by Marcus Harrison Green and Maggie Mertens
Before Lorena González was a Seattle City Councilmember, or a civil rights attorney, she was the daughter of migrant farmworkers in central Washington. Next, she hopes to be Seattle’s mayor.
On Wednesday morning, González, a first-generation American, officially announced her run for the position of the city’s top elected official.
Growing up in poverty, González says joining her parents working in central Washington’s orchards as a child and witnessing the abuses migrant farmworkers like her own family endured helped inspire her to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. She was elected to one of Seattle City Council’s two at-large positions as the first Latinx councilmember in city history in 2015.
Last year, Seattle City Council elected González Council President. Since then, she has helped set the council’s agenda, from passing emergency legislation during the COVID-19 pandemic to help tenants protect themselves from eviction, offer relief for small businesses and hospitality workers, and the recent ordinance that requires grocery stores to pay employees an extra $4.00 an hour of hazard pay.
González made news in January 2020 when she became the second sitting councilmember to become a mother while in office (her colleague, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, became the first just two months prior). She and Mosqueda both pointed to the first-hand experience of being a working mother to address issues like the city’s childcare crunch. She has helped double the number of Seattle Preschool Program slots and has worked with council to incentivize more childcare facilities in new construction and affordable housing developments.
As an attorney, González represented victims of police misconduct. Last year, she led the Council as they approved cuts to Seattle’s police department and investment in community-based public safety programs, overriding Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of the budget. As mayor, González believes she can help the city “transform public safety to meet this civil rights moment.”
The Emerald spoke with González about her mayoral run and how she would govern the city.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Why are you running for mayor?
I’m running for mayor because I still believe in Seattle and in its potential, and in the potential of the people who live and work here.
I have hopes and dreams for the city that I love. And it’s where I have chosen to raise my family. I still remember the first time I ever visited Seattle as a fifth grader. I just remember being in awe of the city and dreaming of the day that I could come back and possibly live here. I know that we are at a critical crossroads in our city, and I know that now is the time for us to have bold and progressive action that is going to smash the status quo and pave the pathway to our collective and shared prosperity in the city.
We know that income inequality continues to grow in our city, and I believe that we have the power to create living wage jobs and affordable housing to deal with that. We have an economy that is hanging by a thread, but we have the power to support our small businesses and their workers. And of course we’re amidst a racial reckoning that has been made worse by this pandemic, and really ravaging our Black, Brown, Indigenous, and communities of color.
We have the power to show that here in Seattle, diversity is our strength, and I know that we can transform public safety to meet the civil rights movement. There’s a lot of ways that we can approach that work, but I believe that we can do all of this by finding common cause by centering those that have been harmed the most and, and getting to work on day one. So in this historic moment that we are all surviving in, I’m ready to be that mayor for the city that I love.
How would you say that your time on City Council and past positions has prepared you for the role of mayor?
I was a civil rights lawyer for 10 years before becoming a councilmember, fighting for workers, victims of wage theft and employment discrimination, and also fighting for victims of police misconduct.
I’ve worked as general counsel in a mayoral administration and I’ve been a councilmember for six years. I’ve also been a commissioner on the Seattle Ethics and Elections commission. And I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been elected twice [to a citywide council position] with more than 70% of the vote each time.
This means that I’m ready to lead the city forward with progressive, pragmatic and inclusive leadership. On day one, I’ll be ready to dig into solving the issues that are facing the people of our city with the urgency needed to tackle those issues and get going.
One urgent issue is the displacement and gentrification plaguing several communities and working class people in our city. How would you approach this problem?
I think about how important housing stability is. I reflect on my own experience with poverty and know firsthand what it’s like, as a Woman of Color, to experience food insecurity, and to experience just having to make basic decisions between — do I buy food or do I pay the utilities this month?
Those are choices that people in our BIPOC communities are now making every day, and this pandemic has really exacerbated those living conditions for so many of our relatives here in Seattle who are really continuing to have so much housing insecurity. So we are at a time now where we need to scale up, at a massive rate, the amount of affordable housing that’s available to working class families.
We also need to prioritize zip codes that are rapidly gentrifying. In some cases, there are neighborhoods that have already been overrun by gentrification, but they still have pockets of people of color who are holding on and need support to be able to continue to stay in place.
So, as mayor, I want to make sure that we’re looking at strategies around how do we increase the development of affordable housing for working families? And how do we make it harder for luxury real estate to work its way into our neighborhoods and push our BIPOC families further out in the city, and in some cases, just completely out of the city.
So what do you think the best mechanism is for increasing housing affordability in the city?
Honestly, I don’t think there is one mechanism to address affordable housing issues. I think it is all hands on deck. Every available tool needs to be made available in this city to prevent the displacement of BIPOC communities and low-income community members from the city.
Part of that is a supply issue. Part of that is how do we increase the amount of affordable housing? To do that, we need to take a look at exclusionary zoning laws that prevent housing choice in every neighborhood, in every part of the City of Seattle. But it also means addressing not just supply questions, but the underlying issues as to why BIPOC folks have a harder time finding and keeping prosperity.
So that means living-wage jobs. It means educational opportunities. It means childcare. It means prenatal care. It means that all of these holistic systems need to be centered on making sure that our BIPOC community members have their lives invested in in order to position us to have self-determination and prosperity in this city.
Housing alone isn’t going to solve the issue. We need to also have the resources and the investments in our communities to make sure that we can access the housing, whether it’s affordable or not, being created in the city.
Another issue with disproportionate impacts in our city is pollution. For instance, Georgetown residents have a shorter life expectancy than residents in a neighborhood like Laurelhurst. What would your approach be to implementing some level of environmental justice in our city?
This is an issue that’s really important to me. I remember growing up as a migrant farm worker being sprayed with pesticides and having to live in labor camps next to barrels of chemicals. I have close relatives now who have significant chronic diseases because of environmental pollution in the workplace. I used to live in South Park and experienced firsthand how communities can be impacted, and how livability is impacted when we don’t take environmental justice seriously. So, as mayor, it’s important, particularly as it relates to frontline communities, and BIPOC communities, to make sure that we understand why environmental justice is so important. It’s also going to be critical for us to make sure that we are cleaning up sites that are toxic.
I think climate justice is one of those issues that is going to require a lot of help from the state to be able to disincentivize polluters from coming into poor neighborhoods where they have historically created great damage to our neighborhoods.
I think the Mount Baker housing project is a good example of how we can turn things around. That’s a project in South Seattle that I helped advocate for state funding for to clean up a brownfield site and to make the land ready for development of affordable housing. Housing that will have childcare, and affordable commercial space on the bottom. We can do more of that work but we will need help from the state to be able to clean up those toxic sites, and able to use that land to the greatest benefit for our communities.
How do you ensure “good corporate citizenship” from big businesses in this city?
I think that big business and powerful interests historically, and currently, have an outsized voice in this city. The days of their ability to put their thumb on the scale are, I think, over. To me that means that it’s important for us to remember that not all businesses are created equal.
We have a huge amount of small businesses throughout the city, many of which are the first economic empowerment opportunity that People of Color have in the city. I think those are the businesses that we need to be listening to. Those are the businesses we need to be focused on. We do not need to create special strategies to save corporations that have actually been profiting at record rates during the pandemic. However, we do need to make sure that our favorite coffee shops like Cafe Red in Othello, or our favorite restaurants like Island Soul in Columbia City, or Amy’s Merkato, or our favorite retail shops in Rainier Beach are going to be there well after 2021.
We gotta be focused on those small businesses who truly need the help of the city. And, I think it’ll be my job to make sure that we are listening to what those short-term strategies that help those businesses, but also the long-term strategies to make sure that their business is going to be sustainable in our neighborhood districts, throughout the city of Seattle.
Our next mayor may still be dealing with our current pandemic by the time they take office. Being that you’re currently on City Council and seeking to become mayor, what do you think of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far? And what would you do differently?
Our COVID response is an area where we have to be extremely intentional about racial and social justice impacts. Even now, we are seeing that vaccinations are being disproportionately accessed by white residents in the city. We know that Latinx populations are contracting the virus and dying at four times the rate of any other population. We know that our Black neighbors are also being disproportionately impacted by the COVID virus in terms of infections and death rates.
That of course includes our Indigenous population as well. So, we have got to be more intentional about making sure that people who are able to access the vaccination are the ones who are disproportionately suffering from contraction of the virus. And that also includes many of our frontline essential workers, many of whom are BIPOC folks. So, I think that is something we need to be very deliberate and intentional about. And I think it’s not too late to do that now. And it certainly is something that should be done by the next mayor as well.
If there ends up being no sustained mortgage or eviction relief at the federal level after the pandemic ends, do you think that the city should step in and help out those who can’t afford the back rent once those moratoriums end?
I feel like very few people in our city have been spared the grief of economic insecurity during this pandemic, especially people within the BIPOC community. My family is one of those families. My husband is in the restaurant industry as a server, and he has missed most of the paychecks for last year and his restaurant is still closed today. So I think that there are so many people in that situation. There are thousands of people in that situation who are just holding on and, and hoping that they’ll be able to make rent for the next month. So the eviction moratorium is a help. We need to keep that going, but we also need, on a massive scale, rental assistance and mortgage assistance for property owners to make sure that we don’t end up creating more housing instability and a direct path into homelessness for the City of Seattle.
Ideally, I think what we really need is for the federal government to step in and to forgive mortgages for the millions of property owners across the country, including here in Seattle, who are falling behind on their mortgage and who have to pass that cost on to renters.
So, I think the upstream solution here is forgiving mortgage debt, and requiring big banks to forgive those debts so that we can clean the slate, and we can all begin anew. We need to ensure that both property owners and renters aren’t going to be sacked with tens and thousands of dollars worth of back rent and back mortgage payments.
We [as a city] have been stepping into this space. We’ve been providing rental assistance. We have been waving utility fees and not letting people get behind. We need to do more of that, but we cannot address the scale of the need on our own. We’re going to need bigger, bolder solutions coming from the federal government and the state in order to really meet the needs.
Turning to police accountability, how would you balance the calls from our local movements for divestment and transformation with public safety considerations?
I think as a civil rights attorney for over 10years before I became a councilmember, I dedicated my life to holding police officers accountable when they violated people’s civil rights. I continue to prioritize that today as a councilmember, making sure that officers who engage in misconduct are being held accountable. As mayor, just like as a civil rights attorney, it will be important to continue to hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. I’ll ensure the integrity of the accountability system that we have to make sure that those officers are being held accountable, but I’ll tell you what the most important thing that the next mayor is going to do, and that is hire the next permanent chief of police.
That chief has to, at their core, be fundamentally committed to transforming the police department and into ensuring that the culture of the police department is going to be free of institutionalized racism and of white nationalist sentiments, and people who aren’t ready to evolve with our public safety model.
We have important public safety issues that face people in our city, including BIPOC communities. We have an obligation to identify ways that we can meet those community safety needs through non-law enforcement mechanisms, while also acknowledging that there will be some core law enforcement needs, and we have to find the balance for that. We have to be willing to talk to each other to be able to identify what that balance is, and what the timing of those changes will be.
But there will be transformation to this police department and how we deliver public safety services, and protect the civil rights and the life and liberty of the people of this city. That has to remain the north star and the guiding light for finding the next chief and for continuing this effort to reform and hold this police department accountable.
Despite all the city’s efforts, the number of unhoused people in the city is not declining —and may in fact be increasing. Do you think the city has been taking the right approach to combat homelessness? What would you do to begin to reduce homelessness?
I grew up in poverty, and lived in labor camps without toilets or running water as my family worked in the orchards of central Washington. So I see our growing homelessness crisis as, at its core, both a housing availability and a poverty emergency.
Seattle’s increasing wealth disparity — the widening gap between the haves and the have nots — and the lack of housing is not solved by City Hall alone. That’s why I’ve partnered with neighborhood business associations to fund homelessness outreach resources in neighborhood commercial districts. I’ve established rental subsidies for Seattle residents with disabilities to gain and sustain housing. And, I currently serve as one of three of Seattle’s representatives on the Governing Committee of the newly formed King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
As mayor, I will focus on programs and services that promote housing instability, such as rental assistance, foreclosure prevention, weatherization, and scaling up our affordable housing choices across the City. I will also focus on strengthening our emergency services system by bringing to scale the city’s shelter capacity, transitional housing options, tiny villages, and permanent supportive housing as the first and most crucial element because we are a city that believes housing must be accessible to all. Our unsheltered neighbors deserve dignity and a meaningful opportunity to transition to a permanent home. Through compassionate and pragmatic data-driven solutions we can provide our fellow Seattleites with the access they need to mental, behavioral, and substance use services.
How should the city prioritize the various consumers of its transportation system: transit riders, pedestrians, car drivers, bicyclists, freight drivers, scooter riders?
In 2016, I began commuting exclusively via bus and/or the water taxi. I am grateful to live in a neighborhood with frequent transit service and know how critical it is for every neighborhood in Seattle to have access to a mode of transportation that is readily available and accessible. People who frame our transportation system as cars versus bikes versus buses are looking at this through the wrong frame. We should focus on making every neighborhood in our city accessible no matter how you choose to get there. I have a vision of a Seattle with affordable and accessible multimodal transportation that connects our communities, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps people and goods moving efficiently. That doesn’t mean prioritizing one mode over the other — it means designing a multimodal system that is interconnected, affordable, and works for everyone.
How would you determine what the right level of staffing is for SPD, and what the priorities are for deploying officers?
I come at the policing issue with a deep commitment to changing the way we, as a society, address public safety. For some communities, especially our BIPOC communities, more police does not mean more safety. As a civil rights lawyer, I was horrified when one of Seattle’s own officers threatened to “beat the Mexican piss” out of a Latino man, so I took SPD to court. That’s why I believe reimagining public safety should include demilitarizing our police force and holding officers accountable to their constituents — the public. Public safety should also mean implementing harm-reduction and crisis-intervention strategies to ensure community safety for all residents and businesses, not just counting the number of patrol cars on our streets.
How much of an impact do you think you could have in attracting more investment into South Seattle, most particularly Rainier Beach, whose light rail station strangely has not prompted the kind of construction that would make the area more vibrant — and safer?
I lived in South Park and I’ve seen how isolated some communities can be from the other amenities some neighborhoods take for granted — grocery stores, affordable childcare, diverse, locally owned small businesses, and a safe, livable community. It’s not just build-a-lightrail-station and hope the rest will follow. We must work together with community leaders — such as the Rainier Beach Action Coalition — to identify what the neighborhood wants and needs. As mayor, I will work with the community to prevent further gentrification and help identify and drive funding — whether federal, state, regional or private — to their highest priorities.
Assuming you win office, what would you want people to say after your first term?
I’d like people to say that Seattle is on its way to becoming a world-class city, where every neighborhood feels complete, inclusive, and livable. That means affordable childcare, grocery stores and thriving small businesses, good paying jobs, safe communities, and multimodal transportation options. We will also be a city that has taken income inequality head on by ensuring our jobs are paid a living wage and that meaningful investments are made in the health, education, and housing choices for BIPOC folks. This is long-term work, however, and we must acknowledge that it will take more than four years to accomplish this and more, but I hope Seattle will be well on its way to achieving this vision.
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
Marcus Harrison Green is the founder and publisher of the Emerald and a contributing columnist to The Seattle Times.
Featured image courtesy of Lorena González
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