by Marcus Harrison Green
Flanked by family as he stood in front of downtown’s towering Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday afternoon, State Senator Bob Hasegawa publicly announced his candidacy for mayor of Seattle.
The staunch labor advocate, periodically pausing during his remarks to acknowledge honking Metro union bus drivers, declared himself a champion of Seattle’s working class at the kickoff.
Raised in Beacon Hill, Hasegawa is pinning his campaign’s hopes on a “unifying message” to Seattle’s underclass in order to distinguish himself from a crowded mayoral field. With 13 candidates declared, and more anticipated as the May 19 filing deadline approaches, the Cleveland High School graduate believes his time in the state legislature and three decades of community organizing makes him stand out. Hasegawa has spent the past 12 years representing Washington’s 11th District, including parts of Seattle and South King County, first as a State Representative and now as a senator. Additionally, Hasegawa points to his near-decade tenure as head of the Pacific Northwest’s largest Teamsters Union as another credential for the job of Seattle’s top executive.
A Bernie Sanders’ delegate during the 2016 Presidential election, the highly outspoken Hasegawa has never been shy about aiming verbal flames at Republicans and members of his own party alike – calling out those he sees as “corporate Democrats” betraying everyday working people. Hasegawa criticized the recently passed Sound Transit 3 measure for lacking a racial justice analysis and fought to establish a State Bank. He wants to bring the government-run bank idea to the City Of Seattle, as a vehicle for ensuring equitable growth and development.
As a sitting state senator in the middle of a legislative session, Hasegawa’s campaign is prohibited from taking any donations, but he sees the predicament as no handicap – saying his run will showcase “organized people prevailing against organized money.” The Emerald sat down with Hasegawa at his residence to discuss his vision for public safety, housing, education, a city-owned bank, and more.
Emerald: Why are you running?
Bob Hasegawa: I want to bring our government back to the people. I think the Bernie campaign said it best: People feel like the system is rigged against them – and it really is.
I think you’re seeing a growing body politic rising up against corporate control of our system. Bernie called them oligarchs and a plutocracy. I think that pretty well describes how the system is controlled by a few for their benefit and not necessarily for the benefit of the people.
Emerald: And you believe this epitomizes Seattle as well?
Hasegawa: Yes, if you look at what’s happening to the middle class and the fixed income people. They’re being displaced out of the city. People can’t afford to pay the increasing property taxes being put on them to fund good things. There’s no question that money is funding good things but first off, what is the money going to? It’s hard to determine that.
Not to mention the fixed income; a lot of folks living in South Seattle, for instance, are retirees with fixed incomes, so their incomes aren’t increasing but the property taxes on the properties’ values are increasing. It’s becoming unaffordable for average folks to even stay in the city anymore.
Emerald: Many people look at this packed field and see candidates who appear to already align with your platform, such as Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon. What differentiates you from them?
Hasegawa: I think I have the experience to move towards solving a lot of these issues. I have a lifelong connection to the labor movement that goes back to the 70s. There’s a lot to be said for that. I want to get the old school democratic principles back to the fore that have been swept aside.
People like Nikkita Oliver, I respect the heck out of her. We need more people pushing the envelope and talking about real issues. I think that my background, though, lends to a more comprehensive view of the solutions, as well as a systemic view.
Racial justice is important. It’s one of the most important issues we’re facing right now but it can’t be seen as a silo. It’s interrelated with economic justice and gender justice. What it really boils down to is that we need a cultural shift, back where people really appreciate what it means to be a community, rather than the neo-liberalism going around, where you step on anyone you can to get ahead.
That’s the kind of society that has been forced onto the people, and we can’t survive that way. Society means fundamentally we are all together. It can’t just be for the benefit of individual people to get ahead faster than others. We have to make sure everybody is being elevated and uplifted at the same time.
Emerald: What would you say to those people who are looking for a change at City Hall and who say “we currently have a mayor who springs from the state legislature, why should would move forward with another one from Olympia?”
Hasegawa: Yes, I’m a senator like Senator Murray was and that’s a different skill set than it takes to be an administrator – that’s the legislative branch. But I have been an administrator. I was the head of the largest trucking union in the Pacific Northwest, a multi-million dollar operation. And I’ve successfully fought for working families for almost a decade, as the head responsible for every little thing that organization was delving into, all the nooks and crannies.
I have the detail experience and the critical analysis experience to look at programs and evaluate them for the benefit of whatever the goal is you’re trying to achieve. Mayor Murray and I have distinctly different backgrounds. Coming out of the labor movement, our number one philosophy was: solidarity wins you our victories. The corollary to that is whatever brings people together is good; whatever divides people against each other is bad because it weakens people power collectively.
That’ why in a real labor movement you fight against things like racism, sexism and homophobia because they pit people against each other and are just a tool against the people in power to weaken our collective power. I bring that philosophy to the mayor’s office. It’s about building power to the people so people can speak up and gain victories for themselves.
Emerald: A huge challenge facing Seattleite is affordable housing and equitable development. There’s a growing chasm between those who call themselves urbanists and folks who can be viewed as preservationists. There has been talk by mayoral candidates about restricting certain types of development to specific areas of the city, including upzoning. Where do you fall in the debate on equitable development?
Hasegawa: Equitable development is in the eye of the beholder. What’s equitable for the developer is not necessarily equitable for the person who can’t afford to live in an area any more. I think the city has identified growth areas, and I’m not necessarily opposed to things like transit-oriented development. Regardless of how that development is implemented, affordability is also a relative term. I think what’s been missing out of the conversation is talking about public housing.
I don’t know that the city has been doing any public housing developments – Yesler Terrace, I guess. I’m not sure of the minute details of the deal the city did with Vulcan to develop that area but it didn’t seem like it was generally good for the public. I think it was scheduled to create 5000 new units, of which 1700 would be considered affordable. In the process they’re building fewer units than those that existed. That doesn’t deal with either the housing crisis or affordability when you start trading away your rights to developers.
The city is looking to do what they can because they don’t have the financing mechanisms available to be able to build public housing, so one of the things I want to do is to create a municipal bank that would be owned by the people of Seattle.
Emerald: This would further localize the state bank proposal you’ve been advocating for in Olympia?
Hasegawa: Right. Look at the city’s decision to move their money out of Wells Fargo for principled reasons. It’s a good decision but the next logical question is what do we do with that money? Where do we put it? Do you go to Bank of America? That doesn’t make sense, nor do most alternatives.
If we create our own institution, we will recapture our tax revenue and keep it in the city of Seattle, working for the city of Seattle, rather than allowing Wall Street to profit from it. Not only would the bank make profit for the taxpayers but it provides financing resources for the city to be able to borrow from itself and build public housing or do other public projects like building sidewalks in the North End, or whatever the people want to do with it. The people ought to be able to decide where they want their money spent, and what their neighborhood priorities are. I’d like to push decision making down more to the neighborhood level.
Emerald: So you would be in favor of bringing back the neighborhood councils?
Hasegawa: Yes, and give them some authority and budget to work with to develop their neighborhoods. If you have a problem that needs to be solved it’s probably best to talk to those impacted by the problem.
Emerald: You’re obviously aware of the rash of shootings that have taken place in the city, some close to your very neighborhood. What’s your approach to juggling the call for police reform and accountability with the cry for public safety?
Hasegawa: That’s a really good question as everyone seems to be living in fear right now. A lot of that fear is being cultivated by the circumstances people are living under. When you feel like the system is rigged or you feel powerless in a system, it makes people prone to asserting the only power they feel is available to them, which is oppression over someone else’s life. That doesn’t breed a good society.
It goes back to: what is a gang? A gang is a group of kids who don’t feel like they have any power or any future so they look at the only source of power they have available to them. Fundamentally, it’s a systemic problem and we’re approaching it as what do we do individually to protect ourselves.
Yes, obviously protection is important, but this is a systemic issue and we need to provide people with the adequate resources they need to live a fulfilling life. If we start giving people hope and the belief that they do have power to change the future, then we can come closer to solving the problem.
I don’t know who the trigger pullers are in all of these cases. But systemically it’s a social problem rooted in economic inequality, economic uncertainty, and the push towards uber-materialism. When you feel like you can’t afford all of these things society says you should be buying, people feel left behind. Do we really need to have 4 computers in every home, and the newest car in the garage, otherwise we feel worthless? It’s a cultural problem but it can be addressed.
Emerald: Inequality continues to accelerate in this city, so how do you propose we balance the influx of the tech community with our city’s shrinking working class?
Hasegawa: To be sure, this is a national, if not global problem that needs to be resolved at that level. The city can only do a small piece in the bigger picture of what needs to get fixed. The Democratic Party, which had traditionally been the home of working people, doesn’t seem willing or capable of pushing back against the corporate interest gaining momentum and taking the power away from the people. The City can only do what it can do.
I really want to benefit workers throughout the city. We have white collar workers who are making good money but it’s only good money today. They don’t have any income security for their retirement; in fact they don’t even have job security. They effectively have temporary income but no wealth. This leads to fear, the same fear that breeds Donald Trump. We need to fight against this, and provide hope.
In a sense, my campaign is about implementing a basic organizing strategy, meaning before you can organize beyond you have to organize your base. Once your base is organized then we can start building out. This campaign is about organizing people to build power for the people and take back control for the city. If we can show that people can actually defeat money in politics we can show that people aren’t powerless. Since the legislature is in session I’m under a fundraising freeze, so I’m not taking any money at all for my campaign. This is going to be an entirely grassroots campaign, and turn campaign orthodoxy on its head.
Emerald: The city is at a crisis point when it comes to homelessness. What is your approach to helping solve this crisis?
Hasegawa: Homelessness has so many root causes. We’re not adequately funding our mental health system, a huge part of that is providing treatment to our military veterans . There’s oppression against youth who happen to be LGBTQ – and they’re a huge part of the homeless issue. Then there’s the structural unemployment built into our economy. It used to be that 3 ½ percent unemployment was high, during the recession we got into the double digits, now 6 to 7 percent is totally acceptable. At any given time you have 6 to 7 percent of people on the street. If you don’t have a job, especially in the city of Seattle, you can’t afford to pay rent. The criteria for paying rent and moving into these places is steep. You have to have 3 months damage deposit. Pretty soon you’re looking at thousands of dollars just to move in. We do have the means to make sure everyone is sheltered. Look at the city of Berlin. 50 percent of their housing stock is publically owned. We can provide for a lot of needs by recapturing the common good.
Emerald: You’ve been an outspoken critic of the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 package, could you talk about why?
Hasegawa: I think that vote was rigged. I don’t think the ST Board was really honest with the people on what we were voting for. As a legislator they told us Sound Transit 3 was a $15 billion package, and I verified what they were saying, and their news releases, and at the time we balked at the price. But traffic was so bad we had to do something. That was part of the transportation budget bill, which also contained the largest gas tax increase in the history of the state, at over 11 cents per gallon.
I think this was one of those times that elected officials really disregarded the impacts on fixed and low income people who are trying to make ends meet. Once we authorized the $15 billion, the powers that be went behind a curtain, massaged something and when they came back out popped a $54 billion project. They knew they had the votes to pass whatever they wanted to, so they were like kids in a candy store. I’m not saying I would’ve voted against it had they originally stated the true cost, but I would have liked to not have had the wool pulled over my eyes.
Emerald: Seattle public schools is facing a significant budget shortfall at the same time many parents complain that students across the city are not been equitably educated. What role should the city play in addressing this problem?
Hasegawa: It’s an overused phrase, but education is the great equalizer. There is a lot of inequity in our education system. Rainier Beach is one of the only high school’s left that has not been remodeled. The remodeling that is happening seems to be corporate driven. If you look at Cleveland High School for instance, they remodeled it with Gates foundation money in order to build a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] based curriculum.
To me, education is more than STEM but society doesn’t advance on strictly linear disciplines. We have to have abstract thinkers and critical analysis, people who can think outside the box. We have to be open to hearing solutions. We’re being taught that there’s only one way to do things. That’s what linear, STEM, thinking does.
No, there’s not one way to do it. In a democracy we all have experiences that enrich our knowledge, and that’s what builds our wisdom. We’ve forgotten about that, in this shift towards a “knowledge” based economy. We need a wisdom based economy. If technology, which was touted back in the day as making our lives easier, and all it’s doing is displacing workers so they have no jobs, then where is the wisdom in that? We have to figure out how to accommodate those displaced workers.
Emerald: Let’s say you’re victorious, and you end up becoming mayor. What would you want Seattleites to be able to say about you at the conclusion of your first term?
Hasegawa: That I’ve created hope that we will have a better Seattle that isn’t exclusive and doesn’t force those who are not as wealthy as the one percent out. Those people should feel secure that they can live and raise children in this beautiful city. If I’ve done a good job people will be hopeful for the future. If I haven’t then nothing will have changed from today.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image by Alex Garland