Tuesday night will bring a D3 candidate forum to the Central District organized by a group that has drawn criticism but appears to be shaping up as an important player in this summer’s city council races.
The forum, at the Northwest African American Museum Tuesday night, is Speak Out Seattle’s final pre-primary forum after it has hosted a string of forums in other districts in the past months.
All seven candidates currently in the D3 race (Capitol Hill LGBTQIA activist Asukaa Jaxx has withdrawn) will attend the forum, which will be moderated by KIRO 7’s Essex Porter and feature a City of Seattle table with information and a chance for people to fill in or replace their (lost) democracy vouchers.
Among the candidates attending is Zachary DeWolf, who has previously said he wouldn’t attend the debates hosted by Speak Out Seattle. “I’m not really sure that they are completely unbiased and coming to the table in good faith, so my inclination is no,” DeWolf said in April and repeated his position in another interview with journalist Erica C. Barnett.
But he is scheduled to attend Tuesday night.
DeWolf said he talked with the SOS organizers of the forum, who indicated “that they were being misrepresented,” he said. “They communicated to me that they’re interested in solutions, that they’re not for sweeps when there are no resources for people. My understanding from that communication is that they’re not what everybody is saying they are. I don’t have anything else to go off, and I have to take them at their word.”
The local organization, which has opposed drug-consumption sites, the head tax, tiny house villages, and encampments, had come under scrutiny for its views and some shared early connections with Safe Seattle, an online group that has mapped where homeless people live, spread fake news about a beheading in a homeless encampment and posted videos of people in crisis.
DeWolf’s change of heart might signal a larger shift in views on SOS, which seems to have been putting in work to appear less partisan.
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SOS is definitely busy in Seattle. The organization had already been meeting with the Mayor’s Office, organizing monthly meet-ups with “guests” such as candidate Charlene Strong and sending letters to the mayor, City Council and senators advocating, for example, for extra staffing for the Seattle Police Department in what they called an “anti-police environment” or against safe consumption sites for about two years.
In March, the group — a 501(c)4 non-profit — also started hosting candidate forums and social gatherings in different districts,
Some city council candidates, such as D2-candidates Tammy Morales and Christopher Peguero, and D4-candidates Shaun Scott and Emily Meyers said they would not attend or pulled out of the forum. Meyers, in a press release, noted: “Groups that simplify the causes of this crisis, advocate for criminalizing homelessness, or divide our communities against people who are living unsheltered take our city backwards rather than helping address this public health crisis.” Scott’s tweet read, in part: “I agreed to the SOS candidate forum before realizing they were a satellite of Safe Seattle but will be pulling out now that the link is clear.”
Co-founder of Speak Out Seattle Elisabeth James as well as Safe Seattle say that SOS is not part of Safe Seattle or vice-versa and that the groups share no leadership. James posted a blog post “Addressing the rumors,” in which she stated that “SOS is an entity totally formed and managed by people who are separate from Safe Seattle.”
There is evidence of shared early history, however; such as a Safe Seattle Facebook post signed by James, “SOS Interim Chair & Safe Seattle Contributor,” David Preston (Safe Seattle page administrator) and Harley Lever (Safe Seattle founder). Like the Facebook post, news articles identified SOS as a coalition or a member or backer of another group that also included Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, and one article, deleted after CHS reached out to its writer to clarify, identified Lever as the co-founder of the Speak Out Seattle “coalition,” which James says is “not correct.”
James also said SOS “did not start as people that knew each other through Safe Seattle,” but rather four women who met on Nextdoor who drafted a couple of letters. She said signing off on the letters “didn’t make you a member.” She said she posted “a few things” on the Safe Seattle Facebook page because there was “nowhere else to post them.” James did not return an email (or following phone calls) with a request to explain the coalition situation.
“Here’s the fact-check,” SOS representative Kevin Topping, reached separately by phone, told CHS. “We’re not part of Safe Seattle or the communist party, or the Democratic Party; we’re not Bernie bro’s, not Republicans, not Trump supporters, we’re not anything, we are Speak Out Seattle, a grassroots all-volunteer organization that has put on an unprecedented amount of civic involvement.”
James and Topping point to SOS’s non-partisanship and their well-attended forums.
“We had thousands of people who have attended our forums. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Topping said.
“We are encouraging people to get involved in civics and local politics, instead of complaining about things,” James said.
“It’s about getting all sides to the table,” she said. “We decided that with a race involving so much of the city council up, it would be good for everyone to have a chance to speak out.”
Musician, producer and “internet influencer” Matt “Spek” Watson, in widely viewed Medium posts and on Twitter, called SOS “a cynical rebranding of existing anti-homeless groups like Safe Seattle,” pointing to the group’s early “links” to Safe Seattle and “exact same conservative priorities.” On social media, housing advocate Laura Loe called for council candidates to not participate in the SOS-hosted forums.
Previous debates have, through the questions, focused on “public safety, mental health, and addiction.” Ahead of the the first debate, featuring candidates from Seattle’s District 1, some audience questions could be submitted electronically via the SOS website. It appears the submit form noted that questions about the topics mentioned above had a higher chance of getting accepted. Since then, they’ve switched over to an analog approach with written audience questions “put in a bucket” and chosen by the forum’s moderator. When asked by CHS if moderators are instructed to select questions based on their primary topics, James said no. “We would actually like to have other questions,” particularly more district-specific questions, she said.
On Facebook, James wrote in a comment on a post by Kshama Sawant that “SOS supports many progressive positions including ‘housing first’, increased funding for mental health and addiction treatment, needle exchanges, MAT,” which stands for medication-assisted treatment for substance disorders, “wrap-around services, criminal diversions, etc. SOS co-chair, John Wisdom, was a delegate for Bernie Sanders in 2016 so the “right-wing” label is actually a bit humorous.”
In the post, D3 city council incumbent Sawant said she “fundamentally disagree[s] with the right-wing views” of SOS, but that she’d attend the forum nonetheless because “it’s important to debate openly and honestly with ordinary people on key issues under broad discussion in society.”
Other D3 candidates, when asked about their reasons for attending, also talked about the importance of discussion.
Housing-first and urbanist candidate Logan Bowers said when asked about SOS and Safe Seattle that he was “concerned about the overlap between the two groups. I’ve met a couple of the SOS folks, and I think they put in effort to distance themselves from Safe Seattle. And you know, I don’t always agree with the opinions or views from members of SOS, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a conversation,” he said, and added later: “They are residents of the city, and they deserve to be represented by someone who will listen to them.”
Egan Orion, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce head, said he plans to go and talk to any groups “who are approaching candidates in good faith to have a robust conversation about the most pressing challenges that our city faces.”
“We may agree on the objectives, and we may disagree on the means to get there,” Orion added. “For example, SOS aren’t fans of safe injection sites, and I’m a proponent of anything we can do for harm reduction.”
Public defender and former tenants’ rights lawyer Ami Nguyen said it’s paramount that anyone in the city council seat “doesn’t just communicate with people who are always aligned with them,” she said. “I’m going to speak [to] what I believe and what my experiences are, and I’m going to leave it at that. (…) Maybe the experience that I’ve had as a public defender they’ve never considered and never heard yet.”
Sara Brereton, a former Central District coffee shop owner who calls other city council candidates ‘Kshama “light’,” said that “this whole notion that because we disagree with one another, we shouldn’t be speaking with other people, is complete nonsense to me. Seattle is one of the most liberal cities in the US, but for some odd reason, when it comes to homelessness, mental health or addiction, we can’t seem to get our shit together. I would argue that we’re a bit too far to the left. There are people dying on the fucking streets, on heroin. Whatever is going on with these two organizations is not as relevant as all of these tents.”
Brereton, who’s experienced homelessness herself, also added that homeless people “need to accept housing. If they don’t want to be put in a shelter, oh well; they need to be put in a shelter. Choosing to be homeless when you’ve been offered an alternative is just unacceptable, and we must demand of people to go into housing.”
Pat Murakami, who in 2017 lost to Lorena González for the council’s Position 9 citywide seat, said she supports SOS because “they care about getting treatment for people and helping people turn their lives around.”
“Maybe they are hyper-focused on this one issue [of drug addiction and treatment]. How is that different from the identity politics going on in Seattle all the time?” she added later.
“Some people will vote for anyone simply because they share that sexual orientation or are of the same race. How is that any different from an organization focusing on addiction issues? Some people engage in identity politics and do not look at the bigger picture of what they are going to do. People of color have turned their back on their community and not done anything to empower or better that community. If SOS is hyper-focused, how is that any different than other people’s hyper-focus? Regardless of the organization, people have to to be more critical in their thinking and look at the candidate as a whole rather than focus on a single issue or [the fact] that they have a shared identity. It does us all a disservice when we vote that way.”
For DeWolf, the conversation began with his inner circle. He says he “consulted with friends, colleagues, advocates, and constituents, and came to the conclusion that it’s a really great opportunity to bring a compassionate, experienced voice on homelessness to the conversation.”
The SOS hosted D3 Seattle City Council Candidate Forum starts at 7 PM, Tuesday, May 14th at the Northwest African American Museum and will be live-streamed on Youtube.