by Jennifer Karami
Jon Grant is sprinting.
Not literally sprinting, but adorned in an innocuous rust colored sweatshirt, glasses, and a patchy beard, the city council candidate is sprinting through his career. From journalist, to social justice warrior, to Director of the Washington State Tenant’s Union, he ultimately hopes to end his sprint in a seat on the Seattle City Council.
Grant, who lives in South Seattle’s Brighton neighborhood, is running for the council’s Position 8. Affordable housing, police accountability, and gender wage equity are at the top of his agenda. When it comes to these issues, he emphasizes hyperlocal politics and a community-driven response.
“For me to be able to leverage the resources of the city to push back against economic eviction would be an incredible opportunity,” Grant said on Friday.
Local media was aflutter earlier this month when Grant was involved in a shakedown, in which a representative from the development firm Triad told him he could make an alleged $200,000 PAC to opponent Tim Burgess’s campaign “go away,” if he agreed to urge a Tenant’s Union colleague to settle a lawsuit against Triad, reported Seattle Weekly.
Grant told the Seattle Weekly after the incident that he thinks the whole incident symbolizes that Seattle is not immune to corruption in politics.
Grant grew up on Bainbridge Island. In high school, he started a newspaper called Section 8, which covered “punk rock and politics.” Grant says he still goes to punk shows, like his current favorite bands, Wimps and Ponytime.
Grant abandoned the role of a neutral journalist and decided to become an activist during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests.
“I went to that protest with a camera and I thought, ‘I’m going to document this’,” Grant said. “I saw the rampant police brutality, and the egregious misrepresentation of the protest in the national press… I stopped being an observer. I wanted there to be some sort of counter narrative to, ‘this is a riot.’”
For the last 10 years, Grant has been a team captain of the Seattle One Night Count, an organization that surveys the number of people without shelter on a given night. In 2010, he became the Executive Director of the then nearly-defunct Tenant’s Union.
Grant is a no-frills type of candidate. The Stranger endorsed him in the primaries, but noted, “Nerdiness may not be a strong enough a word to describe Grant’s demeanor. Snarling, impatient piety seems to be his default setting.”
On Friday, over coffee and loose leaf tea at a cafe in the International District, Grant didn’t seem particularly abrasive. If he is a little rough around the edges, it comes with the job: leading the disenfranchised through the muck and the mire of public policy, working long hours on a meager budget. Grant is a workhorse, a ground soldier on the progressive front.
Ginger Segel is a Low Income Housing Developer, and has been a colleague of Grant’s since they served on the board of the TU in the early 2000’s.
“He is a nerdy policy wonk,” Segel said. “Part of that is seeking out information, to understand the decision he’s making and make sure it’s well researched.”
Segel said Grant has the ability to draw on the knowledge of those around him. She says he would ask her advice on issues like how to staff a program with short-term funding, or how to work with a funder who was too controlling.
“It was five years of sprinting from one thing to another,” Grant said of his time at the TU. “My first day was inheriting an empty office of an agency whose budget had been completely cut.”
Grant was able to scrape the money together, and he says he changed the conversation from “How do we responsibly close the doors?” to “How do we rebuild the Tenant’s Union?” In the first month, he raised $35,000.
During his time at the TU, Grant worked to pass the 2012 Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance through city council. The ordinance requires rental properties in Seattle to undergo health and safety inspections. But the RRIO took years to pass, and it was not without significant roadblocks. For one, the Department of Planning and Development recommended that inspectors look only at the exterior of the house.
“It wasn’t really fair to tenants because the house could look beautiful on the outside,” Columbia Legal Services Staff Attorney Merf Ehman said. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
Ehman, who has known Grant since she supervised him during his time as a paralegal, says he was upset by these suggested “drive-by” inspections.
“I think it takes a lot for Jon to get really angry,” Ehman said. “He gets angry when people aren’t honest, when they say one thing and do something else. Or when someone gets treated badly or abuses their power.”
Grant says his time at the TU taught him that, often, hyperlocal municipal programs are more effective than trying to pass state legislation in Olympia. He believes the city should step in to establish programs, like paid parental leave, when the state fails to do so.
If Grant is elected on November 3, he will have two years before he is up for reelection.
“It’s going to be another sprint,” Grant says.
Sprinting is not easy to do within the confines of city government, known to move at a glacial pace.
“You always get more,” he said, “from fighting back.”
You can listen to audio of Jennifer Karami’s interview here