Championing Seattle’s Middle Class, and Arts Community, Hisam Goueli Vies To Become First Muslim Councilmember

by Marcus Harrison Green

Hisam Goueli relates to any Seattle voter believing City Hall’s experienced its fair share of political malpractice in the past few years.

Count him in good company.

Goueli says it’s the lack of concern illustrated by the city’s policy towards the LGTBQIA, renter, homeless, working class, artist, Muslim and POC communities that led to his becoming a first-time candidate, running for City Council’s position 8 (citywide) to replace 3-term councilmember Tim Burgess.

While he lacks the funding and high-profile endorsements of some of the others in the race, the physician (artist, renter, and LGTBQIA advocate), has relied on a grassroots campaign to get his message of a Seattle where business, artists, the unhoused, and the city’s marginalized all have equal seating at the table. 

With a boisterous laugh that boomed throughout our interview, and a viewpoint straddling the line between pragmatic and out of the box, Goueli, who would be the city’s first Muslim city councilmember, isn’t intimated by the profiles of others in the race, including Seattle Times endorsee Sara Nelson, or Democracy Voucher kingpin Jon Grant.

In a battle of ideas he believes his are the best prescription for a city ailing from a crisis of homelessness, affordability, and transportation gridlock.



Emerald: Why did you decide to run for City Council?

Hisam Goueli: I’m running for City Council for the same reason I got interested in local politics: I really wanted to make a change for my patients.  As I was practicing medicine I realized that patients were staying in the hospital longer and longer. Our average stay increased from 11 to 33 days.

It made me ask the question “why?” The answer was that the population with limited income lived in an expensive city. You should not get to the end of your life and be told that you don’t actually belong in the city where you grew up in and lived your whole life. 

So I actually wanted to make a change in that and I really wanted to make an impact for my patients.  The other reason is that I’m an artist and in the artist community a lot of my friends were sending out messages like: Hey can you help me load up my truck? Can you help me move?

You watch your friends move out of the city, the people who are the culture and the people who are making the city unique and diverse and interesting are all moving out of the city.  I just want to make things better for people who are more vulnerable than me.

Emerald:  You spoke about the shifting landscape of the city and its lack of affordability for an increasing number of folks. What’s your proposal for getting the city back on track in working for all of its citizens?

Goueli: So the way that has to happen is that the city has to get involved with development. What I mean by that is we have a lot of housing at the top of the market for those people who are sort of making above the median of $96,000 in King County.  But there is really nothing for average income individuals or those people who are making near the $15 minimum wage.  My thought about it is really a couple of things:  if we are going to talk about being an affordable city then time is of the essence. Housing is getting more and more expensive and inaccessible the longer we wait.

Emerald: You’ve previously said the city is on its way to mimicking San Francisco in that way.

Goueli:  Exactly. So what I propose is that the city uses its bonding capacity to build. The city should build housing on our vacant land, Seattle has 5 percent vacant land and in order to build it quickly we need to develop partnerships between the public and private sectors. My whole model is to build it now. We need to build it safe; and we need to build it to last.

There are also lots of interesting ideas such as prefabricated homes and things people are talking about.  I have worked in Refugee crisis and am familiar with the build out of refugee homes.  What I found interesting was that the Netherlands basically accepted 66,000 refugees and funded housing for all of them right away. How are we going to do that in this city?  We as a city are going to have to build it.  Developers are thinking about what the market wants and the market right now can bear high prices.

Emerald: Obviously homelessness is a huge issue in our city, with the various current approaches to tackling it having mixed results. How do you suggest we address this problem?

Goueli:  We have to come up with a comprehensive plan. The Poppe plan is a good place to start but it’s probably not a good place to end.  So when you are talking about navigation center you’re talking about low barrier shelters. You’re talking about revamping the emergency shelters.

We need to be talking about how do we keep people from becoming homeless and how one keeps from becoming homeless. We know rent control doesn’t work according to economists. If you talk to 100 out of 100 they say it doesn’t work with the exception of a couple of people on City Council.  

The second option available to us is that the city participates in a voucher program to keep people in their houses. This makes sense to me.  Until we can actually build affordable housing to basically increase the stock, we as a city have to make keeping long-time residents around a priority.

These are people that contribute to the culture and the dynamics that make Seattle. They’re who make the city different from San Francisco, Chicago and New York.

We need to be thinking about homelessness in a really aggressive way, meaning that homelessness is a health care related issue.  Homelessness is a public health issue. The two marry nicely and it turns out that if you actually develop federal qualified health centers and primary health clinics where people are held accountable, and where patients can develop relationships with doctors this gives you the ability to actually impact people’s lives. Patients who are chronically homeless typically are not the people who lost their jobs or are just a pay check away from destitution. These people either have chronic medical conditions or chronic mental health conditions and in order to solve this and get them the stable housing so that they are not using emergency room services we’re going to have to couple these two together.

About 10 percent of Seattle’s population will comprise 70 percent of the health care cost. So, how do we provide enough services for this group of people to get better and how do we make sure they can stay housed?

There are great examples in Seattle of this being done. Mary’s Place does this very well and what I would say is that this is an opportunity to link private and public partnerships so you would have a private organization like Amazon saying: Yes, we believe in your mission and will give you this space to basically do your project and you have a public organization that really cares what happens to homeless individuals.

Emerald:  You’ve referred to Seattle as being “a tale of two cities”. How do you see yourself balancing the sort of diverse interest of different parts of Seattle?

Goueli:  I care about vulnerable populations and I care about the health of everybody.  I think as a doctor I can see what’s best for an individual and what is best for us as a society.  I went into family medicine so I could take care of individual patients but also think about what it meant to be a community and community happens at different levels.

There is what happens in your family, and what happens in your neighborhood, and what actually happens on a city wide level.  A key thing in balancing the needs of our districts is: How do we make things equitable?

I don’t think anyone would be shocked to know that there is a Tale of Two Cities that live in Seattle.  I don’t think anyone would be shocked to feel like they are not getting the resources that they need.  So in North Seattle they don’t feel like they have enough – like they are concerned about the new police precinct. Like what’s going to happen with the police force.  What you’re really looking at in that area is a huge expansive outlay for that one precinct.  No one wants a country club for policemen. That is ridiculous.  It’s not a good use of taxpayers’ dollars and it doesn’t actually improve things. It doesn’t actually serve the community.  What would be really important is that we acknowledge that being a concern and also acknowledge what’s happening in the south of our city – the question about police accountability and what does that mean. It’s about bringing the appropriate people to the table and listening to both sides of a conversation and finding the compromise.

Emerald:  Speaking of bringing people to the table, how do you intend to balance police accountability with public safety concerns?  There was a recent rash of shootings many families are still reeling from and you still have people who do not welcome an increased police presence. How do you tightrope between the two mindsets?

Goueli: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about police because police comprise a huge portion of the budget. We spent $22 million in police overtime last year which is significant to me. When I think about this issue I think that the Consent Decree happened for a reason. And I think it was actually a good thing for many reasons. 

Having spoken to police officers, I think it taught them that there is a certain level of professionalism that they need to have in their field. I think what is always strange to me is how policemen and firefighters are both service organizations but people’s feelings on them are very different.

I think that has a lot to do with what the trust is between those individuals and what’s been the history with those individuals.  When you are talking about police accountability, I think it is important to talk about policemen as a profession that really serves the people. 

There are a lot of police officers that do a really good job of building community relationships and this is what I think has been lacking in the Seattle Police Department.  It’s building really meaningful community relationships with the people that they serve.  This involves getting out of their cars, meeting with meaningful organizations, getting to know the lay of the land, getting to experience what is happening in people’s homes, and working with case managers to get people the services they need. 

Law enforcement has to turn its image around but that’s going to take time and a lot of trust.  The way you build trust is by spending your time with the people that you serve.  You allow them to know you as you know them and I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that.

Emerald:  What was your opinion of Sound Transit 3 as a relief to road congestion?

Goueli: I supported Sound Transit 3 and think it was a really important step in transportation through the city. People are spending up to 90 minutes in their car. Is that a good use of their time? I don’t think so. 

That is time you could be spending with your family, or being more productive, contributing to society, volunteering, or going to your kid’s baseball game. There’s a gazillion things you could be doing with that time.  Instead, people are understandably frustrated with traffic and while Sound Transit isn’t a panacea, it moves us in the right direction. The city with all of its power needs to address how we move people across the city – South, East, West – in a meaningful way.  I don’t think we’ve solved that yet.  I really don’t.

Emerald:  Seattle Public Schools has, as of now, a $74 million projected short fall. Grant you SPS is a quasi –independent entity from the City, but how can the City best take a role in ensuring an adequate education for all Seattle students?

Goueli: You have to have housing in the city that allows more than one or two people to live there, and transportation options have to be readily available to people to get to and from school. So when I think about education, I think education is incredibly important to meeting six developmental milestones before the age of 18.

Four of them happen before the age of 5. So why is that important?  The reason that is important is that we should be investing in pre-K, which we are doing now.  When we’re also talking about education we know that arts are incredibly important for increasing people’s quality of life, improving their test scores on STEM, improving their creativity and it is a social and racial equalizer. We know that the more arts education you have, the more likely you are to stay in school, and that it is a deterrent to crime. We should really be thinking about how we develop an education program and fund the arts to actually help kids feel successful. 

So there is a very important stage that happens from 3 to 5 years of age, when a child begins to feel that they can be successful. A lot of education right now focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), but a lot of kids are not STEM kids. That is only one type of intelligence compared to 9 intelligence types, with the vast majority of intelligence being visual, spatial, high auditory, and writing. So when we are really thinking about how we tap into kids’ feelings like they have the initiative they can have the industry later to actually produce. They have to feel successful from 3 to 5.

If we focus on STEM and you’re not a STEM learner you are not going to feel successful, and going to school is going to be very stressful.  This is where arts education is really helpful; because arts education is a bridge to finding what your intelligence may be and where your natural gift is.  And then we can use that intelligence to help you learn STEM. 

This is why people can listen to songs and remember things when it’s to a tune, like we know that those people exist. We know when people are talking about science they are tactile learners; there are people who are visual staple learners, and that doesn’t happen until you get to middle school. 

You don’t even know you’re intelligent until you finally get there, so this is the idea: make arts and arts education as the cornerstone that we are actually doing right so that we can help kids be successful, stay in school and like going to school, and equalize the disparity that we are seeing between white kids and kids of color, and those with wealth and lower-income families.  Plus we know if we give students arts education, year after year it pays off.  There are great arts organizations here like Arts Corp and Creative Justice who have demonstrated how to provide arts education to help kids stay in school and be successful.  One of the girls broke my heart when she said people told her that arts doesn’t save lives, and she said, “It saved my life when I thought about killing myself.”

Emerald: This particular city council race is a bit unique, as no one running has held elective office before.  What’s the key differentiation between you and the other candidates?

Goueli: I’m a Doctor, and I’m on the front line all the time.  I talk to homeless patients every day.  I take care of homeless patients every day.  I work with case workers every day to get them into housing. I know how absolutely challenging this is despite having a staff that is full time committed to doing it. No one else understands that, not like I do.

I think my experience working in health care internationally  solving primary health care issues around the world in Guatemala, Egypt, and Nepal is unique and significant.  I think lots of people talk about sort of being policy political machines.  I have no interest in being a policy political machine. That’s not going to be my career.  I love practicing medicine and I do want to make a change really to impact people’s lives. When I think about the other competitors and what they have to offer, I think they offer really nice standard responses to questions, but I don’t think there is a lot of substance behind it.  I don’t get a lot of ideas from them. I don’t get any innovation and we’re a city built on innovation. I don’t see any innovation from the statements that are being made. 

That’s not a criticism of them but an observation, and we’re at a time where we need both solutions and innovative solutions. I hear the same rhetoric that I heard two years ago that obviously didn’t solve things, because my patients would not be suffering.  I would be able to find housing for them.  I would be able to take care of my patients in a meaningful way instead of running for office because it didn’t work.

And so I’m tired of people talking about how policies don’t effect people’s lives in a dramatic and significant way. If it takes me for running for office to change the policies then that is what I’m going to do, because that’s how much I care about my patients and what I want for them and what I want for them is to have a life that I’ve been able to have myself. 

No one should have to struggle with the questions, “do I have health care, should I have housing, am I worth it?” And that is probably the most heartbreaking part of practicing medicine.  Where I practice medicine people think the hardest part must be that I work with older adults. While that is hard, the hardest part is that people in this city do not think they deserve to live because that is the message we are sending them, and that is wrong. We can and must do better.