In a tense vote Friday, the Seattle City Council chose Kirsten Harris-Talley — program director for Progress Alliance and a well-known advocate for racial and criminal justice — to fill the seat vacated by former Councilmember Tim Burgess. Following Ed Murray’s resignation amid accusations of sexual abuse, Burgess became mayor in September.
Harris-Talley, said Council President Bruce Harrell, “Brings a sort of community relevance to our discussion with respect to some of those things we’re going to work very hard at.”
Councilmember Lorena González said, "I am proud to support a fellow woman of color as my next colleague on the Seattle City Council." After the vote, she called Harris-Talley a “remarkable candidate,” while ribbing her for enjoying karaoke.
Harris-Talley brings with her the support of the newly formed Seattle Peoples Party, whose candidate for mayor, Nikkita Oliver, built enormous energy leading up to her razor thin loss in the primaries last August.
Harris-Talley will hold the position until Nov. 28 when either Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda, the two candidates for the citywide position will take office. In that time, she will have a single task: amend and, eventually, pass a budget originally proposed by Burgess.
"While I have a short timeline to contribute my expertise in consideration of this year’s budget, I plan to focus my priorities on the work that I’ve been working on for so many years," she said, pointing to her work on reproductive rights, restorative justice, police accountability and "interrupting the assumption of incarceration as a solution to the very real root problems of poverty and other things in our communities. There are opportunities throughout this budget for us to address these."
She said she would like to funnel as much funding as possible to community-led models and programs.
"It’s been the dedication of my life to work with folks as they develop that work and to listen to the community," Harris-Talley said. "[The community] knows how to lead and has the creativity and solutions that other institutions need to lean on for expertise and leadership."
Her selection is something of a surprise. Retired City Councilmember Nick Licata was viewed as the immediate favorite because of his experience as the head of the budget chair. His longtime aide, now council member, Lisa Herbold fiercely fought for his appointment Friday, crediting him with changing how the council functions and “laying the foundation” for its current progressive tilt. He would not need any adjustment period, she said.
But as the council drew closer to a vote, the “default option,” as Councilmember Debora Juarez referred to Licata, seemed to fade as the council spoke in favor of giving a younger woman of color an opportunity to serve. In the end, Licata only received one vote, from Herbold.
Abel Pacheco, Jr., an Evans School graduate and former candidate for city council, received two votes, from Juarez and Councilmember Rob Johnson.
Harris-Talley is the Program Director for Progress Alliance, which works to rally donors and support for progressive causes. In community forums leading up to Friday’s vote, she pointed to her work as an activist against new investments in criminal justice infrastructure, such as the proposed North Precinct Police station and the new youth detention facility in the Central District.
In her online biography she says she has, “over 10 years of experience in training, program development, organizational development and evaluation.” Before her work with Progress Alliance, she was a program manager for Cardea, a Seattle non-profit that provides training, organization and development help to other organizations provide services to clients.
Meanwhile, she’s volunteered with boards and committees to further reproductive rights for communities of color.
Her selection brought together varying wings of the Council, with both Sally Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant voting in her favor. "She comes from similar grassroots movements as I have," said Sawant, which the progressive councilmember said meant she would be held accountable by outside forces.
Her selection continues a dramatic reshaping of the city council from a majority white, majority male council in the early 2000s to a slate of elected officials that is both majority female and majority people of color.
She also joins a council that is notably more to the left, where views held by Licata over his tenure are no longer the exception. That an opponent of the new youth jail was selected by a council that, not too long ago, voted in its favor, is notable.
Harris-Talley was quickly sworn in Friday and will have her work cut out for her: Discussions on the $5.6 billion have already begun.