City Council Candidate Lorena Gonzalez: “I’m Running to be the Voice of Seattle’s Disenfranchised”

Rarely has anything  come easy for Lorena Gonzalez. Not the paycheck she toiled for as a migrant farm worker at the tender age of 8 to put food on her family’s table. Not the law degree she financed by sacrificing any semblance of a social life while performing every odd job imaginable, nor the legal victories for the low-wage and immigrants workers she represented in wage theft and discrimination cases in her role as a dogged civil rights lawyer.

Gonzalez (middle) at a recent candidates forum.
Gonzalez (middle) at a recent candidates forum.

Perhaps this is the reason the first-time candidate seems so unfazed at the undertaking of running for the Seattle City Council’s District 9 seat (one of two city-wide positions to remain after voters approved a 2013 measure partially districted the Seattle City Council). The former legal counsel to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray believes the fusion of grit, determination and empathy that has yielded her success in the past will bring the same result come election time as she champions the rights of workers, immigrants and displaced tenants. A platform she believes will resonate resoundingly with all of Seattle, but especially its southern segment. Gonzalez recently sat down with the Emerald at Columbia City’s Rainier Valley Cultural Center to discuss her campaign.

Emerald: Why are you running for Seattle City Council?

Lorena Gonzalez: I’m running because I think the City of Seattle is really going through a period of dynamic transformation and we can feel it as we  walk  through the city.  We see the changes. We see the cranes. We see the faces changing that are walking down the sidewalk. I’m really interested in making sure that as this city grows we still have African American and Latino faces on its streets. Also, I bring an experience and a focus that has never been represented on City Council. I know what it means to grow up poor. I know what it means to grow up in a home where English isn’t the first language spoken. I know what it means to grow up in a home where everybody’s got to work because everybody’s got to contribute to the household, to make sure you have something to eat at the end of the day.  I think that’s an experience that people in this city are currently living right now and I think that’s an important perspective to bring to City Hall, which is a very powerful place in our city. I believe the upbringing I had will give me a perspective that truly reflects the values of this city and will bring in the voices and the struggles of the people who live here into the room, and at that table.

Emerald: I’m sure you’re aware there were some eyebrows raised at the timing of your announced run for the Position 9 seat – just a few hours after the would be incumbent, Sally Clark, decided to step down. What was the deliberation process like in deciding to run?

Gonzalez: I moved to Seattle in 2002 and since then I’ve been actively engaged in the community, and one of the beauties of going to Seattle University Law School is their Jesuit tradition of instilling in their students that it’s important to give back to their community. I’ve been a community activists and a community volunteer for a really long time. I went to law school because I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I did hard cases, controversial cases, high profile cases and throughout my entire legal career I always knew that I wanted to do more. I felt a very strong sense of wanting to do more public service, and this opportunity really just presented itself to me at the right time, and the right place in my career to be able to fulfill that desire to want to do more public service. So,I took advantage of the opportunity to do it.

Emerald: With the City Council being independent of the Mayor’s Office, how do you feel you could truly maintain a sense of independence as a councilmember being that you’ve worked closely with our mayor as an adviser and legal counsel to him since mid 2014?

Gonzalez: I actually met Mayor Murray for the first time when he interviewed me for the job. So, I met him for the first time in April of 2014, and I worked with him for a total of ten months. When I met with him, one of the things that he mentioned to me was that he was really looking for an independent voice. He wanted someone who would come in with a very strong sense of what the City of Seattle needed and the folks who lived here wanted from the mayor. He wanted me to be able to tell him no when I needed to tell him no. He wanted me to push him when he needed to be pushed and I did that the entire ten months I was with him – specifically as legal counsel, and his office’s lawyer. Again, it was my responsibility to say no when I needed to say no, and that I was able to articulate why I was saying no. I think the relationship I was able to establish with him and his office is going to lead to a good spirit of collaboration, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be willing to or able to say that I disagree with him when it’s warranted.

Emerald: This is your first run for public office, though you’ve obviously been involved on the back end of city governance -helping to write legislation. How do you think that experience transitions to City Council?

Gonzalez: I was saying earlier that I think that we’re dealing with a lot of significant challenges in the city, and I think one of the benefits of having worked at the city -albeit for only ten months- is that I do understand, unlike any of my challengers, very deeply how the city works, and how it is we actually get something done. Where do we start when we have a policy idea and how is that developed? “This is an idea that I have, but will it actually work?” I’m able to know that it will because I’ve worked on the executive side, which does the, “roll up your sleeves and gets your hands dirty” type of work. Laws get made and I’ve been on the side that actually has to implement them and roll them out. I think that’s really going to help me as a lawmaker to understand. Yes, here’s an idea, but how do we get it to the way that we want it to be, and also take into consideration of how it’s actually going to roll out into the community. We can make laws all day but if they don’t actually have a meaningful impact, and if they don’t actually touch the lives of many, many people in our city then we shouldn’t have made that law in the first place.

Emerald: Affordable housing is an issue that nearly every candidate has latched onto  regardless of what district they’re vying to represent. What differentiates you from your other challengers on the issue?

Gonzalez: I think the way I differentiate myself is by who I am. I think we have to look at where our city is headed. Who is in the room making these very important decisions that can mean the difference between someone’s kid making it or not making it, and do those decision makers look like the City of Seattle? I think I do look like the City of Seattle and the communities that struggle the most- the ones that are most disenfranchised- are the ones I have dedicated my life and my work to serving. This is the perspective I bring to every single policy issue I looked at while I was at the Mayor’s office and it is what I’ll look at to every single policy decision I make as a city councilmember. I know what it’s like to be disenfranchised. I know what it’s like to not have an opportunity, and that’s not what the standard should be. I’ll bring that vision, and that perspective to City Hall with me.

Emerald: With the rate of inequality growing in our city what plans do you have to make sure that the “opportunity gap” narrows for some of Seattle’s residents?

Gonzalez: What helps narrow that gap are two things, and these are two things I’m really interested on working on as a Seattle City Councilmember. One is I had pre-K. I went through head start at Central Washington and there is no replacement for what pre-K can do for somebody. I’m really excited that we’re going to have universal pre-K in the city and the one thing I will be looking for if elected is making sure those investments in pre-K are done in neighborhoods that have the least amount of access to it. The second thing is education, aside from Head Start. When a child enters into the public school system which most people do in this city. We don’t have any kind of governance authority over the school district. They’re their own entity, but there are things that we can do as a city to help our kids be successful in that system. There are transition services. There are all types of wraparound services that we are making sure we are delivering to our kids to make sure they are the most successful they can be in our public school system, such as before school programs and after school programs. W e need to ask what are the other areas the city can, and should play a role in to make sure we’re not contributing to the opportunity gap in terms of education.

There’s also jobs. Workforce development is really important for our community. Getting at the root of poverty and trying to make sure that working people are not the working poor, is a significant challenge, and we’ve made a huge step forward in that regard.  We had a victory last year with the Priority Hire legislation – which I helped write when I was at the mayor’s office. We were really proud to send that to city council and have them vote on it and approve it. Thinking about other types of workforce development, along with what other types of meaningful opportunities we can give to our youth and to other folks who are unemployed, and how we can lift them up and help them break the cycle of poverty is really important to me.

Emerald: Turning to public safety, you were a member of the Seattle Police Accountability Review Panel. The alignment of Public Safety with Police Accountability has become a hot button issue, especially in the South End. How would you make sure those things coincided with one another as a councilmember?

Gonzalez: I absolutely don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. Frankly, I don’t think we can have one without the other. People aren’t going to be willing to call 9-1-1, or pull an SPD officer to the side if they don’t believe that officer is going to be acting with the utmost integrity, and within the balance of the constitution. You need to be able to trust a police officer before you’re able to come to him with a public safety concern. That’s just the reality of the world that we live in. Our challenge as a city is to build that community trust. I think we’ve done some work with that, but there’s more work to be done there. I think that Chief O’Toole is a great addition to the police department. She’s working really hard to prioritize on how to build community trust between the police department and the community. I think those are all good movements forward. At the same time, we as a community need to be able to be willing to engage with our police officers in a way that is respectful. We can’t always assume that they’re the enemy. Now, when they misbehave it’s equally our responsibility to make sure we hold them accountable and I’ve represented lots of people in police misconduct cases, including against the Seattle Police Department. It’s really important to test the system, so we make sure it’s working the way we want it to work.

Emerald: In your opinion, what strides have been made, and how far do we need to go in terms of their being full-scale trust between citizens- specifically those in the South End- and police. I’m thinking of an exchange that recently took place at a youth summit in Rainier Beach between teens and SPD officers, when one of the teenagers said “Honestly, when I step out of my house, I’m more scared of the police than anyone else.” How can the city work to change that?

Gonzalez: I think we make some progress and then Baltimore happens, and then Ferguson happens. I’m not saying that there weren’t incidents in between then obviously, but when incidents like that happen and everyone is talking about it, it becomes our filter. It becomes our reality, and for many of us it is a reality. I have brothers who get profiled all the time by police officers- not in the City of Seattle but in the areas they live in- and it’s not okay. I think we have to have an honest conversation as a community about how we’re feeling and why we’re feeling that way. We have to feel like it’s okay to have that conversation with officers in the room who can be our allies. I think we’ve made progress in that regard. I’ll point to the Refugee’s Women Initiative, which I think is a really wonderful initiative where we pair female SPD officers with women refugees- mostly in the East African community-  to really come together to be supporters and ambassadors of each other and the East African community. We’ve gotten some really great testimonials out of that. People feel really strongly about the positive impact that’s having, so the women who are participating feel like they’re in a better position to interact with the police department and they feel like the police officers are actually human. They feel like they can ask them questions and figure out how to get help, not just on their issues but on other issues. That’s the level of trust we need to get to. I think it would be great to have that particular model be brought out to scale, so we can apply it to other groups and have them feel that way throughout the city.
Emerald: If you were elected you’d be the first Latino ever to sit on Seattle’s City Council. What would that mean to you?

Gonzalez: I can’t even put that into words. It would be an honor, of course. I’ve always believed in mentorship. I’ve always believed in being able to set an example and reach back and really lift community. I hope that if I break this glass ceiling, that other people who have similar experiences to me, and have gone through struggle can look at my race and believe they can achieve anything that they want. In that moment when they’re feeling like they’re too scared or they’re being too bold, I hope my story makes them feel they can be bolder and they can jump farther, and dream bigger because it can be done.

Emerald: You’ve made road safety one of the central tenets of your campaign. What is your opinion on the proposed Rainier Avenue Road Diet?

Gonzalez: Rainier Avenue has had over 1200 collisions and multiple deaths. I think something needs to be done. I’m of the mind that there is rarely a one size fits all solution to a problem. I think that on the road diet, there’s no question that the experts say slowing people down reduces collisions and accidents that will happen on roads very similar to Rainier Avenue. I think it is important to take that into account in slowing down traffic on Rainier, but at the same time we have a speed limit that is 35 mph right now, and people aren’t following it. If we have a speed limit that is 25 mph, what’s to say that people are going to follow it? Lowering the speed limit only works if we pair it with enforcement. That’s a piece of the discussion that is not necessarily being had. Reducing the speed limit is fine but if you don’t enforce the 35mph, what’s to say you’ll enforce the 25 mph limit. We’ve got to enforce whatever speed limit we put into place. The narrowing of the lanes- going from 4 to 2- is certainly going to help- and that’s going to force people to slow down.There’s a lot of road design issues that we can do as well. For instance one of the things that is going to happen is that they’re going to do left turn signals only. I’ve traveled up and down Rainier Avenue a lot and that’s the scariest thing is when someone is trying to turn left on it. Those are things I think we really need to take a look at, as we’re looking at Rainier Avenue to make sure we’re not looking at it as a one size fits all solution to what I think is a kind of complex problem.

Emerald: How would you keep South Seattle, and all of Seattle for that matter, affordable to live in? How do we curb displacement in the area?

Gonzalez: That’s another one of these areas where there is no one size that fits all. There are people who live here who come from every spectrum of the income ladder. There are folks who are trying to scrape by with $40,000 or less. Some people are between $70-80,000 and then there are some who make over $100,000. Then of course you have those who make way more than that. I think that the solution to affordable housing needs to be different based on who we’re talking about. There’s a lot of different solutions that are being discussed right now in the Mayor and City Council’s Housing and Affordability/ Livability Advisory committee. That’s a really diverse group of people in that room. We have developers. We have tenants. We have landlords. We have tenants rights advocates. It is an incredibly diverse group of perspectives.

I’m really excited to see the recommendations from across the board as I anticipate that they’ll be a lot of them. The options that are on the table now are Linkage Fees, Inclusionary Zoning and a form of mandatory incentive zoning, and I think those are all things that should be on the table because the crisis of affordability is so significant. I think our solutions need to be just as aggressive. I think they’re all viable options to make sure there’s affordable housing, and not just in our commercial zones but in our residential zones as well. That’s really the new construction piece of the work, but there’s also the issue of preserving existing affordable housing. We need to make sure that we’re preserving enough of those units that are still in good condition and make sure that people of all incomes have all options to stay in this city or they can move to options that are affordable.

Emerald: South Seattle is very unique in that is possesses a substantial number of residents who do not speak English as their first language. In terms of job creation what are your thoughts on either creating or expanding existing programs that allow that segment of the community to be on equal footing with everyone else?

Gonzalez: I founded a bilingual legal clinic at El Centro De Le Raza, and most of the folks that we saw were from the South End community. I got to see first hand what problems they were dealing with in terms of trying to get work or keep work. That’s not just a problem in the South District – that’s a problem for anyone whom English is not their first language. I think there are really some interesting models out there that the city should be looking at for workforce developer programs. As a board member of One America, one of the things we did was put together what we called an English Innovations program. We were funded by the Gates Foundation to essentially produce it.  What it does is create a platform for non-native English speakers to learn English at work. We partnered with Tutta Bella here in Columbia City to launch the pilot for the program. We provided the laptops. We provided the internet access and a tutor. Tutta Bella agreed to have someone sit and learn English for an hour or two a day during their shift. This really helped to transform how they saw the world. It went from, “I was a waiter and I kept my head down because I was embarrassed and felt like I was invisible,” to them holding their head high and saying they felt confident. It was transformational. That’s the type of program we should be looking at city-wide to make sure that our workforce is as well trained as possible.

Emerald: Why’d you decide to run for a city-wide position as opposed to running in District 1 (West Seattle) where you currently live?

Gonzalez: The issues I’ve been working on are ones that I think are really city-wide issues. I’ve worked on police misconduct issues. I’ve worked on immigrant’s rights issues. I’ve done civil rights work. Those are all issues I think transcend just one district and I wanted to be able to bring that level of experience and skill to the at-large seat.

Emerald: Are you endorsing or advocating for any of the three candidates currently running in the South District?

Gonzalez: I’m not currently endorsing anyone as I’m a candidate.

Emerald: We’ll finish with a question from a local middle schooler questions. Chris from South Shore wanted to know what comic book heroine  you most wanted to be growing up and why?

Gonzalez: I’ve always wanted to be Wonder Woman because, I mean come on, who doesn’t want to be Wonder Woman!

Image courtesy Lorena Gonzalez

One thought on “City Council Candidate Lorena Gonzalez: “I’m Running to be the Voice of Seattle’s Disenfranchised””

  1. That paragraph “I think the way I differentiate myself is by who I am.”is quite possibly the worst answer to the question of making sure there are affordable housing I have ever seen. Some of the other candidates staked out policies, she differentiates herself by not having any and claiming the mantle of tokenhood with pride. Her opponent may not have been the strongest candidate in the world but at least Bill woulda answered the question.