know, at the end of the day, I had to be around school. I had to stay in that neighborhood. If you’re working in that neighborhood, if you’re going to school in a neighborhood, if your kids are going school in that neighborhood, where are you supposed to go?
How would you get rid of the sweeps? Once you’re in office, what strategies and tactics would you use? It sounds like maybe raising awareness?
I think first we really need to have the ire of the community go to the actual reason [for homelessness], which is not the folks outside. It is this broken system.
Mayor Bruce Harrell has made it clear that any alternative crisis response to 911 calls would have to follow a sort of co-responder model that involves police officers. Do you agree with the mayor? If so, why? And if not, how will you convince him to get on board with a fully non-police crisis team?
I don’t agree with him at all. At all. Not only the community and advocates but even SPD themselves has said that there are certain areas of this work that’s outside of their purview. We all agree about that. If we’re really concerned about how spread thin they are or [their] response times, you’re going to have [to have] SPD streamline their purview to those absolute necessities. And then have folks in this community who’s already doing this work, who already has that knowledge and that wisdom, the community connections, who is hurting for resources, and [rely on them to create public safety.] There are so many different examples of this within the United States and outside [the U.S.] of how this has worked without police involvement at all. We should adopt those things. And we should really, really examine our reliance on the police and the police complex.
Do you know how many public, 24-hour restrooms are in Seattle?
I mean, off the top of my head, I think my cynical answer would probably be none. Right? Because there’s not really 24-hour anything in Seattle. If I was on, like, The Price is Right or something, my guess would probably be a dozen, maybe two. But I think even that’s being generous.
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, there were 65 24-hour public toilets, but only 11 of them were not porta-potties. If elected what would you do to change that?
Going to the bathroom is a basic human right. When I moved here in 2010, there was certainly more opportunities to use public restrooms than there are now, which I do think is sort of based in this trend of this fear-based reaction to what kind of people use public restrooms. [It] is more than an issue of whether or not unhoused folks use your restroom. There’s elderly folks who need to use the restroom urgently. There’s people with disabilities, there are children. There are birthing folks. You might not have a car where you can go and rush to your house, you may be far away from your home, you might be trying to get on to public transit. There are so many reasons why we need public restrooms.
Especially — to use some of the pieces that folks always talk about, sort of throwing it back at them — if we’re going to talk about tourism. I would really have a negative perception of a city that I was going around trying to be a tourist and looking at their attractions [where] it wasn’t [easy] for me to go to the bathroom unless I bought something. We really need to, as a city who says they care about equity and social justice, reflect on the extent to which we are actually practicing what we preach.
I think bathrooms [are] similar to things like curb cuts, benches, bus shelters, water fountains; so many things that, in this space of being worried about whether or not the quote unquote wrong person will use them, you’re also creating an [inequitable] and inaccessible environment for so many other people.
Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Attorney’s efforts to prosecute drug possession and public use?
100% oppose. We already went to the war on drugs; we already know what this is going to do. It’s not going to help anything.
What is your alternative plan to addressing the Fentanyl crisis?
I have been to house parties with people who have very affluent jobs and very nice houses, and they are doing things that, when folks are doing them outside, we have a different opinion of it. One of the things that is really important in this conversation is the difference between public and private property. And that there’s a lot of folks, especially unhoused folks, immigrants and refugees — underresourced folks — who have neither public nor private property access. And we criminalize that. We need to be putting interventions in place that [are] addressing why the person is self-medicating, which is not necessarily mental illness.
If anyone was outside for a length of time, especially if it’s cold, it’s raining, there’s nowhere for you to pee, you barely can eat anything, there’s nowhere for you to sit down, you’re exhausted, you’re waiting until five o’clock to get in line somewhere [where] you may or may not get a bed or food [and] you are, as I said earlier, seen as a social pariah or a public charge, what do you think that dynamic is going to do? With anxiety, the trauma, the depression, the anger of being in that situation, especially when we’re talking about chronic homelessness? We need to address that. [Self-medicating is] not a disordered response. That’s a human response. So to pathologize that I think in itself is wrong.
What’s not going to work is incarcerating folks and putting them into the criminal punishment system where we know it costs at least two times as much to put someone in a carceral bed than it does to put them in a housing bed. That’s not going to work. And the recidivism is going to be high because we also know the carceral system does not provide adequate, if any, social or behavioral or mental health services. If anything, it worsens it. It’s just a nonsensical solution for an issue that is way deeper and way more complicated. We need a different set of policies that, as you can tell, I would definitely be advocating.
North Seattle’s tree canopy has faced threats for private development. Do you think Seattle can build more housing without cutting down so many trees? How would you negotiate the competing interests from developers, environmentalists and housing advocates?
We have a lot of concrete space that [we could] be building things on that doesn’t have trees on [it]. I just feel like it’s an excuse that you have to cut down the trees. We are in the city that everyone talks about being an urban forest, and yet we’ve lost — what? — like, 40% of our tree canopy in the city in the last 20 years. We can’t call ourselves an urban forest if we are actively clearcutting it. We could follow what’s happening in certain cities in Oregon, where it actually requires folks to preserve mature trees. And to then plant trees, because I think that’s the biggest thing about the tree ordinance [that] I don’t think that people understand. You can’t plant 100 young trees to make up a mature tree, especially a 100- to 200-year-old tree.
We need to also have tribal consultation [around] culturally significant [trees]. I think we need to have a conversation with developers around what it means to retrofit as opposed to raze and build. I think that we just need to have more innovation and it really needs to be really more focused on what the mission or the goal is, which is increased housing [and] increased density versus development, you know, for the sake of development.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.