By Travis Quezon
Northwest Asian Weekly
More than two hundred people gathered at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) building in South Seattle Friday night for the API Candidates Forum, a historic collaboration of 15 organizations to bring API concerns straight to electoral candidates.
Candidates included incumbent Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his opponent Ed Murray; Seattle City Council (Position #2) incumbent Richard Conlin and his opponent Kshama Sawant; and Seattle City Council (Position #8) incumbent Mike O’Brien and his opponent Albert Shen.
The night began with a heated debate between Councilman Conlin, a 16-year incumbent, and Sawant, an economics teacher at Seattle Central Community College.
Seattle City Council (Position #2)
Sawant’s platform is focused on establishing a $15/hour minimum wage, creating a tax on people who earn more than $1 million a year to fund mass transit and education, and working on affordable housing and rent control.
Conlin’s campaign is focused on education, transportation, public safety, job creation, and affordable housing and human services.
A major point of contention was Conlin’s criticism of Sawant’s proposed millionaire tax. Conlin said it is not possible to implement through the City Council because the Washington State Constitution does not allow income tax.
“It would be great to be able to have more graduated taxes in this city,” Conlin said of the millionaire tax, “but we have no authority to do that and I see no sign that the legislature would ever give us the authority to do something like that.”
In response, Sawant said that Conlin is mistaken and that the millionaire tax can be passed by the City Council as an excise tax. She also said the Economic Opportunity Institute has already created a sample ordinance as a basis for the proposed tax on people who make more than a million dollars a year.
On public safety, Conlin said there needs to be more visible police on the street. Sawant, however, said that the Seattle Police Department does not create a sense of safety for people of color, who have been the victims in high profile cases of excessive use of force, and that there needs to be a civilian watchdog group that oversees the SPD.
“If you want to address crime, you have to address the fact that most of the victims, it’s not just the criminals, are low-income people, middle class people, and people of color,” Sawant said. “If you want to address this seriously, we need to take a close look at addressing poverty and inequality as it is not an artificial problem that can be addressed by just deploying more forces on the street. That will only compound the problem.”
Conlin said there was no need for a civilian watchdog group to oversee the SPD because it is already the job of the City Council.
On creating a better climate for small businesses, Conlin said a practical solution is to make it easier to open restaurants. He said that red tape keeps potential business owners from obtaining restaurant permits in a timely manner.
Sawant said there needs to be an expansion of services to help small business owners to overcome language barriers.
Seattle City Council (Position #8)
City Council candidates O’Brien and Shen looked more like long-time pals than political opponents. O’Brien is a former Sierra Club chair and is seeking his second term on the council. Shen is the owner of a small transportation and engineering consulting firm in the International District.
O’Brien prioritized affordable housing, transportation, sustainability, job creation, public safety, and limiting the influence of money in politics.
Shen promised to expand higher learning opportunities for high school graduates, create a better relationship between the police and the community, promote clean technology, and stimulate the local economy.
Shen also pointed to disparities in API neighborhoods created by the city’s ongoing construction projects.
“One clear disparity … I’ve seen that’s impacted our small businesses is the streetcar construction,” Shen said. “Businesses in our Chinatown/ID are down 30 percent. Some have shut down because of the construction. I think the city missed on the opportunity to mitigate any funding opportunities for these small businesses to survive this construction.”
Shen also said effective transportation is going to be key for people in affordable housing areas who are being displaced.
“If you look at what’s happening here in the south end, seniors are struggling to get metro bus access to light rail,” Shen said. “One example I’ve been talking about is the Filipino community center down on MLK Way, it is half a mile in either direction from either light rail stop. It is a true disparity.”
O’Brien said he is currently fighting against the legislature’s proposed 17 percent cuts to metro transit, which he said “would be devastating.”
On crime, O’Brien said it’s a challenge to address because of its complexity. “The idea that we’re just going to throw money at police to arrest our way out of the problem, we know that doesn’t work,” O’Brien said. “Now that doesn’t mean we don’t need to have good police officers. We do need to have police out there. We need to have the right tools to arrest people when appropriate. But we also need to do this in conjunction with human services and outreach.”
Shen said there needs to be more police officers who come from the communities they are serving. “As far as the cultural competency side, a lot of people don’t speak English down there [in the International District],” Shen said. “We need actual community policy officers on the ground.”
Mayoral candidates McGinn and Murray appeared calm, yet showed fatigue from the long campaign.
Mayor McGinn highlighted examples from his first term, including the creation of an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. His campaign priorities include making preschool available for all Seattle children, improving the minimum wage, stopping the coal trains, building mass transit, and being a leader on environmental issues.
Murray has served on the Washington State Legislature for 18 years. He mentioned his work for the API community in securing funding for the Wing Luke Museum, the ACRS building, and the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Bainbridge Island. Murray also described his work as a legislator in preserving refugee and immigration programs. He has also been a key figure in the fight for marriage equality in Washington State.
On addressing the disparity of underemployed and unemployed API, McGinn said there needs to be a focus on education and hiring people locally. Murray described a three-prong approach: work with startup businesses, connect them with community colleges, and hire workers locally.
On efforts to get people caught up with Obamacare, McGinn described the joint outreach efforts of Seattle/King County Public Health to connect with ethnic communities. Murray also highlighted the importance of access and described a legislative measure that saw $2 million budgeted for culturally sensitive interpreters to help people sign up for Medicaid in general.
In his closing remarks, Murray alluded to the current divisive nature of Seattle’s city politics.
“What my campaign has been able to show is we’ve been able to bring together a diverse coalition of people of color, of labor, of business people,” Murray said. “And that’s what this city needs right now, a leader who can actually bring us together.”
McGinn responded by saying that he has never been afraid of taking on difficult and controversial issues.
“The thing about tackling the tough issues is occasionally it’s controversial, but it’s the right thing to do in the long term,” McGinn said in his closing remarks. “And that’s what we’ve been working on. That’s why we’ve protected and expanded human services, protected and expanded the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative even in tough times.”
Organizations behind the forum included ACRS, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, King County, Asian Pacific Islander Directors Coalition, Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Association, Filipino American Bulletin, Filipino American Political Action Group WA, International Examiner, Japanese American Citizens League, Seattle, NW Asian Weekly/Seattle Chinese Post, Organization of Chinese Americans (Seattle), Phuong Dong Times, Vietnamese American Community of Seattle and Sno-King Counties, and the Washington State India Trade Relations Action Committee. (end)
Travis Quezon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.