Note: This is the first in our series of interviews with candidates running for Seattle District 2’s City Council Seat. The District encompasses the majority of South Seattle.
“Underdog” is a role Tammy Morales recognizes all too well. The Seattle City Council candidate has played it for much of her life whether by growing up the child of a single parent only to work her way through college and graduate school, or by choosing to spearhead the revitalization of long neglected areas most had written off for dead. The Texas native and Seward Park resident currently finds herself in familiar territory as she vies to become the first representative of Seattle’s District 2 – which houses almost the entirety of South Seattle after voters passed a 2013 measure to move to district voting for seven of nine City Council seats – as she faces off against seven year City Hall veteran and lifelong South End resident Bruce Harrell.
However, the straight talking Morales is unfazed by the challenge in front of her. She believes her track record speaks to having done more for residents of the South End as a private citizen over the past five years than most elected officials can claim during their entire tenure. With enacted city policies currently bearing her fingerprints on it and active affiliations with over a dozen South End organizations it’s difficult to argue that point.
Calling herself a “true progressive” Morales contends her skills in community planning – honed from schooling local legislators on the finer points of public policy, most recently as the principal at food policy consulting firm Urban Link, coupled with what she sees as a genuine recognition of the plight of all of South Seattle’s residents (from the well-to-do to the hardly doing) make her the perfect choice to represent a community whose improvement many see as a longshot – a position the mother of three is wholly accustomed with overcoming.
Emerald: Your main challenger for the District 2 council seat is City Councilmember Bruce Harrell. You’ve been positioned as the new kid on the block, though you’ve worked in the area for over a decade. Why should South End residents consider you as their representative in District 2?
Tammy Morales: I have been doing work in South Seattle for the past 15 years. I first moved to Seattle in 2000 and started doing community development work. I’m trained as a planner and an anthropologist so I’m very interested how communities function or don’t function as the case may be sometimes. My first job in Seattle was with Impact Capital, an affordable housing lender, which was a great way to quickly became familiar with all of the neighborhoods in Seattle that have community development organizations based in them.
I love this part of Seattle. I’ve worked on affordable housing issues, I was here painting Angie’s 15 years ago, working on community policing, neighborhood clean up issues. I worked with folks in Chinatown on the community policing issue there. Then my work here focused on food related issues. For the last 8 years I’ve been working as a consultant on food access issues trying to build healthy communities. My work is really about making sure people have equitable access to resources. Whether it’s healthy food, or access to health care, or transit access, food is a great lens through which to understand how all of these things are connected. Throughout South King County I’ve worked with a lot of Somali grocers who are trying to increase access to healthy food by accepting W.I.C and food stamps. That’s really what’s been driving me. Community development work is really important to me and it’s allowed me to have very close relationships with the community groups that fight for working families. I’ve worked with Puget Sound Sage and Got Green on healthy food access issues. I’m on the steering committee of Rainier Beach Moving Forward and we’re trying to use food as an economic development strategy. In the neighborhood plan update the community said they wanted to develop a some food-related jobs. At Rainier Beach Moving Forward, we want to help implement that plan to create a food business cluster where people can use a kitchen incubator to start their food truck or start a catering business.
There are some incredibly rich cultural assets in this community and food is a great way to showcase that, which is what we’re trying to do with this innovation district. We’re trying to create a second international district if you will, where we could use food to highlight the diversity here, the resources, the assets we have in this community and bring people down here to spend their money. This work is really important to me and has allowed me to strategize with different city agencies on the policy issues, but also to work on the ground with small businesses and community members. I think those two levels of experience really inform one another and highlight my strengths as a leader, a strategic thinker and someone who gets a job done. That’s what I can bring to the City Council.
Emerald: What would you say differentiates you most from your opponent?
Morales: I would say that I am a progressive and I stand by my values. I’ve been a leader on addressing our region’s health disparities and addressing the challenges this community faces. The difference between us is that I actually take action and demonstrate leadership. I know he’s a life-long Seattle resident. I know he’s been in office for 8 years, but I can’t find a lot that he’s done specifically for this community. He’s talked a lot in past races about how he’s going to show leadership on housing, on transportation issues, on public safety. He’s tinkered at the edges on all of that but hasn’t actually championed anything that can help this community. For example when the council was trying to pass paid sick leave, he called for more studies. When we were trying to pass the healthy housing ordinance that would make us register rental properties to track whether they were meeting health and safety codes, he tried to put loopholes in there to let landlords off the hook. When we were passing the minimum wage he was absent from a lot of the hearings, and he actually voted to weaken those laws by creating a second tier of training wages. When we talk about public financing of campaigns, he grandfathered himself in so he could continue to raise money and put himself at an advantage in future races. There’s a lot of talk about being a progressive but there’s not a lot of action. He’s just late to the game when it comes to these progressive policies. There’s been a lot of leadership around these issues that help working families, but none of it has come from Bruce Harrell.
Emerald: With resident concern over crime in the South End area at a fever pitch, how would you strike a balance between public safety and police accountability if elected to office?
Morales: Look, this is an incredibly complicated issue. This is an issue that is structural and has a long history. There certainly are no easy answers. The first step is we have to think about prevention. There are an array of investments that need to be made in this community whether it’s pre-school education, improving public schools, providing summer job programs for kids, activating our community centers more regularly. I was block walking this weekend and the Van Asselt community center was closed on a Saturday. That’s crazy to me. I’m committed to making the investments necessary to making our community a safe, vibrant place to be. That includes supporting programs for people to get out of cycles of domestic violence, to get out of poverty. There’s an array of things we need to do to give people hope and opportunity they don’t have. One of the things I’m really interested in is increasing access to education and apprenticeship programs, so all of these things could lift people up and the community becomes stronger and better connected to each other.
In the meantime we have a lot of work to do to build trust between the community and law enforcement. I want this to be the kind of neighborhood where if kids feel endangered on the street they will trust the police officer to help them, not be afraid of of an officer. I want this to be an area where we celebrate the Detective Cookie’s and the Carmen Best’s. But we aren’t there. If we’re going to change the relationship between the community and the police, we need to rebuild trust. One way to do that is to get the police out of their cars. They should be walking down the street and meeting business owners and people.
As I’ve been knocking on doors I’m hearing from folks that they want much stronger accountability, including firing bad cops. We need to make sure that if an officer’s actions warrant disciplinary action, that is enforced and maintained, not reversed two weeks later. This community wants to know that there are actual consequences for bad behavior on the police force. There are great officers doing great work in our community, but their work gets undermined when there are no consequences for bad police behavior.
Our community deserves an effective police force that we can trust. Crime in southeast is different than other parts of our district. In Georgetown it’s about prostitution and drug use and metal scrappers. This is where the guns are (RB area). People are scared so we need to invest the resources that it takes to see a change in our neighborhoods. Let’s try some gun buy-back programs. Let’s try something creative because what we’re doing isn’t working to get the guns off the streets.
Emerald: The passage of Priority Hire was seen as a huge win for job equity in the South End area. You’ve talked about making sure contractors are held accountable as opposed to being able to slither out of hiring requirements. How would you make sure the ordinance is enforced as intended?
Morales: The Mayor has the new Office of Labor Standards and I think that’s going to be a crucial piece because now we have a place to go when there are issues. I’m hoping employers will follow the law and implement it in a way it was intended, but we do need to make sure there is an education component about how this works. Workers need to know their rights and we should make sure there is a tracking process in place to assure that we are meeting the targets. I’m not sure, honestly what the penalties are but we need to be ready to use them. This is a huge win and I hope it benefits people within the community.
Emerald: What’s your plan to bring living wage jobs to the South End community?
Morales: I work with small businesses in many different ways. I work with micro enterprises and for many of them English is not a first language. One of the things we can do is make sure they have technical assistance in different languages through the Office of Economic Development. These businesses need help understanding how to navigate the permitting process, how to navigate the fee structure. If you’re starting a food related business it’s 800 dollars to get a public health permit and there’s a long list of things you have to do to get that. So making sure that before someone invests $40,000 in a smoker and discovers they can’t use it, they understand what equipment they can and can’t use in their facility. That assistance is what OED is trying to do, but are probably under staffed to do well, with as many microenterprises as there are. The other thing I would like to see is a much closer relationship with industry, with the maritime industry, with electricians, with folks who have apprenticeship programs that are already established. I was meeting with someone from the maritime industry who said they have a one year apprenticeship program at the community college. People can come there and get their certificate in refrigeration to work on the ships. Our port is a huge employer here so folks can get this certificate and be making $15,000 a month! He said “I can’t fill these classes.” If that’s the case, there is a lack of communication and a lack of outreach into the community. That is low hanging fruit, let’s make sure people know about that. Those things are relatively easy and we can be doing that now. We do have a lot of work to do in terms of identifying the growth industry here and supporting local businesses that can hire local folks.
Emerald: What do you think is best approach to development in the South End?
Morales: The short answer for me is it depends on what the community wants. It’s time for a hard shift away from allowing developers to do whatever they want. We can let the market run roughshod over our community or we can step up and manage the growth that’s coming. This community is smart, entreprenuerial, innovative. Development needs to be done in a way that is equitable, responsible and community-controlled. We can’t do everything. There may be competing interest. This community wants to see growth in neighborhood employment opportunities. We want to increase the skill sets of our neighbors. We want jobs in the neighborhood so people don’t necessarily have to go downtown or Seatac or whatever the designated job centers are. It would be nice if some people could stay within their community to work, but that means we need to bring businesses and grow businesses. So the question then is at what scale?
We can do small retail businesses but they don’t necessary employ a lot of people. I would love to see employers who could hire one hundred or two hundred people. We can take advantage of some light manufacturing where we have zoned for that kind of facility. If we could attract different types of employment throughout the districts it would grow organically, then small businesses could grow along with them.
The other thing we really need to acknowledge is that we have a stated Race and Social Justice Initiative. This city has stated values and goals around what kind of city we want to be. If we’re going be a just and equitable city, we have to make some hard decisions about shifting power.
Emerald: With many South End residents struggling to afford to live in the area, what is your plan for curbing displacement in South Seattle?
Morales: That’s the million dollar question isn’t it (laughter)? I believe we should be using the Race and Social Justice Initiative to make decisions about what kind of housing gets built. In the South End we have a high percentage of households with multiple generations, with 4-or 5 people living in them. We have large families living on limited incomes, yet the kind of housing projects that are getting approved down here, and getting permits, are studios and one bedrooms, with the occasional two bedroom apartment. I don’t know how that aligns with our stated Race and Social Justice Initiative, but what I can tell you is that doesn’t serve our community. It’s these kinds of disconnects we need to be watching. Someone needs to be tracking those issues and making sure that if a project is getting public financing then we hold them accountable for serving the community. If the project is getting approved or getting a permit or any kind of public resource, there should be a predetermined, agreed upon community benefit for that. If you’re using public money to build housing, it better be serving the community.
Now the other thing we need to be doing is make sure that we’re preserving pre-existing affordable housing. The city can use general revenue funds for creating more affordable housing. The housing levy is up this year and I’m hoping that Seattle voters approve that again. It would be great if it could be even more than in the past. We could also be looking at municipal bonds for more non-profit ownership or even community ownership of housing. I’m committed to keeping people from economic eviction where a landlord says, “I’m going to give you 60 days to get out of here, even though there’s no real reason for me to kick you out other than I want to double the rent”. That’s not okay. If we’re going to allow that kind of thing to happen then I think we are quickly becoming the kind of city that is only affordable to the wealthy and that’s not the kind of city any of us want to live in.
I’m committed to making sure we deal with this housing emergency. We have skyrocketing costs and our hands are tied right now with regard to some rent stabilization because the legislature won’t let us do that. I still think we could make a strong statement with support from the Mayor and the Council that says this is something the City wants, and that Seattle recognizes that we have crazy rents and we need to stabilize this in someway. It’s not okay to just kick people out so you can double your rent. We need to find some new solutions as to how we build housing, how we finance it, how we subsidize it for those who can’t afford $1500 a month rent. I believe the city has an obligation to hold developers accountable for pitching in their fair share to create this housing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for a percentage set aside or for impact fees that can be used to increase the number of affordable rental units we have. The idea that we could just build our way out of this and continue to build $1500 a month apartments is somehow going to help the person making $18,000 a year makes no sense to me. The City Council has been guided by what developers want and we’ve seen lots of condo development, lots of expensive apartments, but not nearly enough rental units for working families. That’s the problem. For far too long my opponent has made decisions that put working families at risk. What I would say to those working families is that they have a choice. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can have someone representing you who is going to fight for you and make sure you have a fair shot at success.
Emerald: You’ve been outspoken about your support for a community college with a physical campus in South Seattle. Why are you so strongly advocating for one here?
Morales: It’s about equity and accessibility. If you look at a map of where community colleges are in Seattle and you overlay that with the amount of time it takes to get to your designated college, you’ll see the disparity. Every other community has about a 30 minute bus ride to get to their community college, except southeast Seattle. If someone is going to the college in Delridge from here, it’s about an hour and fifteen minute bus ride. You have to take 2, sometimes 3 buses, depending on the hour of the day. The bottomline is it’s an equity issue and having easy access. Access to training opportunities, higher education opportunities, certificate programming. We do have the campuses in Georgetown and New Holly, but they are fairly limited to ESL classes or very specialized training courses. They don’t offer a broad spectrum of coursework. It’s not necessarily about getting a degree. We have every right to ask for more choices in the kind of training we’re getting. I acknowledge the challenge with this proposal is that across the state, community college enrollment is down. Right now it doesn’t sound like the system is interested in a big capital project. That said, if we can identify the specific needs people have, there is interest in expanding programming whether it’s for apprenticeships or for nursing certificates, we can at least make the case for why we need more programming here. I would say the campus idea is a goal – a long term one. For the person working a couple of jobs, who needs to go to night school and be home before 9pm with their children, it’s important we have something in the neighborhood that people can get to. I’m excited about this. I’ve been talking to South Seattle about expanding programming and there’s movement at the state level as well.
Emerald: How would you work to insure an equality of education for students in the South End?
Morales: There’s a lot of work going on to address that question and there’s a lot of great programming already for kids, support programming, parent engagement programs, and after school programs. The big barrier is funding. The City Council has some control over the Families and Education Levy. I’ve heard from so many community groups that the way that money is allocated puts our schools at a disadvantage. They are frustrated that the application process is complicated and requires extra staffing. It’s important that we have a system that acknowledges that some schools that need extra resources and we’re just going to give them the resources that they need. Why this is set up as a competitive grant process with a really complicated application that is very confusing is beyond me, especially for communities who don’t have the staff capacity to navigate that. It’s really a disservice to the community. It’s really a justice issue here. I think the first thing that should happen is that the way the money is allocated should be changed so that it’s more equitable. I’m excited about having a preschool program. We know that early childhood education is critical for getting kids on the right path to success. The new program isn’t perfect. There are some significant challenges with some of the requirements, but we have it and I’m hopeful that over time we can improve things.
Emerald: How would you make sure you truly represent the interest of all of the residents in what has been referred to as Seattle’s “majority-minority” district.
Morales: I’m obviously in a privileged position. I’m Mexican-American, but I’m white. Yet my compassion, my progressivism, my commitment to doing the right thing for working families is part of who I am and part of what I bring to this race. I think the war on drugs has been a complete and utter failure, and we have a lot of work to do to break down the systems that have preserved the institutional and structural racism that we have in this country. The war on drugs has had a disproportion effect on African American men in this district and in this country, so I want to create ways of breaking down the structural problem. We need to have conversations around race that are uncomfortable. I think that my role, if elected to the City Council, is to listen to the community and to make sure that I understand from the community’s perspective how decisions affect them.
Emerald: We’ll end with two questions from local students. The first comes from Emily, a middle school student at Dimmitt. She wanted to know your favorite place to eat in South Seattle?
Morales: There’s a Mexican restaurant we go to called Los Tinos, that’s very yummy. We also eat at Pho Bac. My 4-year-old daughter has discovered pho and loves it there. And we spend a fair amount of time at Big Chickie.
Emerald: The last is from Noah, a soon to be high schooler at Rainier Beach. He assumes you’re a Spurs fan – originally being from San Antonio and he wanted to know: If the Sonics came back to town, would you root for them against the Spurs?
Morales: Well, I love my Tim Duncan. But I’m a Seattleite so if we get another team back here, I will root for the Sonics!