John Okamoto: Seattle's newest council member.

Crosscut archive image.

John Okamoto signs a form for City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons, who delivered his oath of office.

In tense voting Monday, the Seattle City Council appointed John Okamoto, former director of Seattle’s Human Services Department, to fill an open seat until next fall’s elections.

In the weeks leading up to the full council vote, the big question was: seat-warmer or game-changer? For most, Okamoto is the former.

He emerged from a group of eight finalists, including: former Councilmember Jan Drago; policy analyst Sheley Secrest; Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee; former Sound Transit executive Alec Stephens; former Washington State Ferries Director David Moseley; and political activist Sharon Maeda.

For one of the eight finalists to be appointed, he or she needed a majority five votes. Before calling for a vote, Council President Tim Burgess allowed each sitting council member time to speak. The members would repeat voting until they had a majority.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant spoke first and clued observers into the likelihood of Okamoto’s appointment – not by way of support, but because of how vehemently she argued against Okamoto’s appointment. Sawant, who wanted Lee, Secrest or Maeda, cited a Stranger article that raised questions about Okamato's role as a Port of Seattle executive in several controversies, including continuing pay for a former port CEO, a 2008 fraud investigation and a lackluster review of the port police. It was clear Sawant felt she needed to make a strong statement against Okamoto.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen confronted the issue, calling Sawant’s attack on Okamoto false and “odious.”

During the discussion, Councilmember Bruce Harrell heaped praise on Secrest, defending her ability as a lawyer, in apparent response to a Crosscut report that she had agreed to a 60-day suspension from legal practice in 2012.

On the first vote, Okamoto fell just short with four votes. The breakdown was: Sawant and Nick Licata for Lee; Mike O’Brien for Maeda; Harrell for Secrest; and Jean Godden, Sally Bagshaw, Burgess and Rasmussen for Okamoto.

Because no majority was reached, the council voted a second time. Licata and Sawant switched to Maeda and Harrell switched to Okamoto, giving him the necessary majority.

Despite the boos from the large number of Sawant supporters in attendance, Okamoto, whose parents were interned during World War II, was clearly pleased. “This is like a dream,” he said. “When my parents were incarcerated in concentration camps, I don’t think they ever had any idea their son would be a city councilman.”

Okamoto begins immediately, taking over as chair of the Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee. In a media session after the vote, he deflected questions about specific actions he would take, saying he needs to learn more about different approaches, including rent control (favored by Sawant) and tenant relocation assistance. He said the city needs more funding streams.

He did, however, defend himself against the criticism from Sawant, saying “It’s disappointing. Those charges are false.”

As a longtime friend of Mayor Ed Murray’s, Okamoto also faced concerns that he was hand-selected by the mayor and his council allies. In an e-mail to Crosscut, he said he and the mayor had had “vigorous policy debates on a number of issues where we have agreed on some, and agreed to disagree on other issues and proceeded to in our respective roles to act on our convictions.”

In the coming months, the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda task force will present its recommendation for developing affordable housing in Seattle. Before reaching the full council, those will go through Okamoto, a prospect that may have Sawant and advocates in anti-development and low-income groups cringing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.