Photo depicting Tammy Morales handing out campaign materials.

Meet the District 2 Seattle City Council Candidates: Tammy Morales

by Luna Reyna

To help our readers make more informed voting decisions ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, the South Seattle Emerald interviewed both candidates for District 2 of the Seattle City Council Race. Each candidate’s Q&A portion presents their perspectives in their own words.

In addition to candidate Tammy Morales, the Emerald interviewed candidate Tanya Woo. On Thursday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m. the Emerald will also host a debate between the two candidates at the Rainier Arts Center. The debate is free, open to the public, and will be livestreamed on the Emerald’s Facebook page.

Tammy Morales grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where her single mother worked two jobs to provide for her children.

As a child, Morales observed her mother struggle to balance being a working mother and finding affordable child care. So, like many other low-income families, as the eldest child, Morales was tasked with watching her younger siblings.

This understanding, at a young age, of the need for a living wage for all families, the inequities in access to resources, and affordable housing has guided her life’s work ever since.

Morales earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a master’s in community and regional planning, at the University of Texas at Austin. She went to work developing legislation on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families initiatives, childcare funding, and low-income housing as legislative director in the Texas House of Representatives for Rep. Garnet Coleman after graduating. She then went on to become the budget and policy analyst for child welfare for the New York City Independent Budget Office, where she continued her advocacy for children and low-income families.

In 2000, she moved to Seattle and started working at local nonprofits that furthered community development, and by 2015, she ran for the District 2 Seattle City Council seat, representing Rainier Beach, Beacon Hill, the Chinatown-International District, SoDo, and Georgetown, against incumbent Bruce Harrell, who was running for his third term.

Morales ran on the same values she became passionate about at a young age, issues like rental protection, affordable housing, and community economic development to help local small businesses and manufacturers.

Morales lost that race, but it didn’t stop her from continuing to serve the community. She worked as a community organizer with Rainier Beach Action Coalition, a grassroots, Black-led organization devoted to locally driven development and safety that advocates for quality education, living-wage jobs, affordable transportation, and housing for all.

Through her consulting company, she worked on food access research and programming doing business with Public Health — Seattle & King County, the City of Seattle, the Office of Sustainability and Environment, the Seattle City Council, and more. She was also the human rights commissioner for the City of Seattle in 2019.

That same year, Morales ran for the District 2 City Council seat again and won. She is the chair of the Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights, and Culture Committee, where she continues to work to support struggling families.

Morales was one of three council members who recently opposed passing legislation that some argue is a regressive and harmful step back to the war on drugs era.

Morales is also a mother of three kids who have attended public Seattle schools. Her family lives, eats, and plays in Seattle’s District 2 that she’s running in. They love Ethiopian food, so they go to Delish on Rainier Avenue South, Los Tinos for Mexican food, and one of their favorite sushi places, Wabi Sabi.

“There’s so much great food in the South End, and everybody should be down there eating it,” Morales said.

Morales has passions outside of her advocacy as well. As a modern dancer throughout high school and into college, she never misses the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when it comes to Seattle. She loves country and R&B music, is one of the Bey Hive but sad she missed Beyoncé on her recent tour, is a major Lauryn Hill fan, and if you ever run into her at karaoke, you can count on hearing her sing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.

South Seattle Emerald: If you were stuck in a 30-second elevator ride and a person asked you to describe District 2, what would you tell them?

Tammy Morales: Well, I think it’s important to know that the district covers Yesler Terrace, the Chinatown-International District, all the way down the Rainier Valley to Rainier Beach, including Beacon Hill. That it’s the most diverse part of the city. I represent the most diverse district in the city, and it is mostly People of Color. But also locally owned small businesses, owned by People of Color, which I think is important. It is full of people who really care deeply about our community, about supporting one another and keeping each other safe. The last thing I’ll say is that [there are] lots of smart, talented, young people who are eager to make their city better.

SSE: So why are you running, and what makes you uniquely qualified for this position?

TM: I’m running again so that I can continue the work that we’re doing in Seattle, particularly for folks in District 2, to make sure that everyone can feel safe in their neighborhood, can afford to pay their rent or mortgage, put food on the table, hopefully still have a little leftover to put in their pocket or take their kids to the movies. Working families shouldn’t have to struggle so hard, and I see that that’s still happening in our city. We all know we have income inequality, and our neighbors deserve to have nice things. They deserve to have healthy, vibrant communities. And all of that means we need to do a lot more work on affordability, which is the work that I am here to do. District 2 is the most progressive district in Seattle, and I’m the only progressive in this race, the only true progressive in this race, the only candidate with union support with most of Seattle’s working class, most of Seattle’s City workers living in the South End, and that is an issue of affordability as well. It’s one of the last affordable places to live in the city.

I would say what makes me uniquely qualified is I am the current councilmember, so this is work that I’ve been doing not just for the last four years, but it’s the work I’ve been doing for my entire career, working to address the challenges that working families have. I’m trained as an urban planner, so all of the work that we need to do to address our transportation issues, our housing, affordability, even our small business and commercial areas are all related. And that’s work that I’ve been doing for 25 years.

I’m also an organizer, and so I understand from both sides the importance of policymaking and the impact of policymaking on communities, and the relationships that I have throughout the district give me that feedback loop so that I can hear from community members whether what we are trying to do is achieving its goals, and hear their ideas and bring their voices into City Hall.

SSE: What is your strongest skill or superpower and expertise that you would bring to the City Council?

TM: I don’t know if it’s a superpower, but I will say I’m a policy wonk and policy nerd in that respect, so I know how to affect real-life change for folks through policy, through securing investments to get the things done that we need to get done. District 2 is part of the city that has historically been under-resourced, and something I’m really proud of [is] that in my office, everything we do, we center racial justice, trying to close the racial wealth gap in the city. That’s why in my first term we were able to invest almost $250 million to serve Communities of Color, and that’s work that I’m really proud of.

SSE: The recent spate of violence in the South End this year has put public safety on the front burner as an issue for the South End. What’s driving this, in your opinion? What solutions will you advocate for to increase public safety in the south end?

TM: What really drives violence are unmet needs. We know the South End has historically been under-resourced. Issues of affordability, lack of access to health care and housing, food insecurity, these things all create trauma in our neighbors. I do think that for too long, community safety [has been] really understood to only be sort of a criminal justice issue, without really paying attention to the underlying causes of violence. The work that I’ve been doing is to try to shift that understanding, because we know that the safest communities are the ones that are fully resourced ones where people can get their basic needs met, not necessarily the neighborhoods with the most police.

My focus has been on keeping people in their homes, ensuring access to healthy, culturally appropriate food, doing what I can to support good-paying union jobs, and empowering young people to be community leaders.

What that means is things like street activation, this sort of the things that we talked about in the South End, in particular, as really being evidence-based solutions to supporting particularly our young people, who are trying to navigate the neighborhoods. People want to enjoy space together, we need to rebuild the social cohesion that we lost during the pandemic. So, organizations like SE Network SafetyNet, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, the Be Safe Bros, these kinds of activities can really help knit our community back together and have proven to be successful in reducing some of the violence that folks are worried about.

Another thing I think is important is we know that we have too many guns on the streets. I think what we can do here is teach families how to have conversations about gun responsibility. That’s actually proven to prevent accidents from curious teenagers.

We have been talking about how we can create a Regional Office of Violence Prevention. The president just announced that they want to do something like that on a national level. I think addressing gun violence requires that we understand what’s happening, how it’s happening, where shootings are going on. Gun violence is preventable, so … we’re having conversations about a City–County partnership with organizations that focus on gun-violence prevention, to really understand what strategies we need to scale up.

SSE: How much will that cost, and how do you propose funding those ideas?

TM: We have a community safety initiative. I think it was $10 million that we put in to support three organizations for like two years that were creating different hubs in the South End, including Delridge and the Central [District]. The challenge is that, we know that those programs are effective, and they are way too small, so we really need to invest in scaling up this work, because programs like CHOOSE 180 and Community Passageways, they all do important work around violence interruption, diversion, and victim support after an incident happens. But these are small organizations, and we know the scale of the problem is much bigger than they have capacity to address, so I do believe that we have to scale that up.

I think those are conversations that we will be having as we start looking at the budget, especially because we know that the violence has gone up. Community members are really frustrated and scared, so we have to figure out how to address this and how to support these groups better. In terms of the Regional Office of Violence Prevention, we’re just beginning that conversation. I know that the program in California was something like $27 million.

I’m really happy that the president and the vice president recently announced a plan for a nationwide effort. My hope is that we might be able to secure some funds from the federal government, but I am well known for preferring progressive taxes to pay for the kinds of services that we need the City to deliver. As we enter the budget cycle here pretty soon, I’m sure we’ll be having more conversations about how we generate the kind of revenue we need to address some of these really serious problems that we have in the city.

SSE: It has been tough for small businesses coming out of the pandemic — what tangible ways would you propose to help South End small businesses thrive?

TM: I am working on how we address commercial affordability. That’s really about providing financial resources [and] technical assistance to make it more affordable for small businesses to stay and stop getting pushed out of the city. We are beginning to work on commercial rent control, which is something that we did during the pandemic so that our small businesses wouldn’t get evicted. We’re working on trying to make that permanent.

The other thing that I really am interested in is the new Business Community Ownership Fund. The idea here is to really help the small businesses buy their property instead of being renters. If we’re talking about building generational wealth, if we’re talking about addressing displacement, if we’re talking about closing the racial wealth gap, then what we really need to be working on is increasing ownership for our small businesses, particularly if they’re led by People of Color. This is something new that the Office of Economic Development is doing, and I’m really excited about it, because it gives business owners the opportunity for shared ownership. It’s sort of like a cooperatively owned property for businesses that can help with stability and affordability issues.

[Another thing] that we do is increasing ownership of property so that folks stop getting pushed out of the city. We have a tenant improvement fund that helps small businesses who need to make improvements in their property. They get up to $100,000 to build out their commercial space, to make improvements. It is intended to provide easier access to capital, because a lot of these small businesses just have a hard time accessing that. Also, in the South End, we have a lot of small-business owners who are Muslim. They can’t take loans because they can’t pay interest as part of the religion. There aren’t that many grants available, especially in Washington, where we aren’t allowed to give public funds to businesses.

SSE: Homelessness has affected all neighborhoods in Seattle. What are some ways as councilmembers that you will solve this issue in the South End?

TM: I already led on some of the really long-term work we need to do by being a huge proponent of the social housing ballot initiative that we passed. We got funding from the legislature, $200,000, to help set up the organization that will eventually create affordable housing. My hope is that there will also be funding for that in the budget that the mayor is transmitting today. The idea is to create permanently affordable housing for renters to keep people from getting evicted, and to make sure that we build stability into people’s lives. That’s an important element. But that’s a long-term solution.

I have been a strong proponent of advocating for things like safe RV lots, more tiny house villages, and access to treatment and services for people. We recently opened a tent city in the South End, and there’s a couple of tiny house villages down by the Rainier Beach light rail station. The truth is, we have close to 50,000 homeless people. I think it’s 48,000 homeless people in King County, and we only have 6,000 shelter beds, so even if everybody said “yes” to a shelter, we would still have 42,000 people on the street. This is a dire problem that we need to address, and it’s not just the City, it’s going to take the County, it’s gonna take the State. We need to really scale up our housing, and we need to scale up the temporary solutions, even if it means investing resources in allowing more tiny houses to be built, because that’s how we’re going to get people off the street. We can’t just keep pushing people from one neighborhood to another.

SSE: How would you act to prevent gentrification and displacement and to build affordable housing in the South End?

TM: One of the things I’m most proud of is work that I started before I was on Council, and that is the Equitable Development Initiative [EDI]. The idea is to support our community-based organizations who want to build housing for their communities. So, for example, the Ethiopian community center just built some housing for seniors. [The EDI] allows for funding to also build out whatever services the community wants on the ground floor, because that’s often the hardest part of building housing, is finding the money to build out that ground floor. The EDI is an important way for us to stop displacement, because it is community-led development, and we now have some funding for it, which we didn’t have before.

One of the first things I did when I was elected in 2020 was to find a permanent source of funding for EDI, and so now that we have the progressive revenue, the payroll expense tax, 9% of whatever we generate from that goes into the equitable development initiative. Now we’re seeing the fruit of all of that. There’s the Ethiopian House senior housing, [and] El Centro de la Raza is building housing in Columbia City that’s going to be family-size units, including a child care center on the ground floor. EDI funded, in part, the Tubman health center that is going in to provide access to medical care, health care in the South End, because we don’t have a hospital.

That’s a really important piece of how we are stopping displacement and building more housing. I’m also working on some community wealth-building initiatives with the Department of Neighborhoods and the Office of Economic Development to create opportunities for people to buy property, increasing homeownership opportunities for people so that they stop getting pushed out.

SSE: A recent national public health study found a correlation between historically redlined areas and higher incidences of pedestrian deaths. Traffic safety continues to be an increasing issue in the South End. What are some ways you’d make streets safer?

TM: This was not an issue on my radar when I came into office. I did not intend to become the pedestrian safety guru, but we have almost 60% of traffic fatalities in the South End, so I’ve been really trying to raise awareness with our Department of Transportation and with Sound Transit, about the need to invest in safety. I’ve been meeting quarterly with Sound Transit and with SDOT specifically around South End safety improvements. You’ll see that there are some changes happening along MLK that Sound Transit and SDOT are doing for signal timing, changing crosswalks, putting in additional signage. Sound Transit’s put in additional signage to warn people that there are trains coming, for example. Every budget cycle, we try to put in some money for sidewalk improvements in the South End. Some of that’s happening along Rainier. It’s not enough but we’re trying to do that.

I’ve just recently introduced legislation called the Complete Streets Ordinance. What we really need is for the Department of Transportation to just have as policy that anytime they’re doing a road improvement, they have to either add a sidewalk or repair the existing sidewalk so that over time we just start to see more of that, because in the South End, especially, many of our streets [and] neighborhoods lack sidewalks. We also need more protected bike lanes. We’ve got maybe 4 miles of protected bike lane in the whole city and lots of people who want to be able to ride their bike around their neighborhood or ride their bike to work. A lot of people simply cannot drive and so they need to be able to walk or roll in their community and navigate it safely.

These are conversations that I have with SDOT regularly, and I do think that their Vision Zero plans are starting to prioritize safety more than they have in the past, and that’s all because of the conversations that my office has been having, regularly calling out when there is an incident that could have been prevented if our roads were designed more safely and if we had safer infrastructure. I think things are shifting, and I’m really hoping that that continues to be the case.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 11/06/2023 to remove incorrect information that stated that Morales sits on the Public Safety & Human Services Committee.

Luna Reyna is a South Seattle writer and broadcaster whose work has identified, supported, and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. She was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, and Talk Poverty. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa and Mexican heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!