Headshot photo of Sara Nelson.

In Seattle City Council Bid, Sara Nelson Says Her Focus Is on Economic Recovery

by Chamidae Ford


Sara Nelson officially added her name to the race for Seattle City Council Position 9 in February. She is a co-founder of the popular local small business, Fremont Brewing. Her campaign focuses primarily on small business recovery, aiming to revitalize Seattle’s economy after the downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic 

Approaching her candidacy with inspiration drawn from her time on staff for City Councilmember Richard Conlin, Nelson believes in leading with core values. Those beliefs, combined with community input, will be the driving force behind her decision-making. 

South Seattle Emerald: How did you decide you wanted to run for Seattle City Council?

Sara Nelson: I decided to run for City Council because I believe that Seattle is going in the wrong direction and I will bring the practical and experienced leadership that’s needed right now to get Seattle on the right track. A little bit about my background: I worked for Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin as a legislative aid for about 10 years. I learned how policy is made and how local government should work. And meanwhile, my husband and I took a couple of years off from that to help my husband launch Fremont Brewing. And that was in 2009. I’m proud that Fremont Brewing has a reputation for giving back to the community and leading the craft beer industry in sustainability. We were hit hard by COVID and we managed not to lay anybody off. We kept everybody on board, increased their hourly wages to make up for lost tips. And we provide excellent benefits for workers and their families in terms of health care. So I think that my experience in both public service and in the private sector is important right now because COVID has hit families hard, people lost their jobs, businesses are closing and moving out of Seattle. And that perspective, as a small business owner who is really concerned about jobs, is important on the City Council right now.

SSE: You mentioned that you worked with Councilmember Richard Conlin for 10 years. Can you tell me about what that experience was like, what you’ve learned, and how you’re going to apply that knowledge if you are elected?

SN: I was a staffer for Councilmember Richard Conlin. I started in his office in 2002 and he was Transportation Chair. He was also [on] Utilities, Sustainability, [and] he ended up being Land Use Chair at the end of his term. What I learned was the way to make a decision is to lead with a set of core values. And for him, those core values were environmental sustainability, supporting workers, and transparency. So to lead with values, and then really study legislative proposals for the munition. To understand they have three-check plays down the line. What are the potential impacts? How can we mitigate the potential negative impacts? And bringing everybody to the table. Really seeking that input, looking at the constituencies that might have some strong feelings, and then getting their ideas and input before crafting a piece of legislation or voting on a piece of legislation. And what I learned [is that] often times people were really upset about his decisions, but they knew he came to a fair conclusion because he went through the steps and people knew that their priorities were heard and that he weighed the pros and cons and ended up with a decision that was based on some values and then informed by the details. And that is how I will lead. 

SSE: You and your husband founded Fremont Brewing, Can you tell me about what it has been like to own a small business during the pandemic and how that has inspired your campaign? 

SN: First of all, running a business, we’ve had to be extremely flexible. And from day one we put the health and safety of our employees and customers first and foremost. So we closed voluntarily before the governor shut everything down, just because we were seeing people come to the brewery and we didn’t think the conditions were safe for anyone. So we shut voluntarily and then when we were able to reopen, we had a positive COVID result. One of our employees got tested because their parents were coming to visit and had no symptoms but got a positive result. So we shut down again for two weeks, everything, and we realized that we did that in an abundance of caution that was before we really knew a lot about protocols. 

So we ended up hiring a consultant, to advise us and to create protocols for us. So if that ever happened again, which we figured was inevitable, we would know who to send home, who to keep on, et cetera, because you can’t just keep closing down a business for indefinite amounts of time. So we brought on a consultant and then other businesses did the same. And so basically I believe that we were a model of a business trying to do the right thing. And we stumbled through and we were able to show by example, some of the things that should be done. It’s been a learning experience for everybody, workers, businesses, et cetera. I think that shows that what’s most important is leading with a set of core values and then implementing those values in policy, and we have done that in terms of, as I said, our benefits, our partnerships with community organizations, and also trying to raise the bar on sustainability. 

So what I have learned as a business owner, which I’ll take into council, is an understanding of how policies are implemented in reality. What I learned working for council is that in order to avoid unintended consequences, the negative impacts of policies, is really to bring the voices of the widest possible array of stakeholders and public and constituents together to think through, ‘if we do this, then how will that impact these constituencies?’ And too often, I believe that council doesn’t really have an understanding of the negative impacts or potential impacts. And so that is why I say it’s important to have that perspective on the City Council. 

I think [Fremont Brewing] inspires my campaign because I don’t see Council acting with any urgency whatsoever to help small businesses. And I say that this perspective is important, not because I know how to run a business [and therefore] I know how to run the city. That is not the case. We have experts doing a lot of the important work, [but] I come from a position of having firsthand knowledge of how much small businesses are hurting. Now we are the job creators of our regional economy. Seventy percent of the people included in the private sector work for small businesses, where we spur innovation and most importantly, we are the fabric of our neighborhood business districts, we lend the unique character of Seattle. We’re gathering spaces. So what happens to small businesses is very important for our communities. I have heard one list of specific policy proposals that I believe will help small businesses. And it’s important to act with urgency, not just for small businesses, but also our downtown core, which provides 50% of the revenues to fuel our general fund and the region’s economy. So I’m inspired to help, but also I care. And again, I think that this should be a priority — at least in the top three of our city government — is to really help our struggling small businesses, and the people that they employ, get back on their feet.

SSE: You mentioned on your website you want to get Downtown Seattle back on track, how do you plan to do that?

SN: So just hoping that Downtown Seattle will bounce back is not a plan. So what I believe is that we’ve got to have a proactive strategic plan. Initiating a planning process to find out what are some changes that need to be made? And, and how can we actually go out and court small businesses to come? So there are some land-use code changes that I heard might be beneficial. So right now the ground floor of downtown buildings is devoted to retail and office. Well, other cities have allowed for ground-floor residentials. So I think that it would be interesting to allow for flexibility for ground-floor residential on some streets. This adds life to the streets, which supports neighboring businesses. And it also creates apartments or condos or residential units that are potentially less expensive than the units that are higher up for those who can afford those units. We want to bring more families downtown. I believe that we need to work much more closely with the school district to bring in a school downtown, a major grocery store back downtown. But it all starts with some land-use code changes to allow for that residential [change]. 

[And] building code changes to allow flexibility for the size of space. Right now, we’ve got very large retail spaces that don’t have tenants. And we want to encourage smaller businesses to move downtown and to be able to grow within that space. And so I’ve been talking to people that know more about the building code about what changes have to be made. How can we move walls? How can we create flexibility in electricity and water so that you can start with a small space and grow it, or transform a large space into small spaces, et cetera? So [get] people with this expertise and knowledge about how to do this and we need to start this process. To get to the change that one wants, a revitalized downtown core, we need to get into the minutia of policy. And so I will initiate that policy. 

And then when I talked about recruiting businesses to come back downtown, a lot of businesses might or might not reopen, but we want to draw businesses to Seattle. And I’m thinking about the model that was initiated by the Alliance for Pioneer Square. A woman named Karen True went out and recruited small businesses to locate to Pioneer Square. And it really did change the character of that neighborhood  — it’s provided love on the street and, and got to a critical mass, and it really generated some new energy. And so we need to hire people or direct staff at OED [Office of Economic Development], but they’ll need more staff to go out and talk to small businesses. Other cities do this, they devote resources to have people go and talk to businesses that are thinking about relocating or actually starting up and saying, ‘Hey, Seattle is a great place. Downtown Seattle has transit hubs, has services, has gorgeous views, et cetera,’ talk up Seattle and show that the City of Seattle wants to be a partner in supporting businesses in different sectors to locate downtown. And I do believe that that will help with rebalancing, but again, we need a proactive plan and investment in resources to do this. 

SSE: You mention on your website accountability from City Council is important to you. Can you address some of the ways you plan to make City Council more accountable? For instance, how do you plan to get more input from the community?

SN: What I plan to do is if there is a policy proposal that is composed by a colleague, I will encourage or ask if the stakeholders who will be impacted have been talked to. When I compose policy proposals we can be sure that I will be talking to people that I think will potentially hate this policy proposal. When I worked with Richard Conlin, people always tried to get past, basically, they talked to the staff first and then hoped for a positive report to the Councilmember and an audience of the Councilmember. And what I always asked was who doesn’t like this idea and why? Because there’s always going to be the other side. So first of all, understand the opposition first and then see if there’s room to improve the policy proposal so that those concerns are addressed. Too often I think we just go in and think we just extinguish our opposition and battle through, that is the wrong way to go about it because that’s not democracy. 

And so basically it has to do with input, but I’m not talking about the kind of input or outreach that is simply a check-the-box exercise. When I bring people together, I do so with the intention of seriously considering it, and hopefully implementing it. When I craft legislation, that’s going to be a real [and] effective solution, that is first and foremost. And before we advance a policy proposal I’ll make sure how much it’ll cost, … does this have an impact on the adopted budget, if it will in fact have an impact on the adopted budget. And so you gotta know how much this is going to cost — and if those dollars will be justified — because where are they going to come from? They’re going to come from potentially paying for something else. And so you’re going to have to be able to justify those dollars. And then finally you can’t just go in with a goal you have to go in with some measurable results that you need to achieve in a certain timescale, build in the benchmarks that have to be met. And then at the end of a certain time frame, really look at whether or not you’ve met those. And if not, course correct. And I don’t see that happening at City Council right now, any of those steps. 

SSE: One of the main pillars of your platform is addressing issues with the unhoused population. Can you tell me some of the ways you plan to address it? 

SN: The first step I believe is that our response has to be completely restructured. And it starts with recognizing the fact that the folks that are living unsheltered are not a monolithic block. These are individuals who have ended up in this situation for a variety of reasons. And it’s not simply that they lost their job and they can’t pay rent. That is the case for a lot of people, but many of those folks we don’t even see, they’re living at friends’ houses or on family couches. So, that’s one. 

Domestic violence I believe is a gateway issue that is an upstream cause of living unsheltered. We have got to get a better grip on addressing this in this city because people flee domestic abuse and end up in their cars with their kids oftentimes. And so that’s another population that we need to recognize. And then of course there is substance abuse and mental health issues. And maybe that is the most visible segment of our unsheltered population. But what are we doing to provide services for those folks? We need to get a better understanding of why people have ended up [unhoused] and the root causes of living unsheltered and then meet folks where they’re at and provide those services. That sounds like a no-brainer, but that is not happening right now. We don’t have a good roadmap for what those specific needs are, how many people will need them and how much it’ll cost and we should deliver them. 

And the other thing that I say on my website is that there are gaps in the services that we provide, there’s overlap, there are service providers that aren’t meeting performance goals that continue to get funded.

And our number one priority, … the goal should be getting people into stable housing. And too often, we get mired down into the services that are offered without thinking about what are the really effective housing solutions? I am supportive of buying hotels or leasing hotels and tiny home villages and some of these interim steps to get folks into stable housing solutions. But I believe that the gold standard for a lot of folks is permanent supportive housing. And I’ve been really closely following, and I support the goals of the Third Door Coalition, whose mission is to get people into permanent supportive housing. But we have to bring on those units faster and that will require some land use and then code changes to make those units less expensive to build and faster to build. So what a lot of people need is permanent supportive housing. So wraparound services. Housing first. Yes, I do believe that is absolutely necessary because the changes that the services that people need are very difficult to access if one doesn’t have some housing stability. So, I believe in that approach overall, I do believe in a harm reduction approach. And so that is the goal here. 

Now what we’ve seen is that isn’t happening because the homelessness budget has doubled in the past three years but the problem keeps getting worse. So something is not working. And the fact that we haven’t done this introspection and tried to make changes until now is a problem. We’ve been waiting for this regional authority to come online because these mental health, behavioral health dollars — the County holds the purse strings for those. Seattle King County Public Health still has not been able to actually control those dollars to deal with what I believe is one of the most important components of our response. Now, people talk about Compassion Seattle and the King County [Regional Homelessness] Authority. However that ends up rolling out, I believe that that is something that needs to be funded first and foremost. Finally, as a small business owner, a huge piece of this whole conversation is jobs. So people talk about services, people talk about housing solutions, but nobody is talking about jobs, apprenticeship programs, workforce development, having that nebulousness that does provide these jobs, labor apprenticeship programs, these are programs that fit folks that have had experience with the criminal justice system, the foster care system. People that wouldn’t ordinarily have an opportunity to access good, well-paying skilled work. So how can the City of Seattle support those programs? Either privately or the labor apprenticeship programs. And there are organizations that have been Manufacturing Industrial Council’s Core Plus program that provides apprenticeship programs for high school kids in the manufacturing sector. So let’s give people the ability to pay for their housing through jobs, and through workforce development programs.

SSE: You mentioned on your website you want to find an alternative solution to defunding the police department. Can you tell me about some of the alternative ways you plan to hold SPD more accountable?

SN: Like a lot of people in the Black community and others, I believe that just picking a number, 50%, 17%, 25%, to defund the police is the wrong approach. The wrong approach without a plan for keeping communities safe. Right now the average response time to priority 911 calls is 14 minutes. A lot of bad things can happen in 14 minutes if you hear someone breaking into your house. Or if you hear a woman who’s being beaten up in the apartment next door. So that’s unacceptable. And so we have got to figure it out. 

As Carmen Best said, Chief Carmen Best, who, unfortunately, our first Black woman police chief, was driven out of town by Council’s calls to defund the police [and] to reduce her pay at the end and the ability of her officers to do their job: “There’s a way that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” and by that, she meant we can have community safety and we can have law enforcement officers that are accountable to the communities they serve and treat people with respect and dignity. It’s not either-or, so I’m going on that premise. 

And when we talk about how do you do that? Everybody knows this fall contract is up for renegotiation [with the Seattle Police Officers Guild]. I don’t know how much leverage the council ultimately has to institute better disciplinary protocols within that framework. So that is one area, but there are other ways we can offload some of the responsibilities from the police to community organizations that do meet the needs of the community when it comes to safety. When it comes to services that folks need. 

One thing many people agree on, the police are performing functions that they should not be doing, and that is better handled by social service organizations. But one of the things that I believe, and I got my Ph.D. in anthropology and my dissertation was on the intersection of gender, race, and class in public policy. And I studied policing in Brazil, women’s police stations. And what I really believe is that if officers came from the communities that they are controlling, that would do a lot to overcome some distrust, there would be greater cultural competency, language barriers would be reduced. And so I am thinking why can’t we have beds and beat? I’m thinking about ways of restructuring police staffing so that people are serving the communities that they actually live in. And there is more accountability built into that because if you’re seeing people in the neighborhood or the park with your kids, there’s a greater chance that you will actually be treating those folks with the dignity that we are wanting to see, and understanding the needs of the people in that community. So I’m going to be pushing for ways in which we can implement that idea. 

SSE: The housing crisis and affordability is a big issue for many Seattle residents, how do you plan to address the growing price to live here?

SN: That’s in the group of the first concerns that I hear. And, I see it firsthand with the folks that work at Fremont Brewing. Rents are sky-high. And how do we keep people living close to where they’re working? Because that is an economic justice issue, and it’s also an environmental issue. And so, housing affordability is a crisis, and we’re not going to be able to fully subsidize our way out of this problem. 

So, first of all, we need to retain the existing affordable housing that we have. And that’s through really addressing the impacts of exclusionary zoning policies and policies that reduce displacement, that address displacement, and figure out ways to keep people living where they are right now. Through home assistance programs so that people who are having a hard time paying their mortgages and their property taxes can stay in Seattle. Use code changes that allow for people to build units on their property and bring in a family member or a friend to help defray the cost of continuing to live in Seattle. That’s one way. 

Helping a lot of small landlords, 60% of the people who live in rental units, those units are owned by very small landlords and sometimes it’s hard for them to stay in business because of policy changes. People are selling their properties and they’re being redeveloped for market rate, whatever we can do to help keep those units affordable in Seattle would be a good thing. So that’s some of the ways of retaining existing, affordable housing. 

Now we just have to build more housing. I am on the record as being pro density, pro smart growth. In single-family home areas, we need to allow for the missing middle: other forms of housing that are allowed to increase density within single-family zones. That’s something that we need to look at. And then keeping up the mandatory housing affordability regulations to generate more funds for affordable housing. All of those things have to happen, and we need to figure out how to incentivize the construction of more and more housing.

SSE: The environment is a big part of your platform. You mention you want to expand the RainWise system, help small businesses get green technology, increase vehicle charging stations through incentivizing. How do you plan to incentivize people?

SN: That’s only a part of it. I also believe in the goals of the BlueGreen alliance. I’ve been learning about their procurement proposals. Projects that have public funding should not only comply, obviously they have to with prevailing wage and responsible bidder, and apprenticeship utilization requirements, and collective bargaining agreements. But, this legislation, these proposals, look at the materials that are procured to build those projects and that infrastructure and the workers that created those materials that are used in public projects. And so that is taking sustainability to another level. And I’m just talking about things that the City Council has control over, we’re talking about public projects and any kind of project that has another form of public subsidy. 

So what are ways in which we can implement many of the goals and missions of the BlueGreen Alliance to elevate those labor and environmental goals in Seattle? So they have a lot of things going on at the state level. And I’m thinking about bringing that down to the municipal level. Now, one of those things I have on my website is cross-laminated timber. This is a building material that is used in many places that is more economical. We’re talking about timber that’s glued, so it’s less expensive. It’s less carbon-intensive to produce. It’s more earthquake-resistant et cetera. We do not have a facility here in Seattle that could build this, so that would be jobs. So some incentivizing, we have to grow the market for these materials in order to support essentially a production facility here. So that’s one thing. 

You asked me specifically about incentives. [Seattle City Light] Light has incentives for business owners to switch out fluorescents with LED lights, Fremont Brewing did that. We replaced about 900 bulbs, but we can build up incentive programs in SPU [Seattle Public Utilities] for water conservation, more metering to understand how much water one is using, tell us when it’s consuming. Because right now you can only know how much is coming into a building, but if you can read how that water is being used in different operations, that would be good. So just look at where the City Council or where the City of Seattle has leverage to encourage small business owners, business owners to take the next step. It can be in renewable energy usage. We have a living building pilot project that is very successful in not only increasing the sustainability standards of buildings but it’s also aimed at changing the behavior of folks that are working and visiting those buildings. So why is it still a pilot project? Why isn’t it something that we can incentivize in different ways for building owners or people that are developers to implement? So I’m always looking at places where the city can lead business owners and building residents to adopt these screening technologies. 

SSE: Anything else? 

SN: My first priority is economic recovery, how do we get to long-term, equitable, inclusive recovery? But something we haven’t talked about is my focus on basic services. The charter of the city of Seattle names five basic city services: police, fire, parks, libraries, and transportation. That is the job of the local government to deliver those basic services. And, I believe that too often those primary responsibilities are overlooked and monitoring those services doesn’t happen. And a lot of times they go underfunded. So we’re supposed to be paying for those services first out of the general fund — and then other initiatives, projects, et cetera, come after that. And we’ve got failing bridges and community centers that are on the verge of closing precisely because we’re not doing our job. Council has not kept its eye on the ball on ensuring that these services, which don’t grab headlines but impact everyone’s daily lives, we’re not keeping the city’s promises and providing that. And so that’s a big part of my campaign, to get back to focusing on government’s main job. So: infrastructure, investments, monitoring our capital improvement program to make sure that projects are being funded and that they’re on time and under budget, preferably. Why do we have reports coming out in the Seattle Times that the University, Fremont, Spokane Street bridge need major repairs? We have to have levies, the Move Seattle Levy, to pay for maintenance. We’ve got a backlog, why do we have to keep asking people to approve levies and then not meeting the maintenance benchmarks of those work programs? And so that is a big part of my campaign, is to really give back and make sure that those functions are getting performed.


Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Sara Nelson.

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. 
Support the Emerald!