The City Council has installed Tanya Woo as its new member, as widely anticipated. As a resident of the city, and a participant in the process of filling the council vacancy, I say congratulations to the new councilmember. I’m deeply sorry for the position your colleagues have put upon you.
I submitted an application to be considered for this council vacancy, so folks will probably hear anything I say as sour grapes. That’s fine, I like wine to the extent it will probably keep me from true elected office. I don’t begrudge now Councilmember Woo. I trust that anyone who tries to be on the council wants to improve Seattle.
Unfortunately for the new Councilmember, the council’s process to install her undermines that trust. Woo just lost the District 2 council race to Tammy Morales. In a year of a presidential election featuring someone who tried to overturn their election loss, the Seattle City Council decided to try their hand at the same. The council’s new majority, one that does not include Morales, telegraphed their decision to anoint her opponent. Then the corporate money and consultants showed up to back them.
Adding Myself to the List of Names
The process reeked like the ham-handed inefficiency of an HR department knowing they’re doing an inside hire but forced to advertise anyway. The City Charter only gives the council 20 days to fill a vacancy, so they have to move quick. The council opened the floor to applications from January 3 through January 9.
That’s when I put my name in. I brushed off the ol’ resume, highlighted the policy and land use experience, and wrote up a cover letter. You can read it here. I made goals out of a couple of the topics I’ve been writing about around here for the last five years. Deep dive clean up the laughably complex city code to make it easier to build homes and businesses. Open discussion on replacing golf courses — those segregated, fenced lawns — with housing. Boost night life because real cities have good places to get fries and coffee at 3am. I think it’s a solid platform. We’ll call it Diners, No Drives, and Dives.
I did have a moment considering what would happen if I was the only person to apply. Would they call me and say I got the job, or would they play some silly game of reopening the application process? It was a short lived thought, as they ended up getting 72 applications. The Council called a Friday afternoon meeting on January 11th, a scant two days after the application process closed.
And that’s where the fix was obviously in. The Council set up a process to advance a list of eight finalists. Each councilmember took a turn naming someone. I was not among the list of finalists.
Before we get there, a moment to appreciate Councilmember Joy Hollingsworth who was quite kind in recognizing how difficult it was to hit the send button on that application. She spoke about her experience deciding to run, and the levels of questioning if you’re doing the right thing. I can say there was some pacing and second guessing before hitting the send key on my application.
More than just applying, it takes an enormous effort to let people know you are attempting something nutty like applying for City Council. I hope everyone has a truly loving person in their life who will give you a “damn straight, let’s do this.” Often, as it did here, that phrase comes out as a more terse “you’re an idiot, hit the send button.” I appreciate that person in my life, even if she is a World Champion Texas Rangers fan.
A lot of times, mentioning an adventure along these lines results in a long silence as it sinks in on folks. The crackling delay starts sounding like the doubts you have in yourself. But then they grin and tell you to go kick butt. Folks I didn’t expect popped up and sent an email to the city council on my behalf, and I’m grateful for them. A few superheroes double checked old images were taken off Friendster. I even felt all warm fuzzies at getting mentioned in a roundup of the process. It doesn’t take a lot to make someone’s day.
But too often there’s the crickets, the complete non-response from folks you expected to at least give a nod of hearing the words you said and acknowledging your existence as a human. I’ve had that a few times in my life and it was devastating. It is not easy putting oneself out there for scrutiny. Even writing a column like this every week takes some gumption to say, “eh, someone’s interested.” Avoiding the silences from folks you care about becomes a barrier to doing the next thing.
This is just a reminder to listen AND respond when someone tells you a new project or a new job or even a dream they have. They’re trusting you enough to share something exciting. The world’s going to be hard enough on them. Your silence is even tougher.
Winnowing the Long List to One
Alas, that Friday, January 11th Seattle City Council meeting was the end of 71 hopes and dreams. Sure, the council kicked eight names forward as finalists, but it was absolutely obvious the decision was made. The council didn’t need the 20-day period.
The meeting started with the standard open public comment. A dozen people spoke, all about the vacancy as it was the only thing on the agenda. There was the obligatory crank calling the council corrupt. Only two applicants spoke on their own behalf, myself and one Matthew Malloy. Interestingly, we were also the only two people who mentioned the importance of the impending Seattle Comprehensive Plan, no matter who was selected. Matthew, your application and comment were great, and I think you would have done well on the council.
Almost all the remaining speakers spoke in support of Tanya Woo. This is not particularly surprising, given Woo had the entire apparatus of her recent losing election campaign still running. To give credit where it’s due, it was an impressive showing.
Then the council selected its finalists, each of the eight putting forward one applicant. Immediately, half of the council that endorsed Woo. She was the first nominee advanced, named by Bob Kettle as the first in line to speak. Then, in sequence, three other councilmembers — Cathy Moore, Maritza Rivera, and Rob Saka — lamented not being able to nominate her before putting up reluctant second choices.
That’s four of eight for those playing at home. A week and a half later, after a performative Q&A with the Seattle CityClub, those same four council members plus Council President Sara Nelson voted for Woo. We don’t even need to review those events or the meeting and eventual 5-3 vote that secured Woo’s new job as they were pro-forma. The new councilmember was immediately sworn in.
The Perpetually Interim Councilmember
I actually feel bad for Councilmember Woo in this position. She is a very successful activist, and may eventually have a strong tenure as a councilmember. But her ascent to the position will always have an asterisk.
She was put in place by Councilmember Saka, who lectured the assembled about how he wanted a new colleague who didn’t view him as an enemy. Saka didn’t go into details about his mysterious antagonist, whether it was someone on the last council, the campaign, or this council. But his primary endorsement and eventual vote for Woo who lost the election to the colleague sitting next to him undermines his point. Even more, Saka’s second choice finalist — Mark Solomon – also lost the 2019 election to Morales.
Woo was also put in place by Councilmember Moore, who started boosting the opportunities for the unsuccessful council applicants to be on one of the City’s other boards and committees. The selection of committee and board members can be nearly as farcical as this council appointment process. Until recently, people who put “urbanist” in their application tended to be categorically rejected from the city’s Design Review Boards. If committees are really a ladder to public service, the city keeps them pulled up.
And the new councilmember was boosted by corporate donors, specifically with political consultant (and former deputy mayor) Tim Ceis circulating a letter calling on big money to put the final squeeze on the one spot they lost in the last election. “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,” Ceis wrote to the big money campaign donors that purchased five other seats. Props to PubliCola for uncovering this.
Now, I don’t particularly hold any animosity for personally not moving past the application process. Admittedly, I’ve had unpleasant things to say about most of the council and I can be a pill. I’m not even irritated at my councilmember for skipping me, as Dan Strauss selected Vivian Song as a finalist and cast his vote for her in the end. Currently on the Seattle School Board, Song is also a resident of his District 6 and the only person to advance with an actual election victory. She would also receive endorsements from the Building Trade unions and MLK Labor Council that got Tim Ceis so fired up. So I understand Strauss’ decision. That won’t stop me from making irritable gestures towards him the next time I pass his glass fishtank office at Ballard Library.
No, what’s heartbreaking is how petty and ineffectual the majority of this council showed itself. It’s on-brand Seattle dull for the city council to exhibit low-quality middle management incompetence. This goes further.
A lot of analysis will suggest that Woo’s appointment will “swing the council to a centrist supermajority” and align with the moderate Mayor Bruce Harrell. But “center” suggests that this council and mayor have a triangulated point between two opposites instead of a particular ideology of their own. That’s fundamentally incorrect.
The majority on this council and the mayor have an ideology, and it’s radical. They are trying to enforce the status quo on a city that has, since its inception, been a rapidly changing and evolving dynamo. Seattle is not an old city, but this council is trying to impose a sleepy, perpetual twilight.
Their calls to audit the budget show a laziness by the people who should have the most insight to the city’s finances. Audits are for shining light into opaque places. If the budget is opaque, the council writes the rules keeping it that way. Also, the administration’s perpetual kicking the comprehensive plan down the road is the same non-decision that the 90’s council used to impose segregationist Urban Villages on the town. Even the hasty culling of most of the council applicants and kangaroo finalist debate illustrates the council’s coveting show over substance. It adds up to deferring hard decisions.
Out of the 72 applicants the council had to choose from to fill its vacancy, it’s not the one that they selected that shows the debilitating averageness of the city’s governing centrists. It’s how they went about selecting her. In a city that faces a climate crisis, a housing crisis, and a budget crisis, the council majority’s first act was to consolidate power in the most unskillful way possible. Good luck, Councilmember Woo. We’ll need it.
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.