John Stafford: I’m Not A Band-Aid Politician

Editor’s Note: This is the third in our series of interviews with the candidates- 5 Democrats and 1 Republican- who are vying to replace retiring State Senator Adam Kline in the 37th District. The top two candidates chosen in the primary election- held on August 5th- will continue on to the general- which takes place on November 4th. The winner of which will represent the 37th District in the Washington State Senate. The 37th currently comprises almost the entire South Seattle area.

John Stafford has lived a life almost as diverse as the district he’s campaigning to represent. The one time Ivy Leaguer, Wall Street Maven, Tomato Truck Driver, and South Seattle Substitute Teacher has cast a wide net in his collection of experiences. It’s this breadth of knowledge and penchant for reinvention that the “every man” candidate- so called because he eschews the artificiality often identified with political aspirants- hopes to bring to the 37th District, transforming its economic and educational fortunes for the better.

Emerald: You have a very assorted background, going from the penthouse to the outhouse, in going from a high salary Fortune 500 consultant to a substitute teacher at some of the southend’s toughest schools. How do you think your diverse experiences would help you in representing the 37th district as its State Senator?

John Stafford: From a policy standpoint when a candidate is dealing with a range of issues such as how much to spend on roads, how to tax people, how to deal with the existence of non-profits within a community, how to deal with marijuana policy and violence, having an intellectual background -where you’ve studied these things and understand their interrelationships- in my opinion is extremely important because everything is so interlinked. The breadth of experience- where you’ve actually been involved in seeing these things play out in a tangible way rather than just reading or in an intellectual endeavors -is equally important, and I believe that I have both of those perspectives.

So taking that and extending it into the 37th district, where there are people from every conceivable background in this place -which is one of the things I love about it the 37th district- I think having a very broad background like I do, is very important for policy, very important to understanding people’s concerns and understanding the vastness of how policy plays out in real people’s lives.

Emerald: Your campaign has harped on economic growth. With South Seattle having the highest unemployment in the city, how would you make sure at the state level that a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, and the 37th experiences more economic vitality?

Stafford: That brings up a very important societal thing which is this notion of income equality. That’s not some sort of academic problem, that’s a very real problem and if that’s not addressed a lot of other endeavors are going to be undermined by not addressing it.

Taking education as one example, I support the McCleary funding. But, let’s just say that’s funded without income inequalities being addressed – you would have neighborhoods around the district, some very affluent, and some very poor, and you’d be embedding the achievement gap. That’s going to cause the achievement gap to persist even though you’ve put in funding, so my point is that in dealing with policy, you need to be addressing specific policy in such a way that starts to address the societal issues.

So for the McCleary decision for example, I advocate funding a considerable percentage of it from the repeal of corporate tax breaks which starts to deal with, a little bit, the income inequality. I would also favor a state income tax on high income earners, I don’t know how practical that is because it’s been defeated so many times, but the point is that there is an important connection on dealing with societal issues and policy issues at the same time, that’s key.

As far as near term job creation, things like the transportation package that’s coming up for a vote – and was passed by the (Washington State) house in the supplemental section but not the senate- are positive, as not only do they support infrastructure, which helps business in the long term, but they also provide economic stimulus in the short term. Some of the projects associated with that have a mildly favorable impact for the 37th district. For example SR 167/ I4105 interchange is slated to have considerable investment. That is in the southern part of the district but that would be positive for here. SR 509/SR 167 corridor has improvements which would also disproportionately help here.

Are these going to be huge deals? No, but by providing construction jobs and that sort of thing, there is some short term benefit. In dealing with job opportunities, it’s important to see the short term stimulus, and long term impact, and I have policies I favor that start to get at both. I’m also a supporter of the minimum wage, which isn’t a job of course, but once you do get a job it increases your livability.

I will say, that there aren’t magic bullets for jobs, because if there were everyone would know what it was and we would all do it. It’s a challenging thing, but if I had to elevate one thing I would say that it would be education. It’s better to approach job creation from a fundamental standpoint than a band-aid. Transportation is great but you really want to bring in everyone in society, get them with a vision, and education is a key part of that.

Emerald: Speaking of education, it is at the forefront of most voters minds in terms of ways to improve it for area youth. Is the answer vouchers? Charter schools? More testing? What policy do you favor?

Stafford: Vouchers I’m opposed. Charter schools, lets say opposed is on the far left and highly supportive is on the far right, with neutral being in the middle. I’d say that I’m slightly negative. So, I won’t spend one minute supporting or advocating for charter schools. On the other hand do I think that charter schools are going to destroy the public education system? No.

This notion of education choice is very, very interesting, and people are tempted in my opinion to drink down what they hear in terms of explanations all too quickly without thinking about them too carefully. So, let’s take this idea that there are failing schools, until recently they used to call Rainier Beach High School one, though I wouldn’t. But, when it was failing what was going on there? You had an unbelievably high percentage of people who had no money, and were on free or reduced lunch programs. They had every conceivable family life issue, which was largely a function of the nation’s history. I mean you can’t have slavery in a country for 200 years and then pretend that there’s not going to be after effects along with all odd the injustices that followed it. Socioeconomic differences are profound drivers of what happens in schools.

I go to Rainier Beach and I see one student a month with a violin. I go to Eckstein Middle School and I see everyone coming in with a trumpet case. It’s very, very sad. My point is, to call that a failing school, is very simplistic. We as a society are failing in terms of how we deal with income inequalities and in terms of how we deal with providing opportunities. Those are the core issues, so to come in after the fact without dealing with any of these issues and say that Rainier Beach is failing, and Eckstein is successful, is really a dangerous narrative.

So then why don’t we fix that with school choice? Well some of the more motivated students are going to choose to go to Eckstein and, candidly, if too many went, then the people who live in that community would say, “Jeez, we’re not sure we’re in favor of this policy.”How many people in that community are going to choose to come back to Rainier Beach? Very few. So, you end up eviscerating the Rainier Beach community even further.

One thing that’s proven successful is this notion of providing established track opportunities for students. I get students all the time who say I want to be an automotive mechanic, so why do I have to study Robespierre and the French Revolution? I can give them an answer to that, but on the same token I empathize that there are different people out there.

For instance, when someone wants to get a PhD in business, and someone wants to drive a bus, those are both wonderful things, and certainly we don’t want to go in and tell students, you’re going to do this or do that, it needs to be all their choice, but it makes a lot of sense to start having tracking opportunities for students, who say I want to go to technical college and have a high school experience that meets those needs. We should start to develop tracking coupled with increased counseling, something akin to the highly successful Rainier Scholars Program. We need to provide a little bit more support to kids so they can envision what they want to do and how that’s going to play out. That can lead to improvements in efficiency, productivity, student motivation, and all of that can happen with additional funding.

Emerald: You’ve been extremely open in your stance on Climate Change.That’s still a somewhat polarizing topic, especially at the local level where many ask, “How does that affect my daily life?” Why has the issue been such a prominent part of your campaign?

Stafford: It goes back to why am I running? I’m running to make an attempt to address things substantively and address and advocate for the key issues of our time, climate change being one of them. If they aren’t popular, and if they aren’t at the forefront of peoples minds, and it doesn’t connect up with what is clearly a big issue, then I’m willing to pay the price for that. That doesn’t mean that I want to pay the price. I want to try and convince people that they should care, but I’m not going to say: “Don’t worry about climate change, it’s okay!”

Let’s talk about climate change- 97% of scientists say that the sun comes down, heat reflects, and if you put too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere it traps the heat, which has big impacts on the ecosystem and the consequences are extremely devastating. When will these things occur? Is it 100%? Those are some issues for debate, but 97% of scientists agree.

So, I view the scientific debate as totally over. It has nothing to do with me. I remember interviewing with another paper and they asked, “What ‘s your views on Climate Change?” As if my views mattered. They don’t. I attend lectures, I read books, but do I have a PhD from Berkeley, with over 10 years in the field? Have I reviewed 30 articles? No. So, therefore given that this field has 30,000 equations that document everything, my views don’t matter, and neither does the editorial board of a paper. Scientist are telling us that this is a clear issue, with huge potential implications, so I would feel remiss as a candidate not to adopt it.

My proposal to deal with it at the state level is to implement a carbon tax – which a huge percentage of both economist and environmentalist support and that is normally impossible. The way it works is that you go to a gas station, you feel up your tank and there’s a sign on the pump. You’re paying 10 cents per gallon extra carbon tax to begin to address climate change. The idea is that you start thinking that: “There’s a little pain here, so maybe I should start looking for some other things.” The magic of it is that 10 cents you pay, comes right back to you. You lower your property tax rate, and your sales tax rate, so you don’t pay more. You pay basically the same. You start to focus your activities in such a way that aren’t carbon intensive, so unless you’re driving 2 gas guzzling SUVs, you don’t get penalized. It comes out being revenue neutral so it’s not even a tax. This has worked in British Columbia and Finland. I view it as an indicated solution.

Emerald: Public safety is the topic du jour in the South Seattle area. What would you do at the senate level to address issues of crime and violence?

Stafford: These issue need to be seen from a long term perspective that starts to address causes as well as from a short term measure. Education, again, becomes critical. Before and after school learning programs become critical in order to provide additional opportunities for youth to participate in meaningful ways. Minimum wage is also important as is expanding the affordable care act. So all of these things that start to build communities and deal with income inequality those are the key, and their needs to be a constant eye on addressing structural issues.

One also has to acknowledge and start to deal with things from a short term perspective. One is that the Seattle Police Department has had a long, troubled history with disproportionately dealing with minority groups, so that needs to be addressed. There is the Department of Justice agreement, that I do believe that the SPD should be compliant- as if you’re caught doing things wrong for long enough, then you shouldn’t then quibble with the details.

There’s a whole host of issues, community policing, neighborhood policing, having officers get out of their cars and spend time at community centers to forge ties, as opposed to driving around and arresting people. Am I an expert in police tactics? No, but I am familiar with the fact that there’s a whole world of strategic practices that can be considered and applied in an appropriate way.

I’m also a supporter of drug courts. Let’s say that we go out there and find someone who has x ounces of cocaine on them. Instead of saying we’re going to break up your family and send you to prison for five years, we adopt a different approach and establish a court that’s conjoined with an existing superior court. The defendant comes in and he is given an offer, he can either go to prison or he can agree to the following program: He goes to counseling for x number of times over the next year – we do need to find him not in position again because that would be flouting this opportunity – but he can stay with his family. It creates an opportunity and less incarceration. It becomes more appropriate when you look at the stats and the chances of an African- American with cocaine going to prison for drug possession is about twice as much as a Caucasian guilty of the exact same offense, so it starts to make a little bit of progress in that.

I’m also in favor of a host of gun control measures.

Emerald: If elected, what would you hope a constituent would be able to say about you once your time in office was over?

Stafford: That he approached his job from a totally substantive perspective. He developed meaningful proposals that could have major structural impacts on society. That he wasn’t a band- aid politician or a feel good politician. He wasn’t a, “I have 3 extra dollars for this program politician”, but that he was someone who looked at things from a structural standpoint and tried to have a reconfiguring impact. If someone said that about me I would etch it onto my tombstone.

Emerald: You’re extremely active around South Seattle. In addition to being a substitute teacher, you consult for area nonprofits, volunteer as an elementary school janitor, and umpire area baseball games. What do you love about the area and what are your favorite places?

Stafford: I adore South Seattle. First of all I love rough and tumble things. I love the rough and tumble spirit found here!

It’s hard to settle on just one place I love. I’m a golfer and a member of a local golf club, which is predominately African American. They set up weekly events all around the city, including at Jefferson Park Golf Club. I play there quite often. So, Jefferson and the golfing community at large, I love!

I adore Columbia City and I realized that there isn’t one restaurant I haven’t been to there. I also love the Royal Room. There’s a few times they allow me to actually play drums onstage. I love participating in the music scenes. I also love the area’s parks.