“What have you done to support or engage with the LGBTQ community?”
If there was anything the Greater Seattle Business Association — aka “Washington State’s LGBTQ and allied business chamber” — wanted to know from all City Council candidates during last night’s GSBA-hosted “Face To Face” candidate forum at the Broadway Performance Hall on Capitol Hill, this was it.
Every time a duo of competing candidates stepped onto the stage for their 25-minute “tête-à-tête,” they’d face that same question.
So by the time the District 3 candidates Kshama Sawant and Egan Orion settled into the padded blue chairs on stage, about an hour into the forum, both probably knew what they were going to say.
“What we’ve done with Pridefest is built it to a point where it’s this bright shining light that casts its light out into small communities around Western Washington and the state,” said Orion about his work as executive director of Pridefest, the yearly celebrations at Seattle Center and on Capitol Hill and its work with and fundraising for nonprofits.
“There are kids out there who don’t know what it’s like to truly be themselves. And so when they see that light, they know that there’s one place that they can go all year round in order to truly feel themselves. I believe that the work that we’ve done at PrideFest saves lives.”
Seattle City Council member Sawant focused on some of her budget wins, including securing funds for LGBTQ seniors and the LGBTQ health center at Nova High School in the Central District in the budget. She quickly connected the latter back to her core campaign issues.
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“It has also painfully highlighted the chronic underfunding for public school education overall, especially the needs of LGBTQ young people (…) because of the inability and unwillingness of elected officials at every level to tax big business and bring forward progressive taxation to fund these services fully,” she said.
The forum, which focused on City Council candidates from the four districts “below the ship canal,” was an opportunity for both Sawant and Orion to tout work on issues they’ve tried to highlight in their campaigns: support for small, minority- and LGBTQ+-owned businesses, as well as LGBTQ+ issues.
Among those issues: the rise in hate crime reports, particularly on Capitol Hill. Sawant and Orion had very different ideas on how to tackle the problem.
Sawant approached it from an intersectional lens, noting that while the spike in hate crimes was partly due to “the emboldening of right-wing forces to Trump’s election,” statistics show “that when inequality spikes, crimes of various kinds also spikes.” The only “serious” way to address LGBTQ rights and priorities, she argued, would be to tackle economic, racial and gender inequality with policies such as rent control and progressive taxation to fund publicly-owned social housing.
Meanwhile, Orion zoomed in on the nightlife scene of Capitol Hill. He proposed (following, he said, an idea from the Office Of Economic Development) to concentrate people getting out of the bars at 2 AM on a well-lit parking lot with restaurants and security staff. It would be a place to wait for rideshares. He wants to add bike chariots to that mix to move people from the front steps of queer spaces to either the lot or public transit access points.
Orion later proposed, to a question about what would look different in four years if he were elected, “gender-neutral bathrooms in all public spaces” (Seattle’s All-Gender Restroom Ordinance from 2016 bans gender-specific single-occupant restrooms in city facilities and public places), as well as creating more capacity for LGBTQ-owned, people of color-owned businesses.
“There’s lots of different ways we can do that. We can support nonprofits like Ventures, which support low-income entrepreneurs and puts them through training and then connects them with microloans,” he said, noting that Business Improvement Areas are another way to “serve the community.”
Orion also made a point of thanking Sawant for her LGBTQ advocacy, “particularly for the trans community.”
While tensions have, at times, run high during this campaign season, the atmosphere of the half-filled auditorium was somewhat subdued.
That briefly changed a little over an hour in, after Sawant mentioned she hoped the city would go in “a progressive direction and not in the direction the Chamber of Commerce and Amazon and the big corporations are going by trying to buy this election.” Her supporters applauded while one disagreeing audience member hissed loudly in the direction of the incumbent.
Sawant later circled back to the influence of corporate PACs in the election. “Many of these donors are not just big business billionaires. They are also people who have donated to the Republicans who were against marriage equality. So we have to be very careful.”
In the primary, Orion was boosted by more than $156,000 in independent expenditures from the pro-business Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, the biggest outside spending in the city. Amazon contributed $250,000 to CASE and Vulcan gave $155,000, according to filings with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC).
Sawant critics, meanwhile, point out her Socialist Alternative fundraising machine which boosted her campaign coffers with hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to hundreds of supporters in Seattle and from across the country.
While questions for candidates from other districts at the forum focused on citywide issues such as the Seattle Police Department and the consent decree, safe injection sites, and the head tax, moderators Brady Piñero Walkinshaw (CEO of Grist Media and former 43rd District Representative) and Capitol Hill developer Liz Dunn of the Cloud Room and Chophouse Row kept the D3 discussion firmly planted in D3 and recent CHS coverage with a final question about … Barcelona superblocks and citywide council member Teresa Mosqueda’s intentions of bringing one to Capitol Hill.
“The proposal as applied to Seattle would close vital commercial streets,” Dunn, who was ostensibly not a fan, said in the prelude to her question. No proposal for closing streets has been made.
Here too, the candidates’ views diverged. Sawant was generally supportive of the idea but noted that she would want to see genuine input from small business owners and that she wanted to figure out whether there’s a way to accomplish it without “negatively impacting our local small businesses.”
Orion didn’t love it. “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of great ideas that we have as a city, but we just don’t have the infrastructure in order to implement those ideas, like around congestion pricing, like with the idea that you were discussing right now,” he said. “We are not to the point yet where we can institute an idea like this. I think we should dream big, but understand the limitations of what our system has.”
Whether a Capitol Hill superblock will become a campaign issue for D3 remains to be seen, but perhaps it’ll come up again during one of the other forums this month. A D3-centric debate organized by Seattle City Club is up next, at Town Hall on September 26th.