Students packed into a Seattle Central Community College lecture hall Thursday for a debate between two candidates for City Council — just another indication that the race between Kshama Sawant and Richard Conlin is among the most intriguing Seattle political campaigns in recent history.
A debate over rent control served as a good illustration of the race’s prevailing promises-versus-process theme. Sawant has called for rent control throughout the campaign, and has offered it as part of the solution to more than one issue. During the debate she said the city needed to adopt rent control so people could live in the places they work without having to take multiple buses to get there.
“Demand is not just desire, it’s the ability to afford that good,” she said. “That’s why we’re proposing rent control, so people can live in the places that they work and not two or three bus transfers away.”
With 16 years on the Council under his belt, Conlin has been skeptical that it would even be possible to implement rent control in the city.
“Rent control, whether a good thing or not, is prohibited by the legislature,” Conlin said, adding that it was a “cruel illusion” to think the City Council could enact it. Conlin suggested that there were other cities with lower rent, but they were not seeing the growth and prosperity seen in Seattle.
Conlin was elected to the Council more than 16 years ago as a strong environmental advocate. Sawant is a professor and Socialist Alternative candidate who ran an unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Frank Chop last year. Sawant is considered to be the underdog in the race, however a recent KING 5 poll found that 45% of voters in the city disapproved of the job the current city council is doing.
In past appearances together neither candidate has offered up the customary good-sport nods to their opponent’s achievements, and that remained true during Thursday’s event. The debate was short and sweet, kicking off at 11 AM and wrapping up in just under an hour. Sawant, an SCCC economics instructor, was on home turf and it showed in the overwhelming applause she received compared to Conlin’s respectable, but less enthusiastic, crowd support.
Sawant launched high energy challenges towards Conlin and sweeping calls to action, as Conlin played the practical and politically weathered politician. Sawant got right to work in her opening statement, calling out Conlin on his vote against paid sick leave and said that Conlin’s “paralysis in fighting for our interests is only matched by his eagerness to support big business.”
On the question of what each candidate would do to ensure a more accountable police department, Conlin said the issue largely came down to better management. In contrast to Sawant describing the council’s drone restriction policy like “handing a club to a bully,” Conlin argued that the policy was the most progressive in the country. Sawant ran down a list of police reforms she would implement, including citizen oversight of the department that would come with “full hiring, firing, and subpoena powers.”
Both candidates said they opposed coal trains coming into Washington state with Asia-bound cargo, but differed on what action to take to stop them. Sawant called for “mass, non-violent civil disobedience” while Conlin supported taking every legal step to stop the trains.
In the final round, each candidate was asked to pose a question to their opponent. Conlin, up first, asked Sawant to explain what she had done in the fight for LGBTQ rights. Conlin noted he had been endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Election Committee, a LGBT group that rates candidates running for office.
Sawant responded by saying that the fight for LGBTQ rights has been a collective effort. “It would be dishonest of me to tout my individual achievements,” she said.
For her question, Sawant asked Conlin to explain how a Seattle family could live on less than $15/hr. Conlin said he was not against the $15 minimum wage, but cautioned against implementing it too quickly. “We need to design a path to get there,” he said.
Over the past few months Conlin has been largely on the defensive amid Sawant’s onslaught of direct challenges to him and the Democrat dominated city council. But Sawant has found herself on the defense as of late. There was Conlin’s suggestion that she has been detached from civic life because she took more than a year to register to vote after becoming a citizen. Earlier this month PubliCola called into question Sawant’s authenticity as a socialist candidate, noting that her husband makes six figures as a Microsoft engineer. In a statement Sawant said that she and her husband, while still married, have been separated for six years.
There were no questions from the audience during the SCCC debate as Conlin said he had to leave. At the debate’s end, organizer and SCCC history professor Kraig Schwartz challenged the college to do more to be engaged in the political process.
“We need to revitalize the political culture at Seattle Central,” he said. “We need to become the beacon and voice of a progressive Seattle.”
The debate marked the third one-on-one forum featuring the two candidates.