by the Emerald Team
Rob Saka may be a first-time Seattle City Council candidate, but the West Seattle resident is no stranger to Seattle politics. Over the past five years, Saka has served as a King County Charter Review Commissioner, a member of the Seattle Police Chief Search Committee, and a member of the King County Districting Committee. Prior to that, Saka served as a board member of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, and as the former vice president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, a civil rights organization composed of Black attorneys in the state.
However, it’s his lived experience outside of the civic realm that he says best suits him to replace Lisa Herbold as District 1’s (West Seattle/South Park) City Council representative after she announced she wouldn’t seek reelection. Raised in Minnesota by a single father who is a Nigerian immigrant, Saka says the financial, educational, and social hardships he overcame growing up, including time in the foster care system, make him uniquely qualified to bring nuanced solutions to the complex problems Seattle currently faces with homelessness, housing affordability, economic opportunity, displacement, and gun violence.
Currently an attorney for Meta’s (formerly Facebook) Reality Labs division, Saka says a major goal is to normalize tough, complex conversations in Seattle City Hall, which he sees as devoid of them. The Emerald spoke with Saka just prior to his official candidate announcement on Tuesday.
This is a part of Emerald’s recurring long-form interview series of candidates running for local office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
South Seattle Emerald: Why did you decide to run for City Council, and what in your background do you feel qualifies you for the position?
Rob Saka: I’m running because I have three kids in Seattle Public Schools, and I want to make sure that this city is the best that it can be for them and their futures. But I’m not only running for my kids, but for kids across this city and their futures too.
I feel I have strong professional experiences, civic experiences, and experiences in the community on so many different fronts. I think the decisive thing that I’m hoping voters will appreciate the most is my lived experiences as someone who overcame the foster care system in the state of Minnesota. My lived experiences include [being] someone who was raised by a single father, who was a frontline warehouse worker.
It includes [being] someone who is the son of a Nigerian immigrant; someone who received and benefited from government assistance, public housing, and low-income housing. My lived experience is of [being] someone who served this country in uniform.
Most importantly, when we talk about issues like public safety, my lived experiences include [being] someone who has literally experienced police brutality firsthand. My lived experiences empower me to seek better. I’m a perpetual believer in the power that we collectively have in this city to impact change and do it together. I want to help change some of the many challenges that we’re facing. And to the extent that I’ve been successful in past roles, the formula is simple: collaborating across differences, finding common ground, and ultimately getting stuff done that works.
SSE: One huge challenge our city is facing is housing affordability. How would you address this, should you be elected to the City Council?
Saka: My plan is pretty simple. It’s building a ton of affordable housing and shelter space.
As a part of that, we need to unlock and remove some of the red tape, including systemic barriers that prevent us from achieving our true potential in life. It is a complex journey that is multifaceted. One way that we can do that is to remove some of the red tape in the permitting process. I have friends who lead Black-owned small-development companies.
They exclusively build their affordable housing projects in Pierce County and Tacoma for the reason that the permitting process is too complex here. It’s too onerous. It’s too burdensome. And so we need to simplify. We need to make sure we do things like maintain the integrity and characteristics of a neighborhood, and that new buildings are consistent with the overall feel of a neighborhood.
But we also need to make it easier to build new housing and new developments. Importantly, as part of that, we need to implement anti-displacement strategies. Development can be a powerful, good thing for this city. But it’s not gonna be good if we don’t launch it and build it in an equitable way. And that means implementing anti-displacement strategies to make sure people that have lived here and been here don’t get pushed out and displaced.
SSE: Are there particular anti-displacement strategies that you have in mind?
Saka: Nothing in particular, right now. The thing is, we need to work with communities to find the answers to this. These are highly complex, nuanced problems and challenges that we’re facing. And I aspire to approach them with the complexity and nuance that they deserve.
SSE: An Emerald reader recently shared that she makes somewhere around $80,000 a year. She can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her child. To make ends meet, she tutors and teaches yoga classes. She identifies as someone who is doing all the right things, working 60 hours a week in contributing to this system, and yet she can barely subsist in Seattle. Her question was, how can we ensure working-class people can afford to live here?
Saka: You shouldn’t need to be a lawyer, a tech worker, or a doctor to live in this city. We need more restaurant workers. We need more artists. We need more first responders and teachers working. And I have a strong working-class background. I’ve flipped burgers. I’ve worked in grocery stores. And I’ve learned something new from every one of those experiences. But this city can be so much better, and we must be so much better. And so part of this is a supply and demand problem. We need to build more housing and make it more affordable and accessible for people like your reader. The current pace is insufficient. We need to do it at rocket speed.
SSE: Our unhoused crisis continues to be an ongoing issue and seems to only be growing. How would you actually go about solving it?
Saka: As a former foster kid, I know what it’s like to wake up one morning and not know where you’re gonna rest your head later that night. I also know what it’s like to be uprooted and swept away. I understand that it’s not a good feeling.
The homelessness crisis in this city, sadly, has devolved into a homelessness catastrophe. It is out of hand, and shame on us for allowing people to live on the street like that. So, the solution, first and foremost, is a preventative one. The problem of homelessness is highly complex. But, in all the research that I’ve seen, the number one factor is what we talked about a moment ago: lack of affordable housing. So that is the first key of a multipart strategy. It’s not a compassionate approach, nor is it a humanitarian one, to allow people to live like that. Shame on us.
So, we need to remove encampments and focus on city cleanup, but — I want to emphasize the but — only if we’re also connecting people with shelter and services, whether it’s mental health or drug dependency services. We must increase investment in behavioral health services. We need to end this whole whack-a-mole situation where we clean up one spot, we sweep out another one, and boom, 10 more pop up elsewhere. In this city, with all of its abundance and one of the world’s thriving economic capitals, we should be ashamed. I care about not only just ending visible homelessness, I care about ending homelessness, period.
I will say this: Whatever approach we take to ending homelessness, we must be doubly careful that we don’t punish someone simply based on their status of being poor and homeless.
SSE: Police reform has again risen to the height of national discourse due to the recent killing of Tyre Nichols. You served on the Seattle Police Chief’s Search Committee last year and have publicly spoken on reform in other capacities. What do you think of the current state of policing in the city?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve experienced police brutality firsthand, and I’ll be more explicit. I’ve literally had the knees of the Minneapolis Police Department pressed up against my neck for some BS that should have never happened to begin with. And, but for the color of my skin, would’ve never happened.
I’ll be honest, as someone who has passed Washington State’s bar examination, including the moral character and fitness sections, as someone who served this country in uniform, and as a former intelligence officer who’s held a top-secret clearance, I’ve had a lot of explaining to do professionally for, again, some nonsense that should have never happened to begin with.
So, I understand this is part of my lived experiences that forever shaped my view on public safety. I’ve helped champion and pass a new justice reform framework in King County and change the way the County appoints our sheriff (going from elected to appointed by King County Council).
The next level of reform, something I hope to work on in the city, is to adequately fund and invest in non-armed responses to certain situations, including mental health counseling with mental health counselors, specialists, social workers, etc.
Every crisis situation when someone needs help doesn’t always need someone with a badge and a gun showing up guns blazing. So we need to streamline our efforts and to roll out alternatives to policing.
But, very critically, we also need to change and reform the culture of policing. Reform it [to] one that is more of a guardian mindset, a guardian of these communities that they are sworn to protect. Not a warrior mindset.
In the Tyre Nichols situation, the mugshots that I saw of the cops who murdered Tyre, those guys looked like they were trying to be warriors in the video footage. They were trying to be warriors against the community, not guardians. We need to change that. We also need to hire, train, recruit, and promote the right number and the right kind of police.
I don’t know what the right number is, but we don’t need excess police jamming up communities that have historically been overpoliced anyway. But we do need good response times from the police. A few months ago, a friend of mine, a Person of Color, for what it’s worth, saw someone breaking into his car. He went out and confronted them. This person had a knife and took a swipe at him. He was experiencing some mental health challenges. There might be opportunities for nonarmed responses when someone has a knife, but this probably wasn’t one. Regardless, he called the police.
They asked him if he was hurt. He said no. They responded with, “Okay, well, we’re not sending anybody out to help.” And this is what happens when you defund the police.
SSE: That was an actual response from 911?
We need better responses and response times. That’s why we need to hire, promote, develop, and retain the right number of police, for the purpose of meeting these response times. And the right kind of police. We need good, honest police.
SSE: So what role exactly do you feel the police should play in the City’s public safety strategy?
Saka: As I just mentioned, I do want to make it clear that I support good, honest police and first responders. There are two events that will forever shape my view on public safety. I’ve already mentioned one with the Minnesota Police Department. Another one is when I was one block away from the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. I had just finished running the race when the bombs went off.
I will never forget the chaos, confusion, and terror that ensued around me from a terrorist attack on this country. I’ll never forget witnessing the bravery and courage of our first responders, including police, putting their safety on the line when everybody else was trying to figure out how to run away from the danger. They were running towards it. And I’m grateful for that. And so, as I said, I support good, honest police and public safety. How did that become so controversial?
I want to normalize having these tough, complex discussions and hearing each other out. Let’s thoughtfully talk about these challenges and these problems. After we got done talking about them, let’s pivot and focus on the solution. There are a lot of issue spotters in the world. I try to be a problem solver.
SSE: There’s been an uptick in gun violence in the city over the last two years. Residents have been impacted, whether they live in South or West Seattle. How do we effectively address this issue?
Saka: This one hits home because my family is a victim of gun violence. I lost my uncle to gun violence. So, I understand what it’s like to be in a family that’s lost someone close to them to gun violence. And another story I’ll share is, I grew up in low-income apartments that were blocks away from the King County Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
It’s a place where some of my childhood friends would eventually be housed. That also helped fuel and shape my journey, inspiring me to do better and make sure that more kids from Kent at the time, and other disadvantaged communities, were able to achieve their true potential in life.
And part of that is making sure they don’t end up getting ensnared in the criminal legal justice system. So you ask how to do it. I 100% agree that jobs and economic opportunities stop bullets. We need to invest in communities. This is anti-poverty work. We need effective prevention strategies that focus on investing in job placement, training, and Black businesses.
There is a clear relationship in this country between socioeconomic status, crime, and victims of crime. And we know the relationship in this country between race, crime victims, and poverty. It’s all this vicious cycle. And so the solution is investing. It’s a multitier, multilayered approach.
We also need to remove systemic racism from the justice system. That’s, that’s ongoing work. There’s always an opportunity there. I am not gonna sit here and trumpet gun violence prevention alone. We also need to account for the realities of today. Some of that work is gonna help us prevent future gun violence. Death prevention is what we’re really talking about. So how do we make sure that we have adequate resources in place when someone is the victim of gun violence?
SSE: Recently, the students of Rainier Beach High School hosted two town halls to bring attention to how gun violence had impacted their school. They sought to underscore the assertion that, relative to schools elsewhere in the city, schools in South Seattle and West Seattle don’t receive the same priority. How would you lend more support to schools in these areas from a City Council position?
Saka: It’s a great question. From kindergarten to 12th grade, I went to 13 different schools growing up. I was one of the kids on free and reduced lunch. And you can guess what most of those kids look like, in addition to their socioeconomic status; most of those kids were Black and Brown, just like me. I’ve been in some of these same schools. So how do we help at the Seattle City Council level?
We need to sustainably fund mental health services. We can only expect to see the need increase for additional behavioral health and mental health counseling services for youth. We’ve had, you know, a generation of kids who were a year-plus, in some cases, in a remote-only learning environment as a result of COVID-19. We also need to work with our educators and the experts in the school district to find areas of opportunity to align, overlap, and partner together.
One important implementation of that is making sure we have quality, affordable, and accessible child care available for all. Programs like the Department of Education and Early Learning are a really instrumental part of that. And so we need to strengthen our investment there.
SSE: Like many major metropolitan cities, Seattle has a legacy of redlining, where — outside of segregating the Black, Jewish, and Asian communities in certain parts of the city — it also artificially depressed home values, which in turn contributed to wealth inequality, most acutely in our city’s Black community. What are your thoughts on remedying this at the City Council level?
Saka: Great question. Like elsewhere across this country, our region has its own shameful and egregious history of redlining and racial covenants that excluded Black people from even getting funding from banks. We couldn’t live in many neighborhoods because of those covenants. And it excluded us from the opportunity to achieve things like generational wealth.
We need to acknowledge that. And part of that acknowledgment is that we need people with lived experiences to sit in these roles and to explicitly call that out from time to time. Like I said earlier, let’s talk about the problems. If we ever let ourselves forget it, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes at some point. So, that’s the problem.
The solution is continued investment in our community, and our many diverse communities — Black and Brown communities across this city that make Seattle a vibrant place to be in. We have to create as many conditions as possible, and as many opportunities as possible, for people and communities to be their best selves, live up to their true potential in life, and start building generational wealth.
I’m thankful for where I am every day personally and professionally. I have super humble origins, am a former foster kid, lived in public housing, and all that. I am here today in large part because of luck, and it shouldn’t require luck to have these kinds of opportunities. And so that’s why we need further investments in communities, including educational programs, jobs, and workforce training.
SSE: The last few years have brought a rise in hate crimes fueled in part by anti-Asian hate, antisemitism, bigotry toward the LGBTQIA+ community, and anti-Blackness. How do we ensure this city remains a welcoming one for every person who calls it home?
Saka: I will fight hard every day to make sure that the city is safe, clean, accessible, and welcoming for all. Everybody deserves to feel safe in their own neighborhoods and their own communities, free from fear, free from the threat of crime, and free from unequal justice imposed by the police.
And yes, we have a lot of anti-Asian hate, antisemitism, bigotry directed at the LGBTQIA+ community, and anti-Black hate that never seems to go out of style, unfortunately. I’m obviously not comparing the two, but I do feel like some level of toxicity and negative energy has shown up in City Hall and how we make policy there. It’s easy to find differences. It’s easy to spot issues and problems.
We need to understand those differences and shouldn’t run away from them, right? But we also need to show more empathy for one another as humans, because we’re all on this perilous journey toward transformation together. And we need to find common ground, show empathy to one another, and hear each other out.
Even if I don’t agree, I want to hear your perspective, and I want to try and do the work to walk a mile in your shoes. And I hope you would do the same.
Then, maybe then we’ll be able to collaborate across the differences, which are sometimes easy to spot, but then we can work towards a common goal and ultimately get stuff done. I want to aspire to bring that same level of excellence, hope, and desire in the way I show up and approach everything as a City Councilmember.
SSE: With that in mind, let’s say you are elected. What would you want your constituents to be able to say about you by the end of your first term?
Saka: I would want them to say that I am a servant of the people and I care about their needs individually and collectively as a community across District 1, first and foremost, and the rest of the city. I would want them to say that I made great progress on my very simple plan.
I plan to prioritize public safety, action on homelessness, and building a ton of affordable housing. I want people to be able to say, we made a lot of great progress on that, and that I tried to operate with a growth mindset instead of deflecting blame.
I want people to also say that I tried my best to think critically about feedback and try to incorporate that going forward. I also want them to say that I made some great progress in normalizing collaboration across differences in City Hall, finding common ground, and getting things done that actually work.
📸 Featured Image: (Photo courtesy of Rob Saka.)
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