Council President Tim Burgess gets a run for his money from a scruffy political outsider

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Tim Burgess at a charity breakfast.

If there’s one thing incumbent Council President Tim Burgess and his challenger Jon Grant share in common, it’s that they both feel burned by The Stranger.

“They called me a condescending asshole,” says Burgess during an interview at Seattle Works Coffee near Pike Place Market (the exact quote is a “ruthless, condescending” man “with a firm grip on power”). It's pointed out to him that the paper also compared him to the politicking villain of the HBO show Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister, both in style and appearance. “I haven’t seen that show, but I understand he’s a bad apple,” says Burgess.

In the same breath, the Stranger called Grant, whom the paper endorsed, a “humorless wonk with a serial-killer vibe.” “I think I’m kind of funny,” says Grant, trailing off over green tea in the International District.

The race between Burgess and Grant has become a sort of whack-a-mole for Grant as he tries to paint Burgess as a faux-progressive who’s only acted on issues like rent control, tenant assistance and a gun tax out of political desperation rather than true conviction. Burgess, on the other hand, is unafraid to call Grant’s rhetoric bloated and inaccurate. There is little love lost between the two candidates for council Position 8, an at-large citywide seat, in a race that’s hard to see as anything but David v. Goliath, Populist v. Pragmatist, Change v. Consistency.

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Jon Grant clowns for a birthday photo in July Credit: John Grant for City Council Facebook page

Grant walks into the Panama Hotel in what has become his signature look: a brown suit, unbuttoned jacket, no tie. His facial hair is messy, which, in some races, could raise eyebrows. But in Seattle, what better way to be the people’s candidate than a half-grown, auburn beard?

At 33, Grant is the youngest candidate in the election and one of only three under 40 to make it through the primaries (District 4 candidates Michael Maddux and Rob Johnson are both slightly older than Grant). But if there is any immaturity in Grant, it is buried beneath his deadly serious demeanor. Grant has only shown the humor he claims to possess in several off-the-record remarks and, maybe, once during a downtown residents’ candidate forum. On the campaign trail, though, the general feeling seems to be that The People of Seattle, the constituency on which Grant plants his flag, are not in a joking mood.

Grant is a housing advocate who grew up on Bainbridge Island. While many candidates, Burgess included, wave their Seattle birth as almost a campaign platform, Grant does not readily offer his Bainbridge origins. It is a generally wealthy community; to live there likely means, almost by default, your family does not struggle with housing. (Full disclosure: this author also grew up on Bainbridge Island.)

And yet, the fact of the Bainbridge ferry’s offloading into Pioneer Square, where the homeless sleep beneath the viaduct and on the pedestrian bridge over Alaskan Way, is an important narrative piece in the Making of Jon Grant. “Homelessness was really the prevalent thing I could see in the city,” he says. “For me, my impulse was to get involved.” So Grant, even in high school, started volunteering at Real Change Newspaper. Where some teenagers play football or start a band or join model U.N., Grant’s idea of a hobby was clearly unique. “Issues of housing and economic justice have always been a passion of mine,” he says.

Grant’s campaign office is in the basement of an International District building. There are no windows, no posters and hardly any desks. Grant hired his first employee, campaign manager Danielle Fulfs, at the end of August, after he’d already defeated challengers John Roderick and John Persak in the primary. Up to that point, he had relied on more than 100 volunteers, a “people powered” campaign, as he calls it. His dad is his treasurer.

The dingy office is clearly a point of pride. Burgess uses Northwest Passage Consulting, the powerhouse firm that represented Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Its office has hardwood flooring and plenty of windows, a contrast that plays perfectly into Grant’s efforts to show Burgess as corporate and a stooge of developers. In a twist that is becoming increasingly common in American politics, the more money Burgess raises (which is a lot), the more it bolsters Grant’s image as the grassroots candidate.

Leading up to his run for Burgess’ seat, Grant has been all housing, all the time. While at the University of Redlands in California he studied housing and urban poverty. Although most students at his school studied abroad in India or Africa, volunteering along the way, Grant sidestepped the requirement and instead worked in Washington D.C., interning for the National Coalition for the Homeless. His experience of poverty and racism, he thought, should be an American one. “I didn’t want to go to Australia to experience those things,” he said. “There’s plenty of work to be done in the United States.”

When he returned to Seattle in 2004, Grant made coffee while volunteering twice a week at the Housing Justice Project, a homelessness prevention program through the King County Bar Association. The experience led him to the doorstep of law school, but he backed down for fear of debt and the corporate experience.

He then made a tack away from the world of legal advocacy and into community organizing. He worked for four years with Solid Ground, an advocacy and social service organization, taking calls from thousands of stressed tenants. If he wasn’t already squarely in the corner of tenants, he certainly was pushed that way through that experience.

After a stint as a lobbyist for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Grant found his way to the  Tenants Union. “When I got there, they were packing everything away in boxes,” he said. “The first thing I did as Executive Director was pay the rent.” Grant, though, managed to keep the lights on. He spoke proudly of raising money to not only keep the organization afloat, but to expand its goals beyond advocacy and education and to, as he says, “take on developers.”

Grant decided to run for a council seat when Councilmember Nick Licata announced his retirement. But it’s likely thanks to a different council member, Kshama Sawant, that Grant is even in the conversation. Her penchant for rhetoric and activism, allegedly disrupting the status quo and pulling the council to the left, has, so far, been a successful political experiment.

Sawant’s support base has provided an audience for Grant, which shows up when he testifies at City Hall meetings, when he pitches alternatives to the mayor’s housing recommendations and, likely, when they find his name near Sawant’s on the ballot. His calls for rent control, maximum fees on developers and more firings at the Seattle Police Department resonate perhaps more deeply in the era of Sawant.

The rise or fall of Jon Grant will depend entirely on which Tim Burgess the voters choose to see: Burgess’ Burgess or Grant’s Burgess. As the incumbent, he holds a considerable name-recognition advantage over Grant. But he’s also faced with the challenge of having a voting record, which has been the downfall of many longtime politicians. (See Hilary Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama in 2008.) Burgess also did not hit the watermark 50 percent majority in the primary, sometimes viewed as an indication that an incumbent will win re-election, landing instead around 46 percent. To find those extra four points, he will have to convince some of the Roderick and Persak voters that the conservative in hiding is a specter invented by Grant.

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Tim Burgess at a charity breakfast

We meet downtown, before a candidates’ forum in the Hard Rock Café across the street. I drink a coffee and watch Burgess on the Seattle Channel as he wraps up a long Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee. Two young women in the café talk loudly about moving to Portland. “My friend only pays $600 a month for a place,” one says.

I expect Burgess to be burnt out from the more than two hour meeting, but if he’s tired, it's not apparent. He doesn’t bother to buy a coffee, instead making himself comfortable at a small table. It’s 5 p.m. This is the first stop in his night that includes the subsequent forum and the 43rd District Democrats’ endorsement meeting at 7:30.

As the older guy in the race (Burgess is twice Grant’s age), maybe he should be the bore. But, in fact, he’s engaging and relaxed. “I asked my wife, ‘Do you think I’m a condescending asshole?’ ” he says. “She said, ‘Well, sometimes.’ ” A corny joke, yes, but a joke nonetheless. Perhaps his experience is helping him.

In a way, much of Burgess’ career is predicated on explaining his past or convincing people he’s a changed man. Growing up, his family members were dedicated Republicans, a perfect seed to the narrative that, deep down, Burgess is too. He spent about seven years as a police officer, which under today’s microscope easily paints him as an institutional stiff. He once sent a check to John McCain; he passed stricter laws against panhandling; he voted to repeal an employee tax on business owners; and he blocked a bill on campaign finance reform in 2013.

These points, more than any others, are what opponents pin to Burgess. He is well prepared with responses to each.

Growing up, Burgess’ family had to move from Capitol Hill after falling behind on mortgage payments. On his campaign website, Burgess is quoted as saying, “I know the anxiety of living hand to mouth." He goes on to credit his public education for catapulting him into his first career as a radio journalist. After reporting on the city and police, he decided he would jump the tracks and become an officer himself. It was an experience that did not sit entirely well, with Burgess mentioning numerous times the “culture” of the department and how it ought to be “tamed.”

In person, he doesn’t stray far from these narrative points. He uses his history, as many politicians do, to tell a tale of a solid upbringing with a diverse range of experiences. But written into his story is change, a necessary quality in a city with as much flux as Seattle. Burgess credits time spent abroad — volunteering in a Thai refugee camp — for shifting his world view, to something more akin to the Democratic platform.

After working for a time in the private sector, Burgess went on to serve on Seattle’s Ethics and Election Commission. He won election to the Seattle City Council in 2007.

When asked about the moves that follow him around, Burgess has, in the way he frames it, a perfectly logical explanation for each. The donation was an impulse after McCain’s daughter, adopted from Bangladesh, was pulled into the political fight. The blocking of finance reform was because he didn’t want it to distract from pre-K and Metro measures also on the ballot. Repealing the employee hours tax was a necessary move to encourage job growth at the height of the recession. The panhandling measure, which seems to be the hardest to shed, was a reaction to crime in Seattle.

But more than talking away the past, Burgess drowns it with examples of how progressive he’s really been, starting and ending with his voter approved measure to fund universal pre-K. “This is a really big deal,” says Burgess, dubbed the Godfather of pre-school by Mayor Ed Murray.

Burgess has since piled on the progressive legislation by passing an advance eviction notice for tenants, advance notice of sale requirement for affordable apartment buildings, a tax on all gun sales, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms and, most recently and controversially, a resolution asking the state to lift its ban on rent control. He also endorsed I-122, a city campaign finance reform initiative on ballots in November.

To each, Grant has been quick to accuse Burgess of becoming a progressive only when politically convenient. “This is not the first time Mr. Burgess has changed his position just this year to appear more progressive,” he said in a statement reacting to the passage of the rent control resolution on Monday. And, especially with regards to this resolution, which Burgess had previously said he would not support, it is an easy conclusion to jump to. Burgess, though, answers calmly, “I’m a politician. Isn’t everything I do political?”

As a council member since 2008, Tim Burgess has ridden a wave in Seattle not seen since maybe the gold rush. On the other side of the recession, Seattle has exploded and changed. In a lot of ways, the Seattle that first elected Burgess is not the Seattle voting in November. “Tim Burgess is the biggest impediment to progressive change on the council,” says Grant when asked why he chose to run citywide. “The bottom line is this is about power and who wields it. My approach to governing is how do we go to the community first? How do we get the community leaders involved?”

By national standards, every candidate for Seattle City Council is a progressive; It would be a hard sell to say publicly funded preschool initiative is not. Because Burgess has taken some solidly progressive steps, even among some of his perhaps more moderate measures, it is harder to define the line between two candidates than the stark national and state binaries of Republicans and Democrats. To complicate things for Grant, some notable members of the Community Police Commission, Solid Ground and several homeless advocacy groups have endorsed Burgess.

The challenge for Grant, if he is to overcome his 15 point deficit, is to find that separation to the left. In that space, the argument is largely that Burgess didn't do enough to get fees from developers, hasn't cracked down on police, and has made it hard to be homeless in Seattle. Burgess, meanwhile, maintains that he does what the data tells him.

The final tally for Burgess v. Grant could come down to a simple question: In times of change, should voters go for consistency, as Burgess argues they should? Or should the Seattle of 2015 dump out the 2007 Burgess bathwater, as Grant recommends?

Correction, September 24: A previous draft of this article stated there were only two candidates under 40. In fact, there are three. Rob Johnson is 37. 

Join Crosscut at Civic Cocktail on Nov. 4 for a post-election wrap-up with political consultants Chris Sinderman and John Wyble, and former Seattle mayor Charley Royer. Then, Sen. Pramila Jayapal will discuss race, rent control and more.


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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.