Meet Seattle’s new city council: young, diverse, unpredictable

Seattle City Council chamber

The new year has brought a younger, more diverse Seattle City Council that is now majority women. Councilmember Bruce Harrell will lead it as council president, a foregone conclusion made official with his inauguration Monday.

At a surface level glance, the so-called blocs of the council — generally, progressive vs. liberal or moderate — remain intact. But on a deeper level, the new council is likely to be less predictable and more progressive in the way it votes than it was just a week ago.`

Seattle's municipal prosperity is a dream for most cities. But while unemployment is low and overall wealth high, Seattle’s middle-class workforce is being squeezed or even pushed close to its limits, homelessness has risen sharply, housing prices are skyrocketing, transportation is a mess and the gap between the richest and poorest is enormous.

In their inaugural speeches Monday, the councilmembers' focus centered on how to make Seattle's success work for everyone. “This term you will hear equity, civil rights, justice, fairness,” said Council President Harrell. “That will be our political DNA.”

Lisa
Lisa Herbold

The new council, made up of seven district and two citywide representatives, has added Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, Debora Juarez and Lorena Gonzalez. It's convenient to say that Herbold's vote replaces Licata's progressive position while the other three replace the more moderate or liberal votes of Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark and Jean Godden. In some cases, though, that works better than others.

Herbold seems the most likely to maintain her predecessor’s vote. She called Licata her mentor and, in fact, he swore her in as the packed council chambers and overflow crowd cheered. Many credit her work on Licata's staff for building out the details of his policy stances.

It seems less likely, however, that the other three new council members will be predictable in the ways they vote. This may be especially true for Councilmember Debora Juarez. Juarez takes a lawyer’s eye to policy, occasionally at the expense of popular opinion. By way of example, during the election, The Stranger newspaper wanted to endorse her but was queasy about her stance that the Shell Polar Pioneer drilling rig was within its rights to moor in the Port of Seattle. Juarez held her ground based in her legal opinion and won the endorsement regardless.

Debora
Debora Juarez

But she also has deep roots in social activism, calling Medal of Freedom Award winner and tribal fishing rights figure Billy Frank Jr. "Uncle." Following Councilmember Sawant’s rousing speech, which implicitly called out sitting council members for allowing the city to become as unaffordable and unequal as it is, Juarez could be seen praising Sawant on the dais. Juarez places a great emphasis on the poor and minority populations of Seattle when she speaks, the result of her own experience as a Native American and Latina youth, growing up poor in Yakima. “Today is historic,” she said. “It’s not historic because I’m Native American or Latina. It’s historic because I am America. I’m a product of the war on poverty. I am a product of affirmative action.”

New Councilmember Lorena González also seems less likely to vote along party lines (if you can call them that) for similar reasons. She served as Mayor Ed Murray’s legal counsel for a year before running for council. Murray is seen as the head honcho of the not-so-left bloc. But her message thus far (González became a council member in November after she replace interim Councilmember John Okamoto) goes further in its focus on immigrants and refugees than most of Seattle’s political establishment, a result of her own upbringing in a poor immigrant family. Seattle, she said, “must be a progressive beacon.” Emphasis on working class immigrants and refugees, she said, should be the “rule, not the exception.”

Lorena
Lorena Gonzales

González is also a louder voice than some of her colleagues in her support for the Community Police Commission, the civilian advisory committee to the federally mandated police reforms in Seattle. She is close with its director, Fe Lopez, and has been more vocal about giving it more power than, for example, Councilmember Tim Burgess has been.

Harrell, after he was officially elected council president, acknowledged Juarez and González come from a population not as well represented in 2015. “The city needs to be led by people who know what it’s like to be without power,” he said, singling out the two as just that. (The council, though, is without an LBGTQ community leader for the first time in years.)

Rob
Rob Johnson

New Councilmember Johnson — a longtime voice for new, sustainable initiatives in transportation policy — lived up to and even embraced his penchant for wonk. His speech was made through the lens of an urban planner, a stark contrast to Sawant’s before him, which called for a Socialist uprising. “The time for making two year decisions has passed,” he said. “We need to plan for 2065, not just 2018.” He will chair the Planning, Land Use & Zoning Committee.

In the background, districts and their influence on governing gurgled without ever boiling over. Juarez has been the most vocal in her support for her district's needs. Harrell also spoke about the number of calls he’s been getting regarding potholes and other basic city needs. And, Sally Bagshaw worked her commitment to District 7 (Downtown, Magnolia) into her speech, notable because Bagshaw was opposed to the switch to district elections. But what an emphasis on districts means for managing growth is still unclear. The new council will probably want to move in and find the bathroom before trying to answer.

Monday’s inauguration was always going to be upbeat. How the new council functions will become clearer over the coming months and years. But the old council members, especially Harrell, seemed genuinely optimistic that the new committee assignments play well into each person’s strength and that growth will be harnessed to help those who need it.