By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
After a special city council meeting on Jan. 12, a group of supporters of Tanya Woo, who had just been nominated to fill a vacant seat, were standing inside the doors to Fifth Avenue. A tall, rangy homeless man with arms held out at his sides, as if to brace himself for balance, clutched the door and staggered inside.
“Jes tryin’ to stay warm,” he said, sensing the fear among most members of the group.
Woo, who had been working with people experiencing homelessness for years, handing out clothing and food and occasionally performing CPR, stepped forward.
“Are you trying to find—?” she named a shelter nearby.
She guided the man to an information booth on the far side of the lobby.
The small gesture was an indication of why half the city council members, seeking to nominate someone to fill the seat left vacant by Teresa Mosqueda, named Woo as someone with hands-on community engagement experience addressing Seattle’s most pressing needs—public safety, homelessness, and affordable housing.
Woo often mentioned
The nomination, itself, came from the first council member asked, Bob Kettle, a former liaison between the Navy and Congress, who quoted former President John Kennedy about “civic involvement.”
Kettle said it was important to be a “civic volunteer, a community leader.”
In addition, at least three other council members either said Woo had been their first choice or named her among their other choices.
A fourth, Joy Hollingsworth, said, “A lot of names I planned to nominate have been said.”
In an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly before the meeting, Council President Sara Nelson had said she and her colleagues would choose someone on the basis of what was best for the city of Seattle. But during the council meeting, she also said she hoped that person would win in city-wide elections in 2025.
“I like people who are going to have to live with their decisions,” she said. “Someone who is accountable for the long haul.”
Critics have questioned whether Woo can win a city-wide election after losing to incumbent Tammy Morales in the recent election for district 2. But Woo lost by only 400 votes, no mean feat for a first-time candidate against an incumbent.
Indeed, former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke said, at the time, that it was “very, very difficult” to win against an incumbent.
In an interview after the meeting, Woo said the issues she had campaigned on were the same ones people were facing city-wide.
“Who in the city hasn’t felt fear of hate? It’s everybody,” she said. “All these issues are city-wide. I started a mutual aid group to help the unhoused find warming shelters. I’m still out there. Fentanyl, drugs, helping unhoused folks, small businesses struggling to survive, people looking for jobs, these issues affect all parts of the city.”
During public comment, a supporter presented a petition with over 1,300 signatures from across the city and region calling on the council to nominate Woo.
“I believe in Tanya Woo’s inclusive, collaborative leadership style and strong desire to represent ALL underrepresented communities,” wrote Mike Brown, of Marysville.
Critics have also said Woo’s presence on the council could be divisive since she campaigned against Morales. But veteran politicians say campaigning against one’s colleagues is par for the course—it happens regularly and does not necessarily create obstacles to collaboration.
Rather, divisions of a different sort already seemed visible in the council during the special meeting.
Nelson proposed that each council member nominate one person, a format that it appeared she had already discussed with her colleagues.
She cited numerous past council selections with varying numbers of candidates for vacant positions and varying rounds of selection.
“Variation has been the norm,” she said.
This time, she said, the reduction of 72 eligible applicants to 8 nominees was necessitated by the fact that a new city law required them to answer questions during a public forum—and a larger number of candidates would make the process unwieldy.
But Councilmember Dan Strauss introduced a motion that council members could revise their nominations after each had named a candidate.
Criticizing Nelson’s format, he said, “It is one-dimensional and does not create a release valve at the end of the process.”
The kerfuffle that ensued, with Nelson and Councilmember Cathy Moore siding against the motion, resulted in a close vote that nearly derailed the entire process.
“Are we going to keep redoing the list over and over?” said Nelson.
Although Nelson had emphasized that the new council is unified, it is not clear if such challenges, even about as simple a matter as selecting the next council member, is an indication of friction to come.
Councilmember Rob Saka spent several minutes saying he did not want to choose a new council member who would view any colleague “as the enemy.”
If sides are being drawn, the new council member could be in a position to cast a deciding vote on key issues.
Majority Asian Americans nominated
Perhaps in a nod to the lack of Asian American representation on the city council—the community is the largest minority group in the city at 18%—five of the eight nominees were from that community.
Councilmember Cathy Moore, though saying Woo was her first choice, nominated Neha Nariya, whose family owns and refurbished the Civic Hotel, a city-funded site providing transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Morales named Mari Sugiyama, who manages a team that administers grants to the community, saying her background experience would prepare her for committee work.
Strauss named Vivian Song, a member of the Seattle school board, referring to her knowledge of government and community involvement
After saying that many of her choices had been taken, Hollingsworth nominated Linh Thai, a former military intelligence officer who worked for Rep. Adam Smith and, more recently, served veterans.
“In the spirit of having a good list,” she said.
Saka said he was aware that the Asian American community was demanding a seat.
“I see you, I hear you, and I appreciate your feedback,” he said.
Among his criteria was the ability to collaborate, to “get stuff done,” and someone who “doesn’t mind being told they’re wrong.”
He listed candidates who met his criteria, including Woo, Nariya, Thai, and Sugiyama. But, in the end, he nominated Mark Solomon, a crime prevention coordinator with the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
Meanwhile, Councilmember Maritz Rivera said her first choice had been Woo, but nominated Juan Cotto, a leader in coordinating blood donation at the state, federal, and local levels, who is also the president of the board of El Centro De La Raza, as well as holding positions with other socially-active nonprofits.
For her part, Nelson had campaigned for Woo during the recent election. She said she was “not going to put forward who she was going to say.”
She nominated Captain Steve Strand of the SPD.
Public comments were largely by Woo’s supporters.
Community advocate Betty Lau said Woo had “lived experience” for “getting things done”—managing a family business, creating affordable housing, co-founding a community watch to help unsheltered neighbors and connecting them to resources.
Amy Chen Lozano, another community organizer, said Woo has “boots on the ground.”
Small business owner Sue Mar, who worked for the city of Seattle for 32 years in seven different departments, said, “Tanya has real grassroots experience seeking timely solutions to issues, developing and managing affordable housing, working with small businesses, supporting organizations that provide social services to people in need.”
Bettie Luke, the sister of Wing Luke, the first person of color on the city council, said, “When [Woo] shows up, people know she’s going to listen.”
Genevieve Courtney, a doctor who lives in Beacon Hill, said Woo “represents the underserved.”
Renton city Councilmember Kim Khan Van added that Woo had supported gun violence prevention.
Others described her as a public safety champion.
In support of Sugiyama, Mika Rothman, an attorney, said 300 community leaders endorsed her social and racial equity work for the most vulnerable and marginalized.
Meanwhile, a supporter of Nariya described coming from a broken home plagued with alcohol and violence and said the nominee had been pivotal in supporting her recovery.
Along with Woo, Nariya was at the council chambers.
In an interview, Nariya said her interest in advocacy for women and people from communities of color stemmed in part from her position as one of two daughters in a South Asian family of immigrants.
“There’s supposed to be a male heir,” she said.
Advocating for women in societies where they are not always seen was an important part of her values growing up. It blossomed when she joined Legal Voice, an advocacy group for women and LGBTQ people that supports legislation and engages directly with the government.
“Grassroots advocacy is effective,” she said. “But many women and communities of color may not know about approaching it from a macro level.”
She was also shaped by her experience remodeling and managing her family’s hotel, which is now a site, in partnership with the city, of providing transitional housing for unhoused people.
“You see that most of the people are from around here, and, in many cases, it’s just one or two things that throw them into homelessness and then sometimes addiction or mental health problems,” she said.
Nariya also saw the power of community engagement when Sound Transit wanted to use her family hotel’s parking lot to store cranes for construction. She and others offered public comment showing that the site chosen would have dumped riders onto the busy Highway 99.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.