by Mark Van Streefkerk
Jessyn Farrell is a former state legislator and activist who officially announced her candidacy for Mayor on March 18. Farrell served in the Washington House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017, and ran for mayor in 2017, finishing fourth behind Jenny Durkan, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver.
Raised in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, Farrell has a progressive track record of advocating for transit and labor improvements. As a single parent, she is one of the few people who have given birth while serving as a state legislator. During her time as a state representative, she was the Vice-Chair of the Transportation Committee, instrumental in negotiating the 2015 Connect Washington transportation package, which supported pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Farrell also pushed for affordable housing and education initiatives and supported Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage. In 2017 she sponsored the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, which increased protections for working pregnant people in Washington.
Farrell is currently Senior Vice President at Civic Ventures, and last year was part of Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Work and Economic Recovery Community Leaders Group, which provided advice on business recovery plans and health standards as the state begins to reopen. Farrell also is an advocate of universal childcare and education from birth to five years old, noting that the idea that a child’s educational needs start at five years old is arbitrary and outdated.
Farrell joins over a dozen Mayoral candidates and offers experience in building and scaling policy to issues on transit, affordable housing, public safety, and economic recovery. Farrell envisions a post-COVID Seattle that is affordable for all.
She recently chatted over the phone with South Seattle Emerald about some key points of her campaign.
(Some parts of this interview have been edited or condensed for brevity.)
Tell us a little about who you are.
I love to talk about being a fighter for community for all of my career. I led the Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for greater transportation choices across the state. I was a state legislator — one of a very few women to have a baby in office in the state legislature — and passed bills to really solve people’s problems, whether it was more protections for pregnant women — which you could be fired for being pregnant up until 2017 in Washington state — to advocating for homeless and vulnerable youth.
[Once] I was doing a forum in front of some women who had survived domestic violence. One of the questions they asked in that forum is, ‘Why should we trust you?’ That really forced me to look at my own experience.
My answer then is the same story I’ll share now. I was born with a hole in my heart the size of a quarter. I was a very sick kid. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t play, I couldn’t walk very well, and I had trouble breathing. This was the case for the first seven years of my life. Then Seattle Children’s Foundation paid for the heart surgery that saved my life. This was a very visceral experience of learning what it feels like being left behind. That was my physical experience as a younger child, but also that feeling of what it means to get support and help. I have really focused my career on turning that feeling and that conviction that we can support and help each other into tangible policy. That’s what really motivates me and animates me in a deep way.
Why are you running for mayor?
A lot of issues are the same as in the 2017 race. There was a lot of economic fragility prior to the COVID pandemic, but over the last year, people have really been suffering. Whether that is economic hardship, racial injustice, isolation, or the challenges that families with kids have had. People are suffering and I have been really disappointed in our city leadership’s abilities to meet these challenges with the creativity and determination that it takes to really solve peoples’ problems. I think the core question is: How are we going to be that city that people want to live in, and can afford to live in, and how do we make that pivot? I think people are really craving a leader with a vision of a city that is a place of justice and shared prosperity, and that relentless determination to deliver on that vision every single day. That’s why I’m running again.
You mentioned being disappointed with city leadership over the last year — what would you do differently?
One of the key crises that was both foreseeable and solvable was the crisis that has hit small businesses. The announcement that Borracchini’s is closing is yet another example of an iconic business that’s closing. This was really preventable. I had the opportunity to be the chair of the governor’s Safe Work and Economic Recovery Taskforce, and spent the summer listening to business owners, whether they were hairstylists or artists that might have owned a venue, or restaurateurs, to people with a small retail shop. We really spent time listening in particular to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-owned businesses.
There were several things we heard. Number one, that they were being locked out of the PPP program, which was administered mostly through banks. [Most of these BIPOC businesses we talked to were] businesses that don’t have traditional banking relationships. Those businesses were not getting access to that loan help. Another thing that we learned is even if you were able to make it through these tough months, what was it going to look like, how were you going to be able to pivot to recovery? Maybe you didn’t have an accountant to help you navigate all the red tape. Was [the information] getting out through the languages business owners speak? Was it getting out through the trusted avenues that people receive information in? We heard loud and clear that the small business crisis was very profound and that it was hitting BIPOC-owned businesses in particular.
As a response, I helped advocate and create the Washington Recovery Fund, which was $50 million focusing on BIPOC-owned businesses that had been left out of PPP, and particularly those without a traditional banking relationship. I’m going to be really honest, that recovery fund should have been $500 million to really scale to the size of the small business crisis. That’s one of the things that frustrated me, the city’s loan program was just $10k. What we were hearing from businesses was that they needed $100k, and more, to be able to get through these long months.
The thing that was on my mind was the COVID pandemic crisis was going to need a commensurate economic response. We had tools at the state and local levels that were not being used. As a consequence, too many businesses closed, too many businesses are hanging on by a thread and those are the heart and soul of our community. We could have done better.
How have your political and professional experiences prepared you for a role as mayor?
My career has really been about creating big solutions that are scaled to the size of the crisis that I might be working on, as well as those more finely-grained problem-solving that people want their leaders to do. An example of the big thinking would definitely be the work that I did to help pass investments — major, tens of billions of dollars of investments — in our regional transit system, helping pass Sound Transit Two, helping write the legislation that authorized now Transit Three, that’s an example of a really big, bold investment that helped take our region to the next level around transportation. But also as a legislator, my job was to help solve people’s problems in a day-to-day way . . . really taking seriously that role of being a leader and listening to people’s problems, and then just helping them solve them.
Now there are about 12 candidates for Mayor, what sets you apart?
I think this is really going to be a race around vision and this idea that we really need a fresh start, combined with the experience to get the job done. I think any candidate that is able to say, ‘We need a fresh start. The folks who have been in city leadership — there have been crises that have gotten worse under their watch.’ I think that’s really important, but I think that piece around delivery and experience and the ability to put together a governing coalition to help us work with common purpose towards the things that we care about really matters. One of those issues is really going to be around family costs. This is a really expensive city to live in and we need to make progress on issues of affordability around issues of housing and childcare so that people can continue to afford to live here.
What do you mean when you talk about Seattle’s competitive edge post-COVID?
One of the things I’ll be talking about on the campaign trail is our Fresh Start for Families childcare plan. The idea is we should be creating birth-to-five, universal, free, high-quality childcare for every family who wants it in Seattle. This is not only great for kids, but it is also really great for the economy. We know that women in particular often bear a lot of child-rearing responsibilities, and it really impacts people’s ability to work. There’s a lot of questions about what the post-COVID economy is going to look like and a lot of worry that people are going to leave Seattle because it’s not affordable. It’s not a worry, it’s actually happening in neighborhoods that have been gentrifying for years now. It’s actually something we need to be solving right now. One of those family costs is childcare, and being able to lead the nation in how we provide childcare and the extent of our investment in it is one of the things that I think will really provide a competitive edge for the city.
One of the things we have to acknowledge is 50 years of trickle-down economics combined with centuries of systemic racism have really left behind and impacted BIPOC members of our community, particularly Black members of our community. One of the things we need to do as a city is start by naming that baseline and solving to the baseline. For example, the fact that white family income is over $100 thousand, and Black family income is just over $40 thousand.
One thing I would like to introduce is a portable benefits program where you are able to have access to health care, retirement, and workers comp, no matter what kind of employment you have. Whether you’re a traditional W2 employee or whether you’re self-employed. If we really want to be a city that is a place where people want to live and can afford to live, we need to make sure that people have the economic stability to actually live here.
What’s your take on how the city can address critical issues of displacement, gentrification, and homelessness?
We have to start by acknowledging that this is a system that is working as it is designed. Our housing system was designed with deep racism built into it that is literally playing out in how people experience the built environment in our city. A lot of the wealth disparity comes from that disparity in white homeownership versus Black homeownership in particular. The other thing we need to acknowledge is there have been times where the government has taken a really robust role in using housing as a pathway to family economic stability. We need to rectify the injustices of the past and use that same bold approach around creating new financing mechanisms so that people can get into ownership if they want to. For example, really scaling up community land trusts, or co-ops, or other pathways to ownership.
Another example is reducing the cost of building new housing and creating affordability requirements, but subsidizing the infrastructure that goes around that housing. Sidewalks and sewer lines — those things are really important, but they’re also really expensive and drive up the cost of housing. We can, as we have done in the past, invest in the infrastructure around housing. We need a robust and regional approach to building housing of a variety of incomes, but really focusing on social housing as a mechanism. There are cities across the world, Vienna and Singapore are two standout examples, that have invested in social housing as a really great mechanism for building economic stability for working and middle-class people. All of these programs have to be really deliberately aimed with an eye to righting the injustices of the past and building up community resiliency and agency around what happens in those communities as we grow and change.
Recently, another mayoral candidate called on the city to stop a homeless encampment sweep. What are your thoughts on sweeps?
Sweeps do not work. First of all, they are inhumane, and they move the problem. We need to be really meeting people where they are and helping them find housing stability. That’s one thing. The second thing is, our parks and sidewalks are really important parts of the social contract for asking people to live together densely. They are not well-suited for people to be sleeping and living over the long-term in any way. We need to both be providing people with real alternatives and at the same time, able to acknowledge that we are not doing enough to help people find stable housing. We have now been in a crisis for many years. There are things we can do, but the hour is very late.
Number one, we have to invest in interim solutions. We have learned a lot in COVID about the efficacy of hotels as a strategy to help people find stability and to help people have a safe place to sleep. That’s really important. We’re leaving federal money on the table, and instead, we should really be working with our federal partners to be using that funding to the maximum amount that we can. Secondly, there are other interim solutions that matter, more tiny houses, having mental and behavioral and physical health street clinics so that people are able to get the treatment they need while they are waiting for stable housing. We have to have a really real conversation around scaling up our supportive housing solutions so that they’re meeting the scale of the crisis. Seattle has to be a leader on this.
What is your stance on defunding the Seattle Police Department and by how much?
I’m going to start by talking about values and what it is we want our public safety system to look like five years from now. I think that people across the city share the value that anyone should be safe as they go about their day-to-day lives regardless of their skin color. For too many Black and Brown people in our community, they are simply not safe in a crisis, or if they get into their care. I think about Charleena Lyles and the fact that she called for help and was shot and killed. That is absolutely wrong and we have to act with urgency to change that because no one in our city should walk around and fear for their safety and their person. The second thing is that public safety has to mean so much more than a traditional policing response. There are many things that we know about what creates a healthy, thriving community, and that are those social, economic, and cultural supports that need to be in place. Our public safety budgets, and all of our budgets, need to reflect those two values.
What that means to me is continuing to invest in those things that are working. I look at the domestic violence unit that is not a crisis response unit but is tasked with implementing our extreme risk protection order law. It was passed by voters to take guns out of the hands of abusers, for example. That work is really important and literally hundreds of guns have been removed from the hands of abusers. And yet, there are functions like our crisis response system that are not working and are dangerous. There are a variety of programs that are working that we need to scale up. Including Health One, which is run by the Fire Department. There are community crisis response programs like Community Safety Hubs. I’ve been on the board of Community Passageways for the last 12 or 13 months. Crisis response that is really informed by the community — those programs really matter. We need to build budgets around those.
What are some ways you would determine how to staff and budget the police?
I would really spend time with communities that are on the front lines of being overpoliced. Their experience has to be centered on how we’re building budgets. There are other public safety elements that are really important in addition to over-policing, response to violent crime, that matter. The call to change our public safety system, really working and sitting down with community members and building particularly around that crisis response system and those interactions from a day-to-day standpoint, really centering that experience and building budgets around that.
We really need to be working as a community to reduce gun violence in this city. A lot of the time we feel like it is this big issue that we can’t impact, but we know very well that there are particular policies that we need to put in place to really help reduce and end gun violence in our community, and that’s a really important part of the public safety conversation as well.
What do you think we can learn from this past pandemic year?
We all are able to learn from this shared experience of being isolated from each other. So many of our societal problems come from the way we isolate ourselves from each other. There was an essay written at the beginning of the pandemic by Arundhati Roy, and the quote I really spend a lot of time thinking about is ‘a pandemic is a portal.’ We have this opportunity to leave some of the baggage of the past behind. I really hope that when we walk through that portal over these next several months together, that we are really committed to our connection as humans, as neighbors, as fellow members of a city, and we can really come together in a common purpose and overcome these challenges that people are facing.
To learn more about Jessyn Farrell and her campaign, visit her website.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated after publication to correct two name misspellings of the first names of former candidates for Seattle mayor, Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon. We apologize for the errors.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at markvanstreefkerk.com and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.
Featured image courtesy of Jessyn Farrell for Mayor.
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