Such was the request from Seattle CityClub, the organizer of last night’s City Council candidate debate for District 3 at a packed Town Hall on First Hill.
It turned out an impossible ask, as supporters applauded and cheered when incumbent Kshama Sawant was welcomed to the stage, and fans of challenger Egan Orion seemingly tried to surpass the decibel levels just moments later.
Applause returned soon when Sawant hit the ground running when she called Orion a “poster child for big business” and took aim at the Amazon and Vulcan-backed Political Action Committees’ expenditures on Orion’s behalf, just moments after he made his first pitch.
Orion had said he would be equipped to serve in public office because he had served his “community” with his work at PrideFest and brought “a collaborative style of leadership” to the table.
“Unity and collaboration and coalitions with whom?” Sawant asked. “We know what corporations like Amazon and chamber of commerce are trying to do. They are trying to flip City Hall to the right.”
The comment set the tone for the rest of the debate — and potentially the rest of the campaign through November 5th — with jabs on both sides, either followed by applause or finger-snapping, one thing the organizers had not explicitly discouraged.
But even as they sparred at times about campaign funding and accountability, and disagreed on rent control and the Employee Hours or “head” tax, Orion and Sawant agreed on some issues.
Both supported the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Both said that small environmental/design and street calming improvements, such as speed-bumps (Sawant) and revitalizing an empty parking lot (Orion) in the Central District could be a solution to gun violence in the area and that community members supported it. Both praised the efforts of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
They also both said the city needed more density, and both favored a tree ordinance. Both also were not in favor of downtown congestion pricing, though Orion hinged his support on “an equity option to address workers traveling downtown.” Sawant said there was none and that public transit should be expanded instead.
Both also avoided responding to questions directly, including one about whether they supported Mayor Jenny Durkan carving out more money to better recruit and retain police officers in her new budget proposal.
Orion brought up the recent stabbing near Cal Anderson and the police being “spread hyper-thin” that night due to another emergency, which was covered by a conservative pundit at MyNorthWest. “And so what if the next emergency was something that impacted you or your neighbors? We need to shore up the police’s — not that we necessarily need more police, but we have to stabilize the police force,” Orion said.
Sawant didn’t comment directly on Durkan’s budget increase either, but noted that “the police department of Seattle is the most funded department” and that Seattle needs a police force that serves “ordinary people.”
“Many people, including LGBTQ people, will tell you they don’t go to the police because they actually had the opposite experience,” she said and called for more accountability through an independently elected police oversight committee.
Orion and Sawant diverged on plenty of issues, too. Highest up on that list: Sawant’s recent draft legislation for rent control in Seattle.
Sawant defended her proposal, citing recent rent control measures and “momentum” in New York, Oregon, and California. “This is the bill that Congresswoman [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez just released today or yesterday on rent control,” Sawant said while holding up a printed stack of papers. “And it is the same exact same policy that we have.” She also said that outreach with small landlords about rent control would be critical, and claimed many of them agreed with her proposal.
“The small landlords that she’s talking about, this would totally destroy their livelihood,” Orion countered when he took a stab at her proposal “released just six weeks before the election after six years of talking about it.” He argued it would not work and would “destroy the thing that you actually want to do.” Orion said he supported anti-rent gouging measures and a renters’ fund instead.
Orion did not repeat his earlier support for rent control à la Oregon.
“My opponent will never tell you how he is going to fund these emergency funds or any other proposal because his corporate benefactors are going to be absolutely opposed to any progressive measures to raise the revenues,” Sawant countered.
By which Sawant, of course, meant something akin to the head tax. “I would proudly push for [the head tax] again,” Sawant said, while Orion said he didn’t want to “go back and keep on fighting those old fights.”
“I think one thing that we learned from the head tax debate is that residents didn’t trust city council. One poll showed that 8% of voters trusted that council would use the head tax funds wisely,” Orion said, promising he’d work to regain trust as he repeated his pitch for a more accountable and transparent governance.
The sharper disagreements, however, were over campaign funding and accountability, as a Council Member, and as someone backed by money from corporations. Sawant read aloud some names of Orion’s campaign donors who also had backed Republicans, and Orion called out Sawant’s support for Jill Stein.
“What we need is elected officials who will not play games, telling one audience what they want and another audience the exact opposite,” Sawant said, while Orion took aim at her tenure and said: “We need someone who builds bridges, not burns them.”
A tense moment came after Sawant was asked about repeated cancellations of meetings of the Human Services Committee she chairs.
“The calculations that the corporate media has used for meetings is absolutely nonsensical,” she said. “These numbers are completely wrong and inaccurate.”
“You don’t have to ask the quote-unquote corporate media,” Orion responded. “You can just ask her colleagues at city council; she has the worst record of holding meetings for any committee chair. So either Council member Sawant doesn’t believe that we’re in a homelessness crisis or she’s not telling the truth.”
Campaign funding was a key issue that came back time and again. When asked what he would counter to Sawant’s claim that Amazon is trying to buy this election, Orion said “if you want to know about a person’s priorities, you should take a look [at] where the money that’s going directly into their campaign is coming from,” saying Sawant’s financial support from within D3 was at only 25% to his 60%. (Sawant later said she had more donations from within D3.)
“Let’s look at some examples,” Sawant said of Orion’s donor list. “Billionaire John Stanton, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans. Richard Hedreen, owner of multiple hotels, known union buster and again, a known Republican supporter — and the list goes on and on.”
With the hugely expensive campaign moving into its final weeks, stakes were high Thursday night and even possibly well-intentioned moments on the Town Hall stage took on greater meaning on social media as video of the debate was made available online and voters began dissecting the forum on Twitter and Facebook.
Orion provided a tinder-dry moment for the social media fire in response to a question asking both candidates to name a District 3 resident who best typifies who they are working to serve. Sawant named a small landlord who also is a union member and a childcare provider. Orion named a couple who recently opened a new small business in the Central District.
“Kiana and Devon, the owners of The Postman at MLK and Union,” Orion said, are an “example of what Black business owners can do” if they have community support and “put their minds to it.”
Even a few supporters admitted the statement made them groan.
Back on stage, as a lightning round with one-sentence answers and later an “Overrated/Underrated” round — both like Volunteer Park, Orion likes Spinasse and Bamboo on Capitol Hill, Sawant prefers Saba in the CD— brought some levity, both candidates ended with familiar issues in their closing statements.
Sawant criticized “corporate politics,” and called for action and policies such as rent control, expansion of social housing, and a green new deal, all funded by taxing big business.
Orion repeated that he’d be the one to listen and show up to solve the homelessness crisis through a housing-first approach and treatment on demand for mental health and addiction, among other issues.
And then, right when Orion and Sawant shook hands, the pent-up boos were finally released as the moderator thanked Amazon, one of its main sponsors for the night.
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