Newly appointed Seattle City Councilmember Tanya Woo • Courtesy of City of Seattle

On January 23 Tanya Woo, a community leader in the Chinatown International District, was appointed to the Seattle City Council to fill the vacant position left by Teresa Mosqueda, who was elected to the King County Council. 

“Now the work really begins,” said Woo in an interview with the International Examiner after she began the City Council’s intense onboarding process. “I do feel the sense that everybody wants me to succeed, and are willing to work together.”

Woo ran against Councilmember Tammy Morales last year in a bid to represent District 2 (the CID and Southeast Seattle). Woo lost by 403 votes. 

Woo’s responsibilities now are vast. She represents the whole city as one of two at-large Councilmembers, and will serve in the role until November 2024. At the same time, she is running for re-election this year in an effort to keep the seat for another year, when the remainder of Mosqueda’s term ends: November 2025. And if she wants to serve a full four-year term after that, Woo will need to win re-election a second time too.

Woo and her colleagues face huge challenges this year, including filling a budget gap of $229 million dollars or more every year; hammering out the City’s growth strategy in a new Comprehensive Plan; and voting on a new contract for the Seattle Police Officers Guild, with huge implications for police accountability and federal oversight.

Week to week, Woo will also chair the Sustainability, City Light, Arts & Culture Committee and will serve as Vice Chair of the Libraries, Education, and Neighborhoods Committee, and as a member of the Housing and Human Services, Land Use, and Transportation Committees. 

Amidst her new responsibilities, Woo plans to continue walking once a week with CID Community Watch, the group she co-founded during the pandemic to keep an eye on public safety in the neighborhood and connect people outdoors with resources and supplies. 

Woo is thinking about the urgency of addressing homelessness, public safety issues, and the fentanyl crisis in the CID. On Woo’s shortlist is working with Councilmembers and neighborhood stakeholders to improve safety near the Navigation Center shelter in Little Saigon, where a man was found shot on January 31, and later died at Harborview Medical Center.

“I believe if we’re able to fix things here in the CID, we could definitely fix things in the larger Seattle area,” Woo said. “So I am very honored to work with Councilmember Morales going forward. I think it’s great that the Chinatown International District now has double coverage from both of us.”

Tanya Woo being sworn in • Screenshot from the Seattle Channel

Woo believes Morales and herself both want solutions to public safety, homelessness, for seniors in the CID to be able to age in place, and people working in the neighborhood to be able to afford housing there. “We’re aligned on a lot of these basic issues. And so I think it’s just going to be trying to figure out what that path looks like going forward, in terms of doing the outreach and engaging with community members.” 

Woo’s family has lived in the Seattle area since 1887. She grew up in Beacon Hill and her grandfather and father ran businesses in the CID. Her father opened the Mon Hei Bakery in the CID, and purchased the Louisa Hotel building in the 1960s.

Woo is now co-owner of the Louisa building, and when it was gutted by fire in 2013, Woo oversaw its restoration into a building with workforce housing, retail, and preserved murals from the Jazz Age. 

In 2019 and into the pandemic, Woo served on the International Special Review District (ISRD) Board, reviewing and questioning developers about new projects in the CID, including controversial high-rises.

In 2022, Woo led a successful effort pressuring King County to back down from expanding the Salvation Army shelter in SoDo. Activists said the County had not adequately consulted the CID community or heard its public safety concerns. 

Woo was one of eight finalists for the vacancy selected by the Council in January, but observers predicted she was the most likely choice. She won the appointment with five votes. 

“I want to build a sense of unity, collaboration, and communication,” Woo said in a short speech after accepting the appointment. “My door is open. Please come and visit, and let me know how I can help.”

CM Tanya Woo • Screenshot from the Seattle Channel

Woo’s political positions are more to the center than Mosqueda, whose seat she now holds, and her former opponent and now colleague Morales – and more aligned with the majority of the new Council. While Woo has spoken in favor of funding more alternatives to police, she also supports hiring more police officers.

During the Council’s swearing in last month, Councilmember Morales noted that voting on a new contract for the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) will be one of the Council’s most important tasks in 2024. The contract will determine how much of the city’s General Fund will go toward SPD and how police are held accountable for misconduct. 

SPOG’s contract expired at the end of 2020, and the lack of a contract has stalled work to create civilian emergency response programs and other alternatives to police. It has also slowed accountability measures that the federal judge overseeing the consent decree has said are necessary before Seattle can come out from under Justice Department oversight. 

Woo said her priorities for these discussions will be “[police] accountability first and foremost, and also allowing for the alternatives to policing to be able to be in place,” including civilian outreach and mutual aid groups – though she had not yet been formally briefed on the issue of the SPOG contract when she spoke to the International Examiner

To fill the budget deficit, Woo believes new progressive taxes should be a last resort. She expects cuts must be made in the city budget, as well as identifying redundancies and places to combine funding, first. “I think it’s really examining our current funding sources, are they showing results? Are they reaching the people that they’re supposed to help?” Woo said.

In a special City Council meeting before she was appointed, Woo joined the other finalists in agreeing they would not support a ban on encampment removals, or sweeps, in winter. 

Woo – who regularly tries connecting people outdoors with services and shelter as a member of CID Community Watch – said a lack of available shelter and peoples’ reluctance to accept it stand in the way of progress. “A lot of people have been through the system and have lost trust,” she said. “I really want to examine how we develop relationships with unhoused folks and build that trust.”

Woo is interested in finding more ways the city can offer wraparound services like case managers, addiction treatment, mental health counseling, and building more tiny home villages.

Woo’s appointment was not without controversy. PubliCola broke the story that Tim Ceis, a business consultant and former deputy mayor under Greg Nickels, sent a January 15 email urging his supporters to advocate for Woo as the Council’s choice. Woo’s campaign against Morales last year received almost $170,000 from real estate and business political action committees (PACs). Woo was the only candidate backed by business who did not prevail in the November election.

“My intel says that Tanya has 6 votes but that a union campaign could cause some of that support to weaken. Let’s not take that chance,” Ceis wrote. “The independent campaign expenditure success earned you the right to let the Council know not to offer the left the consolation prize of this Council seat.”

Before the vote that would appoint Woo to the position, Councilmember Morales expressed disappointment about Ceis’ lobbying, saying it made the process “about big business telling donors that they earned the right to tell this council who to choose. And that is deeply problematic and it is anti-democratic.” 

Other Councilmembers insisted the lobbying played no role in their decision. “My vote has not been bought by anybody,” said Councilmember Cathy Moore. 

Woo said the letter misrepresents her and is a distraction. “I think the issues that are facing our city, and issues that we’re trying to solve are much bigger than that,” she said. “I hope that people will judge me based on the work that I’ve done, based on my values, and not on a third party letter.”

Woo’s campaign to keep her seat for another year after November starts now. She said she looks forward to going back into the neighborhoods to knock on doors and listen to people’s concerns – this time, across the whole city. 

“How do we bring that communication, that outreach and engagement, especially to communities of color, where, you know, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to come to the city, we should be actively going out and doing that outreach?” Woo said. “I’m going to be really interested in making those connections this next couple of months, into next year, and hopefully, the next couple of years.”

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