Who will speak for Seattle's northern frontier?

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Debora Juarez and Sandy Brown both want to represent the under-represented.

Seattle’s fifth council district is a Jackson Pollack portrait of Seattle. Encompassing almost everything north of 85th Street, District 5 stretches from the mansions along the Burke-Gilman Trail above Lake Washington to the beachfront train tracks in Carkeek Park.

Between its watery borders, a tall mosque stands just steps from the local QFC. A methodist church nearby offers services in English, Punjabi and Fijian. Somali men wearing taqiyahs and khamis -- small embroidered caps and long, neatly fitting robes -- wait for buses that travel frequently north and south, but rarely east and west.

On Aurora, known by locals as the Track, women pace, waiting for their next clients. Just blocks away, families drop their children at Lakeside Upper School, Bill Gates’ alma mater.

The city’s six other council districts, while perhaps equally varied from end to end, are easily categorized either through landmark or character – the downtown commercial core of District 7, Capitol Hill in District 3, the city-within-a-city of West Seattle in District 1. But District 5 eludes categorization.

Reading the news, you might think that the only defining feature of the 13-square-mile swath of Seattle is that it has no sidewalks. As a onetime resident of Lake City, I can say that it’s true: Sidewalks are scarce. Infrastructure, in general, is lacking, which hints at a deeper truth: District 5 is Seattle’s untended northern frontier.

It is the latecomer to the city, much of it annexed in the 1950s. It has become the home of many who can no longer afford to live further south, a last grasp at staying within the city limits. And thanks to Seattle’s new district elections, it will soon have its own seat on City Council.

Like the neighborhood itself, the candidates vying for that seat -- Debora Juarez and Sandy Brown – elude simple labels.

Debora Juarez has multiple sclerosis, or MS. She hasn’t gone public with that yet, however, and doing so at a Starbucks on Lake City Way last Wednesday clearly makes her 26-year-old campaign manager, Tyler Emsky, a little uncomfortable. She gives him a look, as she does a number of times throughout our more-than-2-hour interview, and says, basically, screw it: “You can’t let a disease slow you down.”

The past, both good and bad, follows Juarez everywhere. In addition to her MS, she’s had breast cancer three times, going through intense chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery twice. When she speaks of a friend or mentor, she often ends by saying he or she “isn’t with us anymore.” She talks openly about being first poor and then rich, her tone the same through both. She brings up the DUI on her record without any prompting, showing regret for the mistake, while making no effort to qualify or hide from it. “The past isn’t your friend or your enemy,” she says. “It’s just there.”

It was, in a way, pressure from the past that pushed her into running for city council. She tells of sitting beneath a totem pole, recently carved from an old growth cedar and dedicated to the opening of the Wahelut Indian School in Olympia, and feeling that it was her responsibility to run. It was simply her time, she says, and not her choice.

Juarez is that strange mix of a rock-hard, no BS exterior – calling me out, for example, for saying that growing up on Bainbridge Island counts as being from Seattle – and yet clearly empathetic and emotional. It’s a mix Juarez credits to growing up poor. “When you’re poor, you learn how to tell the truth and you learn to fight,” she says.

Juarez’s Mexican American father met her Native American mother while serving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Juarez grew up in Puyallup and is a member of the Blackfeet nation, surrounded, in her words, by the temptation of alcohol and drugs. “A lot of people I graduated with are no longer with us,” she says.

But she also grew up surrounded by activism. As a young girl, she was in the middle of the fishing wars of the 1960s and '70s, when activist Billy Frank Jr., whom Juarez called Uncle, was arrested more than 50 times for asserting the tribal fishing rights promised in a federal treaty on the Nisqually River. Those actions eventually led U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt to establish 20 tribes as co-managers of salmon resources with the State of Washington.

“After we won the Boldt decision, we gave Judge Boldt a tour of the reservation,” Juarez says, tearing up. “I remember feeling like, maybe how young people felt about Obama. I felt this sense of power and pride: ‘People are listening to us, but you really got to fight for it.’”

It was this feeling that steered Juarez toward law school, selling fireworks in her summers off. Her path always arced toward tribal law, first with the Evergreen Legal Services (now The Northwest Justice Project) and eventually to the position of Executive Director of Indian Affairs under Governors Mike Lowry and Gary Locke. After leaving the public sector for Wall Street, she went on to take a job with the law firm Williams Kastner where she was allowed to focus almost exclusively on tribal law.

Her MS can sideline her occasionally. She had to take a long leave of absence from her law firm. She tells the story of getting a call from Daniel Beekman at the Seattle Times regarding her DUI while hooked up in a hospital getting the treatment she'd put off until after the primaries. But Juarez says the medicine has improved and she feels confident. “I wouldn’t do this [run for council] if I didn’t think I could,” she says.

Juarez is not a cookie cutter politician. Emsky, her campaign manager, sat in on our interview. On a number of occasions, as Juarez started building up steam, he pulled on the reins, subtly asking if she should be saying that to a reporter. She’d grumble a bit, tease him, but ultimately move on.

Everything she says about the city is through two lenses: her experience growing up as a dual member of two of America’s most marginalized groups of people; and her training as an attorney, fiercely committed to systemic change. Sometimes her ideological commitment to truth telling can make people uncomfortable. On the recent federal investigations into police forces she says, “It wasn’t until WTO – I’m just gonna say it – and people NOT of color started getting hit over the head with flashlights, and all the sudden their lives mattered. When drugs were killing all of our people, they didn’t give a fuck. When white kids in Bellevue started getting killed by cocaine, we start caring.”

After more than two hours of this, you get a good sense of the kind of councilmember she'd be.

The edges on Sandy Brown are a little smoother. When we meet at Café Javasti in Wedgwood, he’d just come from yoga. The café’s stereo plays “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites, which for better or worse I can't get out of my head through our whole interview.

Brown is a reverend, most recently working as the pastor at First United Methodist Church of Seattle. His most prominent role was as executive director of the Seattle branch of Church Council.

I don’t attend church, but Brown is exactly how I’ve always imagined a pastor to be. He’s well groomed, carries a messenger bag and comes across as very organized, very in-control. After ordering an iced tea and settling into his chair, he stops me from getting into my questions. “I’d love to know more about you,” he says. I was not expecting this.

As I ramble on about where I come from, he nods and looks me in the eye and makes it all feel much more important than it probably is. He does not question my Bainbridge Island credentials.

The past is perhaps not as present in my conversation with Brown as with Juarez, but as the son of a Mexican American mother and a white father, he too carries an upbringing dotted by racism and struggle. He grew up in White Center, which Brown said was called Rat City. There, he says, “I learned there was a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots, divided by the ridge.”

His family lived on the edge of the ridge, just on the poor side. His father was a Boeing inspector, kept up at night for fear that a faulty plane would slip through his line. His mother also worked for Boeing, one of hundreds of women in a large room typing manuals.

The work ground them down so they both returned to school. It took them so long to finish, though, that Brown shared a class, Introduction to Logic, with his mother at the University of Washington. It was there that Brown saw the fight in his mother, born of a lifetime of being treated differently, as she stood up to the professor, calling unfairness as she saw it.

In the eyes of Brown's grandfather, on his mother's side, he's a success. Brown says his grandfather always wanted his mother to marry a light-skinned man so her children would be better accepted into American life. Brown's features are dark, but he does not look Mexican. As a result, says Brown, "I've benefited from white male privilege. It's what my grandfather wanted."

In Seattle politics, religion doesn’t play the role it does in other parts of the country. But Brown says people forget the power of the church. The Church Council, he says, played a key role in desegregation and fighting against nukes. Brown himself lead marches against the Iraq war and advocated early on for gay marriage. He says the work of area clergy pushed Referendum 74, in favor of gay marriage, over the top.

It is this work that eventually lead him to become one of the founding chairs of the King County Committee to End Homelessness, recently re-named “All Home.” The committee’s work has been criticized, as homelessness has actually gone up recently. Brown defends its work, pointing to an increase in housing over the last ten years. But he admits that calling it the Committee to End Homelessness was a mistake. He also says that, while the goal of getting people into permanent housing immediately was admirable, the plan should have included more transitional housing. His plan, if elected, would be to increase funding for homeless services and to make it easier for King County and Seattle to collaborate.

Brown is a walker. He’s proud of this, showing the worn heels on his loafers. As such, he doorbells incessantly, with an exact tally of how many homes he’s visited in his head at all times. He, more than others, seems to genuinely enjoy it.

It’s 3 p.m. when we start walking, so many people aren’t home yet. But when the first person answers, an older man, Brown speaks with him for nearly 10 minutes, noting the aging telephone pole and the poor drainage that the man points out. The man at the next house shares a friend with Brown and promises a vote. Brown keeps his message tight and local.

After the August primaries, the feeling was that Seattle’s new district elections had not made a huge difference. The so-called neighborhood candidates largely tanked; the “establishment” candidates performed as well as they always have.

But the race between Brown and Juarez is different. The talking points always lead back to what’s best for 5. Brown consistently points to his work on the “Save the Beach” campaign to preserve a small access point to Lake Washington on 130th Street. Regarding public safety, he goes straight to Aurora. He advocates for creating hyper-local tax districts in order to fund the missing sidewalks. East-west transit, he says, needs improving. When asked what the biggest difference between himself and Juarez, he says he’s better connected to the community. “She’s not well known even though she’s lived here for 25 years,” he says.

Juarez says she would not have considered running if not for district elections. She’s proud of living in North Seattle for 25 years. She’s a huge proponent of more diversion programs for low-level offenders. She’s made light rail for North Seattle a priority. Community centers and connectivity are big for her. She’s not afraid to say that people are pushed north by design and that the system is built to do so. Equitable management of the growth she’s witness resounds deeply within her.

As is the case in many of Seattle’s races, a lot of the differences between Brown and Juarez are in the approach. The goals – better public safety on Aurora, more housing, better infrastructure and transit – are largely shared. But Juarez sits closer to 10,000 feet. She sees no divide between her emotional reckoning beneath the totem pole and the need for better drainage for storm runoff, because she believes that even those mundane problems are rooted in something deeper. She’s proud of her skills in politicking and horse-trading; one can imagine tense standoffs on the council dais as she refuses to back down.

Brown, on the other hand, sells himself as a vessel for the residents north of 85th. Public safety is his No. 1 priority, but only because it’s what he heard from the voters. He says he didn’t expect it to be so high on his list. After personally visiting nearly 12,000 homes, he is surely the candidate North Seattle businesswomen Faye Garneau imagined when she bankrolled the push to approve the charter amendment switch to district elections.

District elections were meant to do two things: Change who ran and change how the council legislates. District 5 is the most likely to do both. It's hard to see either Brown or Juarez on a citywide platform. And while Brown might be more polite and Juarez might challenge the idea of Seattle nice, whomever is elected will surely be held accountable if they don't deliver on a neighborhood level.

In North Seattle, the district system is more than a nice idea. It's an obvious shout of "don't forget about us." And, yes, that includes building sidewalks.


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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.