On November 6, Tammy Morales won election as the new Councilmember for District 2, which includes the Chinatown International District (CID) and much of southeast Seattle, from Beacon Hill through Rainier Valley to Georgetown and SoDo. Three days after the election, Councilmember-elect Morales spoke with the International Examiner about her priorities when she enters office, how to address displacement in the CID and south Seattle, finding progressive revenue sources for the City, and more. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
International Examiner: In this election, your opponent was backed by Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), which received over $1 million in donations from Amazon. What was it like going up against this kind of spending and influence from big business?
Tammy Morales: It was disappointing, it was frustrating. I participated as many of the candidates did in the democracy voucher program, and I was excited about that as a tool to try to keep corporate influence out of our election. I think that is a really important tool for demonstrating the power of the people to vote and to invest in the candidates that they appreciate. So to see not just Chamber money but an unprecedented amount of money get thrown into these races was shocking and deeply disturbing.
IE: What are some of your top priorities when you take office?
TM: I want to make sure that we are laser-focused on anti-displacement strategies. People in District 2 and District 3 are really hanging on by their fingernails, the folks who are still here. I’m especially speaking about low-income folks and communities of color. And so I think that we really need to be focused on creating tools and mechanisms for increasing community ownership of assets and making sure that we have as much permanently affordable housing and permanently affordable commercial space for our small local businesses.
IE: When it comes to gentrification and displacement District 2, and especially the Chinatown International District (CID), some people are concerned about the role market-rate developments might play. There are also some people who want more market-rate development. What is your vision for how real estate development should happen in District 2?
TM: I want to begin the process of looking at the creation of a community development authority. We have one there in the Chinatown International District — SCIDpda. And so doing a similar kind of development authority, or maybe just expanding what SCIDpda does, if they’re interested. Allowing for, especially City surplus land, creating a mechanism and entity where that land can be taken out of the speculative market and put into community land trusts, for example, so that that land is more affordable for community-driven projects. That is the tool that I’m looking at to try to increase the amount of permanently affordable housing, whether we’re talking about for renters or for home ownership. But that access to land is critical, and community-based organizations can’t afford — especially as speculation continues to grow — the price tag of land in this city. We need to make sure that we are intervening in that market so that neighborhood-based organizations that have a plan, that have a vision for how to create community-driven projects, can get access to that land as well. And so those are the kind of tools that I want to be able to work on and help develop.
IE: Near the beginning of your campaign, you said you were interested in looking into criteria by which new constructions must meet racial equity goals as soon as they apply for a certificate of approval from the Department of Neighborhoods. Have you had any further discussions about this?
TM: Well I have spoken with a land-use attorney. What I had been thinking about as basically a displacement impact score card as part of the permitting process, it might be hard to make that happen. It might not be legal. And so I’m still interested in figuring out how to do something like that. It’s going to take a conversation with the City legal department to see what we might be able to do. But I am very committed to making sure that we can insert racial equity principles into our development process somewhere, because we have to make sure that communities of color stop getting pushed out of the city. And nowhere along the development process are we allowed to raise questions about racial equity, and that is a fundamental flaw in our process right now and there has to be a way to fix that, and I’m committed to figuring out what that is.
IE: There are a lot of limited English speakers in the CID and elsewhere in District 2. How would you make sure that they are included and informed when it comes to City issues?
TM: There’s so much work to do to make sure that interpretation services are available, that basic City functions and documents are translated so that people can read in their native language. Any community engagement effort has to make sure that different language needs are met when there are community meetings, when there are public hearings. I think the City really just doesn’t do a good job of accommodating the needs of our different community members.
One of the things I want to do is make sure that there is sufficient budget in every department for authentic community engagement. We claim to have a race and social justice initiative, that these are priorities for us, and if that’s true, then what that means is that all the different department websites need to be interpreted. When we’re doing a big project that is going to impact the community, the engagement work that goes on before those decisions get made, those community engagement processes need to have interpreters available, there needs to be childcare, there needs to be food, there need to be stipends for the community members who are asked to come and share their expertise. I just think we have a lot of work to do to make that a genuine process and check the box that we’ve engaged community.
IE: There’s a lot of food insecurity in District 2, including the CID and south Seattle. What is needed to address this issue?
TM: Well food insecurity is an income issue. So we need to make sure first off that we are looking at workforce development, access to livable-wage jobs, making sure that people have the kind of economic stability that doesn’t put them into food-insecure situations in the first place. And then it really depends on the neighborhood we’re talking about. It might be that we need more grocers, more fresh produce available. The other thing is that we need to make sure that folks who are eligible for food entitlement programs like food stamps or WIC are actually enrolling in those programs, and that we make that information available in different language so that people know that they’re eligible. For a lot of immigrant populations, especially given the climate coming down from the Feds, people are afraid to register for any kind of entitlement program or any sort of public benefit. And so we need to make sure that people understand their right to enroll in these programs if they are eligible, and then facilitate their ability to do that so that they can take advantage of them.
IE: District 2 also has a lot of environmental justice problems, from a lack of tree canopy in many neighborhoods to air and noise pollution. What are your ideas about how to address these issues in District 2?
TM: I live in Beacon Hill, and because of the flight patterns that are changing — I was talking to somebody who said there’s an airplane that flies over Beacon Hill, maybe they said every 90 seconds. It’s a lot. Having a conversation with our Congressional delegation and the state to talk about flight patterns and what we can do to adjust those so that those communities don’t deal disproportionately with the fallout of air and noise pollution.
We have a lot of community organizations that are advocating for a Green New Deal, advocating for clean air and water, making sure that the Duwamish gets cleaned up. The work of these organizations needs to be better supported, because a lot of these organizations are rooted in community and they need the support of the City to continue to do the outreach and do the advocacy work that is really making change.
I’m new to the climate justice work, and so that is something that I want to commit to, especially now that Councilmember O’Brien is leaving and he was, I would say, sort of the lead on those issues. I’m committed to helping take on that work and staffing up in a way that we have at least some of the climate justice expertise that we need in order to advocate for clean air and water and a just transition to green infrastructure and green technology in the City.
IE: When it comes to the CID and other neighborhoods in District 2, community leaders might disagree on what’s needed or be at odds when it comes to what the right solutions are. How do you decide who to listen to in these situations?
TM: This is going to require a lot of conversation. I think bringing people together to hear from everybody what their perspective is, what their strategy might be. And thinking through what our common outcome is that we’re looking for.
For me, the goal is really to make sure that working families have a voice at City Hall, especially with this climate right now with all of the Chamber money and big corporate money that’s been thrown around. It’s clear that there are some entities who have a lot of power already. That’s not who I ran to represent. I ran to make sure that the voices of folks who have typically been left out of the decision-making have a voice at City Hall. Of course I want to hear what everyone wants to say and I want to make sure that everybody who will be impacted by a policy gets to participate in the conversation. But I want to especially make sure that folks who are vulnerable, people in our community who have typically been left out of those conversations are able to participate.
IE: Which City Council committees would you want to be part of, and why?
TM: I am really interested in a community economic development committee, which would be new — there isn’t something like that right now. That would include the Office of Economic Development, the Planning Department [Department of Planning and Development], and probably the Department of Neighborhoods. And that is about community economic development, making sure we address the displacement issue and support more housing for low-income folks and more security for our small businesses.
I would also be interested in working on criminal justice reform and on early learning. So I’ve been talking a lot about the need for more affordable childcare in the City. Some of that is about increasing the number of childcare facilities, but some of it is about making sure that families, especially low-income families, have better access to childcare subsidies, so that they can afford it and so that childcare workers also get the kind of support they need to be able to make a living providing care.
IE: You’ve proposed a number of progressive revenue sources for the City, such as an estate tax, a mansion tax, a second home tax, an employee hours tax, and more. Given that the employee hours tax, or “head tax” was contentious last time it happened, do you anticipate this might be difficult to push for these revenue sources?
TM: Well we’re going to have to have that conversation again. Over the last 10 months, most candidates have acknowledged that something needs to change. Some folks prefer that it happen at the state level, and I agree. I would rather that we have a state income tax. But until the Legislature gets that done, I think as City leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we change the regressivity of our tax structure here. We’re a growing city, we have a lot of needs, and we aren’t going to be able to fund everything just by tinkering with department budgets and looking for operational efficiencies in all of our city departments. We need hundreds of millions of dollars to address our homelessness crisis, to build the kind of affordable housing that we need for working families. That money has to come from somewhere, and I think it is incumbent upon the multi-billion dollar corporations that are here to pay into the public coffers to help support the city that has made them successful.
IE: In an interview with Real Change, you said “we have to dismantle the structural racism that is embedded in all of our city departments.” Can you expand on where you see this structural racism operating, and what you would want to do to fix it?
TM: Well for example, the permitting process. We know we have a housing crisis. We know that black and brown folks are disproportionately represented in our homeless population. But we continue to allow permitting that demolishes smaller apartment buildings that are more affordable to people. And we know that that contributes to homelessness — people get evicted. And we continue to allow affordable housing to get torn down and replaced by luxury apartments. That to me is a racial equity issue. Why a project gets permitted when we know what the impact of that is going to be — to me there’s a structural racism issue in that process.
And so whether we’re talking about housing, education policy, or how we make decisions about transportation choices, throughout our systems we have racism sort of baked into policy making, into our decision-making processes — who gets to be a gate-keeper, who gets to decide what the program priorities are, and who gets to decide how much budget goes to community engagement. It’s not explicit, necessarily, but it’s there. And we have to acknowledge that it’s there and do everything we can to dismantle that so that our community members get a fair shake at the benefits that the city has to offer.
IE: You’ve said you consider yourself part of the progressive block on the Council. How would you get the support of Councilmembers who may be relatively more conservative or at odds with your positions?
TM: I think it’s going to be our responsibility as Council members to work together to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to serve the people of Seattle best. We may bring different styles of different perspectives to the conversation, but I think everybody is there to serve the City. If we disagree on things then the goal is to identify the outcome that we’re all looking for and strategize about how to get there best. It might mean sitting through uncomfortable conversations, but we have to sit through those and try to get to the other side if we are really going to serve the city the way we’ve been charged to do. And we might have to agree to disagree on some things, but I think everybody is there because they want to make this a more equitable, a more just city, especially if we do have what seems to be a super-majority of fairly progressive people. What that means is that the voters of the city want to see us move in a different direction, and I take that to mean they want us to move toward really centering more equity in the way that the City makes policy decisions.
So I do think it’s important for our department heads to go through anti-racism training, to go through People’s Institute [for Survival and Beyond]. All of our City leaders should go through that training so that we start to connect the dots between how things operate and how they have a disparate impact on some people.
IE: During the campaign, Mayor Durkan called you a socialist in an email to supporters. You later clarified that you’re not a socialist. Can you expand on what are ways you feel you’re aligned with socialism, and ways this label doesn’t fit you?
TM: I have been looking at some of the Nordic countries, western European countries who have a more democratic socialist governing model. They’ve set up their societies in a way that does a much better job of keeping vulnerable people from falling through the cracks. That’s what’s interesting to me about what I see as a more democratic socialist model of government. People’s basic needs are met, people don’t have to struggle so hard to just take care of themselves. That’s not the way things work here. We’ve got 12, 13 thousand people sleeping on the street, because we in this country do a really poor job of protecting people.
And so that’s why I’m interested, that’s why I joined DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], because I was interested in learning more about how that works, what proposals they have for moving us in that direction. What I haven’t seen be successful is what I think Socialist Alternative [editor’s note: Socialist Alternative is the political party of Councilmember Kshama Sawant] proposes, which is just the State owning everything and there’s no private property, there’s no private business. And honestly I just don’t know enough about that to claim that mantle. And if that is what it is, I’ve never seen that done successfully, so I also don’t know that I could advocate for it.
But for me it really is about, how do we make sure that people don’t have to struggle so hard, that people don’t fall through the cracks. This is the richest country in the world. The fact that we have so many people who can’t begin to make a living is shameful. And I’m interested in ways that we can keep people from falling through the cracks.
IE: When you’re faced with difficult decisions, who do you turn to for advice?
TM: I have a group of folks — colleagues, people that I’ve worked with for a long time on serving community, mentors from previous jobs who I really trust and whose work I admire. And community members here, people who are doing the work, who are on the front line of environmental justice, social justice, racial justice movements, who are really steeped in kind of that feedback loop of, okay this policy happened, what ended up happening to people on the ground? And how do we make sure that the good things continue to happen but the bad things don’t happen anymore? What needs to change.
IE: Anything else you want to add?
TM: Just that I’m excited to get to work, and I’ll be spending the next few weeks reviewing resumes, if anybody wants to send a resume. We are in the process of staffing up, and I’m excited about that.