Before We Defend Aziz Ansari, Perhaps Some Critical Thinking Is In Order

Earlier this week, the website Babe published the story of a 23-year-old woman, “Grace,” who went on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari last year. She was 22; he was 34.  According to her account, they had a rushed dinner and went back to his house, where Ansari pressured her to have sex with him and ignored numerous verbal and nonverbal cues that she wanted him to stop. (At one point, she asked him not to force her to have sex because she didn’t want to “hate” him.)

Ansari didn’t deny the account. Instead, he responded with a statement saying that he didn’t know she wasn’t into it. In the three days since the story was published, numerous anti-feminists—from Katie Roiphe to Caitlin Flanagan to Bari Weiss—have published hot takes blaming the woman, “Grace,” for not slapping Ansari and storming out, minimizing his behavior as the kind of “bad sex” that women usually put up with without a fuss, and accusing her of being a groupie who just wants her 15 (anonymous) minutes in the spotlight.

But the worst hot take I’ve read comes from an outlet that has postured itself as a feminist ally—my alma mater, The Stranger.  Katie Herzog, the author of a post titled “Before We Burn Aziz Ansari, Perhaps Some Self-Reflection Is in Order,” says she doesn’t have sex with men, but she seems pretty confident that straight and bi women aren’t “really” traumatized by nonconsensual encounters with dudes like the one Grace describes having with Ansari.

Full disclosure: I worked at the Stranger from 2003 to 2009, and I totally get why no one said no to this dumb piece. “Shitty hot takes” is practically a category on Slog, because everyone knows that “Rape isn’t real” gets more clicks than “nonconsensual sexual activities exist on a spectrum, at one end of which is violent rape, but the existence of violent rape should not automatically invalidate every sexual violation that is less severe.” (By the same token, “Santorum is a frothy mix of lube and anal matter” gets more clicks than “city council candidate violates ethics rules.” Sad but true.)

Let’s begin.

Before We Burn Aziz Ansari, Perhaps Some Self-Reflection Is in Order

Like most of the men accused of sexual misconduct in the last few months, Ansari has suffered zero consequences for his (alleged) actions, aside from the brief embarrassment of some Twitter scrutiny that will be gone as soon as the next shitty man is outed. My bet is someone else will be trending by the end of the week. Casey Affleck who? Anyway, no one is being “burned,” at the stake or anywhere else.

When I read the by-now viral article about a date with Aziz Ansari being the “worst night” of a young woman’s life, my first thought was, “Really?”

In her very first line, a writer for a publication that pointedly and repeatedly says that it “believes women/survivors” is stating unequivocally that she does not.

Also, as Herzog is no doubt aware, that quote comes from the headline of the piece— Grace didn’t claim it was the worst night of her life, the headline writer did. The actual quote is, “It was by far the worst experience with a man I’ve ever had.” I guess “it was the worst night of my life” is easier to make fun of and dismiss?

It is a creepy move to order anything for a woman that she didn’t request, as if she’s a child confused by the menu. “I’ll have the steak, and the lady will have a small green salad, dressing on the side.”  If a guy did this to me, red flags would be flying up all over the place. Dear guys who do this: Stop. Life isn’t 50 Shades of Gray.

The young woman, called “Grace,” is an anonymous 23-year-old photographer who went out with Ansari in September of 2017, and then told her story to Katie Way, a staff writer at the website Babe. The date, according to Way’s re-telling, does sound genuinely uncomfortable, at least for Grace. She met Ansari, a 34-year-old actor, writer, and comic, at an Emmy after-party some weeks before. They bonded over having the same vintage camera, exchanged numbers, and engaged in flirty text banter for a while before making plans. Grace was excited.

The night began with a glass of wine. “After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine,” Way writes. “‘It was white,’ [Grace] said. ‘I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.’ Then Ansari walked her to Grand Banks, an Oyster bar onboard a historic wooden schooner on the Hudson River just a few blocks away.”

Aside from offering her the wrong color wine—that fucking creep

Yeah, you know what? It is a creepy move to order anything for a woman that she didn’t request, as if she’s a child who can’t quite read the menu. “I’ll have the steak, and the lady will have a small green salad, dressing on the side.”  See how that sounds? If a guy did this to me, red flags would be flying up all over the place. Dear guys who do this: Stop. Life isn’t 50 Shades of Gray.

the date is pretty okay. He’s famous, he’s funny, what’s not to like?

Kind of like the “worst night of my life” quote, Grace didn’t actually say or imply any of those things. In fact, she describes the whole date as pretty weird and uncomfortable, even before they get to Ansari’s house. (Besides ordering for her and giving her what she described as a “dress code,” Ansari didn’t let her finish her drink). Could it be that Katie, the writer of this hit piece, is setting Grace up to be a liar and a hypocrite?

But it starts to turn after they finish eating and he rushes her out the door and back to his place while she would prefer to linger. They go back to his apartment, where they proceed to hook up. It’s weird, and awkward, and he keeps sticking his fingers in her mouth (or her throat?) for some reason. (Do people do that on porn? I don’t know.) Grace calls this misguided move “the claw” and she definitely doesn’t like it. Later, after some halting, awkward sex stuff

This characterization—”halting, awkward sex stuff”—is not the situation Grace described. I’m going to quote from the original piece at length, to give a flavor of what actually happened, according to Grace, that night. Bolds are mine.

When Ansari told her he was going to grab a condom within minutes of their first kiss, Grace voiced her hesitation explicitly. “I said something like, ‘Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.’” She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him. She did, but not for long. “It was really quick. Everything was pretty much touched and done within ten minutes of hooking up, except for actual sex.”

She says Ansari began making a move on her that he repeated during their encounter. “The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.” Grace called the move “the claw.”

Ansari also physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night, from the time he first kissed her on the countertop onward. “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”

But the main thing was that he wouldn’t let her move away from him. She compared the path they cut across his apartment to a football play. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following and sticking his fingers down my throat again. It was really repetitive. It felt like a fucking game.”

Throughout the course of her short time in the apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”

Whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. “I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”

Ansari wanted to have sex. She said she remembers him asking again and again, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” while she was still seated on the countertop. She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all.

“I wasn’t really even thinking of that, I didn’t want to be engaged in that with him. But he kept asking, so I said, ‘Next time.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her. She excused herself to the bathroom soon after.

Grace says she spent around five minutes in the bathroom, collecting herself in the mirror and splashing herself with water. Then she went back to Ansari. He asked her if she was okay. “I said I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you,” she said.

A lot of women have been in similar situations. I know I have. Guys who won’t listen to a clear, unambiguous “I want to stop.” Guys who keep grabbing your hand and putting it on their crotch even when you’ve asked them to chill and cut it out. Guys who pull moves they’ve seen in porn, like choking you or shoving their fingers down your throat without bothering to find out if you’re into that. Guys who block your way when you try to leave the room. Guys who pull your hand back to their crotch after you’ve pulled it away. Guys who say, “Let’s just get into bed with our clothes on” and then immediately try to take your clothes off. Guys who say “just let me put it in once.” Guys who will literally say “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaase” like they’re children and they want you to give them just one more cookie.

 

Everyone’s trauma is real to them. No one is under any obligation to react a certain way, or on a certain timeline. No one has to find the shitty things that happen to them “funny.”

 

All these things really happen, all the time. But the fact that they happen all the time doesn’t mean they’re mere “awkward sex stuff” that women should just accept. It means that men have been taught that sex is a negotiation between a man who wants it and a woman who can eventually be broken down, or that consent to one sexual act (kissing, receiving oral sex) is a consent to all future sexual acts, regardless of the woman’s boundaries or desire to stop.

, she leaves in a car and cries on the way home. And this, she says, was the worst night of her life. It’s probably the worst night of his life now, too.

So, to be clear: Grace (would be) crazy (if she had) said  that this was the worst night of her life (which she didn’t) but it probably was the worst night of Ansari’s? We’re really doing this—comparing a humiliating, nonconsensual sexual encounter to a couple of days of mild criticism, tempered heavily by a chorus (including Herzog) who immediately rushed in to defend his nice-guy bona fides? To quote Herzog: Really?

But it wouldn’t be a shitty think piece without a trip to the Trauma Olympics.

“If that is the worst night of your life,” I thought when I finished the piece. “You need to get out more.” The night didn’t end with her in a neck brace or passed out in the back of a police car or extinguishing a mattress with 40 ounces of Schlitz after her girlfriend fell asleep smoking a cigarette. It didn’t even end with vomit! If this was as low as it got for Grace, I thought, she is doing just fine.

I know trauma is relative,

Clearly, you don’t.

but I would gladly take Grace’s worst night over my own (many) worst nights, several of which ended with broken teeth and/or bones. (Surprise—I used to drink a lot.) And yet, for whatever reason, I’m not as traumatized by those nights—years later, they are actually pretty funny—as Grace seems to be from her one ugly date.

Now as it happens, this is another thing I know a bit about, as someone who used to drink myself into the emergency room on a fairly regular basis. It sucks, and I’m sorry for anyone who has had that experience. But the fact that one person goes through that experience and finds it “funny” doesn’t mean that someone else can’t be traumatized by a different experience. Trauma isn’t a contest. If it was, no one’s story would ever be enough to elicit sympathy, because there’s always someone who had it worse.

And since it apparently needs to be said: Everyone’s trauma is real to them. No one is under any obligation to react a certain way, or on a certain timeline. No one has to find the shitty things that happen to them “funny.”

I doubt this is because I’m more resilient than Grace; rather, I’m just older. If Grace survives as a single woman for another decade, this date will scarcely register on her list of bad dates.

Of all the shitty reasons to dismiss a woman’s trauma, “it’ll get a lot worse as you get older, sweetie, because men will violate you in ways you haven’t dreamed of yet” is about the worst. It’s condescending as hell, and it just asks so little of men. It assumes the absolute worst about their capacity to be decent. “Men can’t be trusted to listen to you, care about your pleasure, pick up on cues like the fact that you’ve gone as limp as a fish, or ask you what you want. Just get used to it. It’s impossible for them to be better.”

Performative wokeness now requires that men act as if they care about women’s pleasure, but not that they learn how to provide it.

 

Or it wouldn’t have if Ansari weren’t famous and she weren’t now famous too, albeit under a moniker that refers to prayer before dinner.

I’m confused: Is she a starfucker who was just hoping for her 15 minutes in a famous man’s spotlight, or is she hiding behind “a moniker” that isn’t her own? Or are these just two different (and conflicting) ways to, once again, discount her credibility?

As other laptop observers have pointed out, Grace’s experience is hardly unusual. There’s even a name for it, as Bari Weiss noted in the Times: bad sex.

You know your argument’s in trouble when you’re citing a noted neocon who thinks campus “witch hunts” against conservatives are real, wrote a piece denouncing Me Too for “criminalizing” men who harass and assault their female subordinates, and doesn’t know what cultural appropriation is.

 

We’d rather blame women for “crying wolf” or making a fuss over “bad sex” than confront the massive imbalance of power between men and women that still persists, largely unaltered, to this day.

 

And bad sex can happen to any people who have sex, not just when there’s a dick involved (either literally or metaphorically). Grace’s encounter—and the terrible sex in the New Yorker’s recent blockbuster short story “Cat Person”—strongly reminded me of most of my 20s. I wasn’t sleeping with men (unless there were no women in my zip code and there was a large amount of tequila), but—at the risk of betraying the sapphic sisterhood—lesbians can and do have bad sex, too…. although I suspect we’re more likely to have a pair or two of cat eyes watching us bone from the litter box.

Perhaps there is an unfortunate power deferential between men and and women that makes these icky encounters more traumatic when it’s a man and a woman, but we’re acting like this is something men exclusively do to women.

But, in my experience, women act just like Ansari did with Grace pretty damn often as well.

No one said “exclusively,” but yes, THE POWER DIFFERENTIAL IS THE WHOLE POINT. (P.s. it’s “differential,” not “deferential.”) Are we really still debating whether there’s a power imbalance between men and women, particularly older, powerful men and young, anonymous women? I’m not even referring to the fact that men tend to be physically stronger than women, although they usually are, which adds an element of menace to every unpleasant encounter. Men exercise power over women every time a woman says “no” nine times and gives in on the tenth, or lets a guy do something she isn’t into, or goes limp and dissociates just to get through it, or fakes an orgasm because that’s what he wants her to do. (Performative wokeness now requires that men act as if they care about women’s pleasure, but not that they learn how to provide it).

A lot of the backlash pieces against Ansari’s accuser, including this one, suggest that women who don’t like what a man is doing should just kick him in the balls, or tell him “fuck off,” or run out the door. Here’s why that usually doesn’t happen. As women, we are taught practically from birth to be polite, to avoid upsetting others, to avoid letting things “get awkward,” to never give offense. Even at my advanced age (older than Herzog, younger than Katie Roiphe), I find myself trying to smooth over awkward encounters with men, or apologizing when they interrupt me, or making up for their lack of preparedness by filling in the gaps in their knowledge for them. When they talk over me, I try not to point it out. When they say things like, “Well, it’s really he said-she said, so who do we believe?” I try to walk away.  Melissa McEwan, in her sadly evergreen piece “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck,” described this choice as, “swallow shit or ruin the entire afternoon?” Usually, it’s just easier to swallow the shit.

I had a lot of bad sexual encounters in my own roaring 20s: sex that was just sloppy, regrettable, and gross, and, sometimes, sex that I really did not want to be having. I once dated a woman who tried to fuck me every night after I’d fallen asleep, and I’d just roll onto my stomach and start snoring. When these things happened, just like Grace, instead of pulling up my pants and leaving, I closed my eyes and soldiered on.

 

Social mores aren’t genetic. They can change very quickly. Look at same-sex marriage. Look at marijuana laws. Why should we make a special exception for the “eons-old” notion that sex is something men take from women without their consent?

 

Except that Grace did pull up her pants, go to the next room, ask him to stop, and tell him she didn’t want to feel forced. To pretend she did none of those things is to rob her of her own story in service to a shopworn “why didn’t she just—” anti-feminist narrative.

People have pointed out that when women reject men, they get killed, but in those situations, I was never afraid for my safety. And yet I hooked up with people when it felt wrong all the time. The thing I was afraid of—the reason I didn’t stop—was hurting the other person’s feelings.

This happened all the time: I’d be in some sexual encounter, her kisses would feel like a slug had taken up residency in my mouth, and because I felt too awkward and uncomfortable to say anything, I’d just go along with it. Sometimes I’d even spend the night, maybe cuddle a little, and continue to pretend I was interested the next morning just because it was less awkward. And, then, when enough time had passed, I would text her and say I was moving to Atlanta. Lying, making excuses, or just disappearing was easier than potentially hurting someone’s feelings in-person. This isn’t because I’m an uncommonly empathetic person (I am not), but because I avoid discomfort at all costs. I think a lot of women (and men) are like me in this respect.

Sure. Lots of people avoid confrontation. I’ve invented whole new relationships to get some guys to leave me alone when they wouldn’t accept “I don’t want to go out again” for an answer. But the thing is, we women are trained to be nonconfrontational, specifically, toward men. And men are taught that they have to push—that women who don’t want sex, or aren’t into the type of sex a man wants to have at that moment, are just playing “hard to get.” Sex becomes a game: He pushes, she rejects, he pushes harder, and eventually, she gives in. Because it’s just “less awkward.” Why not just give him what he wants? The woman’s pleasure is immaterial—the point is to get it over with and get out the door.

And the sad thing is, we’re taught that that’s just how sex is. We say “maybe next time” because we don’t want to make him feel bad. We let him talk us into giving the blow job because we know he’ll just keep asking if we don’t. We let him shove the fingers in our throats because we’re shocked and don’t know how to get away. We freeze. We go limp. We dissociate. We have out-of-body experiences. And still many men plow forward, even  as we turn into cold, limp rags, because after all, we didn’t punch them in the face. We didn’t blow our rape whistles. We didn’t run out the door. That must mean we wanted it. Right?

Maybe this wasn’t part of Grace’s experience, but it is hard to be direct, especially about sex. And that, I think, is what people like Grace and me and Cat Person need to start doing: We need to get over our discomfort with discomfort and hurt some goddamn feelings up front, when it’s happening.

“I don’t want to hate you because I feel forced.” I agree that it can be hard to be direct. I also applaud Grace for making her boundaries clear, again and again and again.

 

He could have started by listening to what Grace was saying and paying attention to whether she was enjoying herself, instead of treating her like an animated, talking Fleshlight.

 

Again, as Bari Weiss pointed out in her piece, Ansari isn’t a mind-reader.

Nor did he need to be.

According to his own account, he didn’t realize anything was amiss until the next day,

He could have started by listening to what Grace was saying and paying attention to whether she was enjoying herself, instead of treating her like an animated, talking Fleshlight.

when Grace texted him: “Last night might’ve been fun for you, but it wasn’t for me. You ignored clear non-verbal cues; you kept going with advances.” She was obviously upset, and clearly felt victimized, and she assumed he knew she was unhappy because of her “non-verbal cues.” But body language isn’t an actual language, and humans are notoriously bad at reading other people: A 2008 study found that participants were unable to distinguish when other people were experiencing either physical pain—even agony—or sexual pleasure from facial expressions in nearly 25 percent of cases.

Subtler moods and emotions are even harder to detect, and research suggests that this is especially true when you are dealing with the opposite sex. Whether it’s fair and just or not, we—women, men, and other—have to use our words to get what we want. You can’t will other people into changing.

Do I really have to point out that a study of how people interpret still photos of faces says nothing about an in-person sexual encounter, when the cues are more vivid and multidimensional, and it’s possible to, you know, ask them if they’re into whatever you’re doing to them?

 

Consent is not “a very new concept” that “older generations aren’t even aware exists.” I should know—I was born in the ’70s. I went to a big state college in Texas the ’90s. And yet, somehow, on the very first day of freshman orientation, we learned all about consent—what it is, how to ask for it, how to give it.

 

There is, of course, an easy solution: Ask for consent, each and every time you make a move. That puts the onus on the aggressor.

What a sad conception of sex, to think of one person as the “aggressor” and the other as the passive receptacle for their aggression.

But, still, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, sometimes people still nod along as though everything is fine even when someone is asking. I know this because I’ve done it. Besides that little problem, the idea of asking for “consent” is a very new concept in the very long course of human history, and one older generations aren’t even aware exists.

Stop it. Just STOP IT. Consent is not “a very new concept” that “older generations aren’t even aware exists.” I should know—I was born in the ’70s. I went to a big state college in Texas the ’90s. And yet, somehow, on the very first day of freshman orientation, we learned all about consent—what it is, how to ask for it, how to give it. Even before that, I understood the concept, from reading books written in the seventies, like “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” And I took it to heart (as did the guys I hooked up with). The notion that both partners in a sexual encounter should be willing participants is not some wild modern idea dreamed up by millennials in the past decade. It’s been around a long, long time—and I bet even “older generations” who have somehow never heard of this concept are capable of learning it.

Take kissing, for instance, which many people—probably including Ansari—learned to do from movies and TV. No one on television asked for consent in the ’90s; they just leaned in.

I’m pretty sure requests for consent are no more commonplace on TV now than they were in the ’90s.  I’m also pretty sure that most kids know the difference between how things work on TV and in movies and the way they work in real life. When I first started kissing boys, “Can I kiss you?” was a standard question; if a guy had just, out of nowhere, locked lips with me, I would have run away screaming or died of shock. And at any rate, if Grace had just said Ansari had kissed her once without asking, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. An unwanted kiss is not what any of this is about.

Today, you could be fired, kicked out of school, and, especially, excoriated on Twitter for that.

Citation needed, please. No, I really insist. WHO has been fired for kissing someone on a date? WHO has been kicked out of school? WHO has been excoriated on Twitter for kissing without asking permission first?

Maybe at some point asking for consent before each and every semi-sexual act will take hold in American society, but this is a newly emerged rule and some patience with eons-old human behavior will make this transition easier.

I’m no prehistorian, but I will, again, need a citation for the claim that nonconsensual sex and kissing is “eons old” and that asking for consent is “a newly emerged rule.” Even if this was true (it isn’t), social mores aren’t genetic. They can change very quickly. Look at same-sex marriage. Look at marijuana laws. Why should we make a special exception for the “eons-old” notion that sex is something men take from women without their consent?

We have suddenly entered era where actions that not long ago would have been normal can and now do upend lives. Today it may be Ansari getting called a predator on Twitter, but if time’s up for everyone—both men and women—who is guilty of misreading “non-verbal cues,” it’s going to be a very long trial.

We haven’t been able to lock up Woody Allen or Harvey Weinstein or Julian Assange or Roman Polanski. Tavis Smiley—who was just forced from PBS last month after multiple allegations of coercive sexual conduct—is putting on panels about workplace conduct around the country as part of his warp-speed rehabilitation tour. New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush kept his job and book deal after groping and harassing multiple younger female colleagues. Matt Lauer, accused not just of harassing and groping his female colleagues but of violently raping at least one woman in his office,  was protected for years. He was finally replaced late last year—by a woman making a fraction of his $25 million salary. Tell me again who’s on “trial,” or whose life has been unfairly “upended”? Explain to me why we need to stop having this conversation?

We are, I fear, at the beginning of a backlash that will end not in appreciable gains for women but with the “rehabilitation” (reinstatement to power, in the absence of actual exoneration) of nearly every man accused of doing heinous things to women, from execrable rapists like Weinstein all the way down to guys who refuse to take no for an answer, like Ansari. I wish and hope that I’m wrong. But the reason I think I’m right is that it’s what we’re already doing. (Exhibit A: One million shitty who-will-think-of-the-ruined-men think pieces like this one). We’d rather blame women for “crying wolf” or making a fuss over “bad sex” than confront the massive imbalance of power between men and women that still persists, largely unaltered, to this day. We’d rather change the subject than force men to answer for what they do to women. We’d rather swallow shit than ruin a single powerful man’s afternoon.

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Morning Crank: “Clearly An Undisclosed Pledge”

1. Last week, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon wrote her campaign a check for $207,000, bringing the total she contributed to her own campaign to nearly $400,000—the largest amount spent by any self-financed candidate in Seattle history.

The campaign for now-Mayor Jenny Durkan now argues that the contribution confirms what they predicted in two complaints they filed last year, alleging that Moon was engaging in a campaign-finance “shell game,” accepting a loan-on-paper from her campaign consultant Moxie Media with a promise to pay Moxie back after the campaign was over.

Shortly before the November election, the Durkan campaign filed a complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission against the Moon campaign, charging that Moon had unlawfully contributed tens of thousands of dollars to her own campaign within 21 days of the election, in violation of a state law prohibiting candidates from giving more than $5,000 to their own campaigns within that period, or had promised to repay a large loan to her campaign during that period, which, they argue, would also violate a city election rule prohibiting vendors from extending credit to campaigns in a way that is outside the “ordinary course of business.” A week later, the campaign filed a separate, similar complaint at the state Public Disclosure Commission, charging that the campaign’s final report before the election “clearly indicates that Moxie Media is relying on Ms. Moon to cover debts that are clearly beyond the pace of their other fundraising efforts. The increase in debt by $77,459.18 [over the last two weeks of October] is clearly an undisclosed pledge from Ms. Moon and is over 15 times the amount that Ms. Moon can pledge during the 21 days before the election.”

According to the SEEC complaint, “A close look at the Moon campaigns [sic] filings indicates that one of two things, both illegal, is going on: either her campaign’s vendors are making tens of thousands of dollars in illegal in-kind donations to her campaign, or Moon is contributing (or promising to contribute) tens of thousands of  dollars to her own campaign in direct contravention of the 21-day self-contribution limit,” the complaint alleges.

The complaints zeroed in on tens of thousands of dollars campaign consultant Moxie Media spent in the final weeks of the campaign on up-front expenses like postage, which can’t be deferred until after the campaign is over. In the last two weeks of October, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the campaign’s debt increased by more than $85,000, to $186,000 (the election was November 7). This amount of last-minute debt, the Durkan campaign suggests, violates the spirit of the ban on late contributions. “If these actions by the Moon campaign and Moxie Media are acceptable, then there are essentially no limits to the amount that a campaign consultant can spend out of their own funds on media, mail or other paid communication buys on behalf of a wealthy candidate for whom they work, under the assumption that the candidate can reimburse them for all of those up front payments after election day, when campaign contribution limits (like the 21-day restriction on candidate self-contradictions [sic]) no longer apply,” the state complaint says.

Moon’s camp says the loan (or pledge) was completely within the normal course of business, and notes that Durkan’s own debt increased by about $45,000 in the same period, to $98,000. They also point out that the debt was hardly a secret—the campaign reported it on every election filing.

Moxie Media’s Lisa MacLean did not return a call for comment.

Although consultants are allowed to extend credit to candidates for 90 days, the complaint charged that the Moon campaign and its consultant, Moxie Media, were aware that the debt would ultimately be paid by Moon, not other campaign contributors. At the time of the complaint, October 25 of last year, the campaign was reporting more than $125,000 in debt, which was almost as much as Moon had raised from individual donors at that point in the race, raising questions about her ability to generate enough in donations after the election to pay back that debt without using her own money. By the end of November, three weeks after Moon had lost the election, campaign finance reports indicated her campaign was $206,000 in the red.

If the SEEC tosses the complaint, the Durkan campaign says, it will essentially be saying that there is are no limitations on campaign contributions by self-financed candidates, opening the floodgates for candidates to make massive loans to struggling campaigns in the hopes that a big last-minute financial push will make up for a lack of grassroots support. (The PDC will consider the campaign’s complaint, too, but on a much slower timeline because the agency is working its way through a huge backlog caused primarily by a single conservative activist who has filed dozens of complaints against local Democratic Party districts alleging various reporting violations.)

But officials with the SEEC and the state PDC say this is the direction the courts seem to be going already. In addition to Buckley v. Valeo, in which the Supreme Court ruled that limiting a candidate’s spending on her own campaign violated the First Amendment, there’s Family PAC v. McKenna, in which the Ninth Circuit district court ruled that a 21-day limit on large contributions to ballot initiatives (though not individual candidates) was unconstitutional.

The direction the courts are going, in other words, is in favor of unlimited spending and contributions by wealthy candidates to their own campaigns. This may mean more self-financed campaigns in the future, but it may also mean more laws meant to encourage candidates to raise their money from individual donors, like the initiative that provided each voter $100 in “democracy vouchers” to spend on city council campaigns this past election. There’s also the distinct possibility that Moon—a candidate whose consultant, Moxie Media, bragged was “well-resourced” before she had even declared she was running—was simply an outlier in Seattle politics: A progressive candidate with deep pockets who failed to win the imagination of the public (Moon received 1,088 individual contributions to Durkan’s 4,210) yet was able to eke out a second-place primary election finish in a very crowded (21-candidate) field. A big test for the viability of non-wealthy candidates will come in 2021, when democracy vouchers go into effect for mayoral candidates. Although vouchers do not include restrictions on self-financing, they do place other limitations on candidates, such as spending limits, in exchange for public funds.

2. At 10:00 this morning, the state Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill, SB 6150, that would update the state’s current abstinence-first approach to opiate addiction and require the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to promote the use of medication-assisted treatment and other evidence-based approaches to opiate addiction. Currently, state law says explicitly that there is no fundamental right to medication-assisted treatment for addiction, that total abstinence from all opiates should be the “primary goal” of any opiate addiction treatment, and that if a doctor does prescribe medication, it should only be a stopgap measure on the way to total abstinence.

Overwhelming evidence has concluded that medication-assisted treatment with opiates is effective at saving lives, reducing the harm caused by buying and consuming illegal drugs, and reducing or eliminating the use of harmful opiates. There is still some debate about whether people should continue taking replacement drugs like suboxone for the rest of their lives—they are opiates, and do cause dependency—but there’s no question that punitive, abstinence-only policies result in more deaths and ruined lives than compassionate, evidence-based approaches like medication-assisted treatment, and it’s high time that state law reflected that.

The bill would also declare the opiate epidemic a public health crisis, seek a waiver from federal Medicare and Medicaid rules to allow opiate addiction treatment in prison, and develop a plan for purchasing and distributing naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, throughout the state.

If you enjoy the work I do at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a monthly Patreon subscriber or making a one-time contribution via PayPal. All the content on this site is free, and I don’t run ads, which means that your contributions are what makes my work here possible.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Resolutely Pro-Housing

1. Queen Anne homeowner and anti-housing activist Marty Kaplan, who scored a victory in his fight against backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in 2016 when a city hearing examiner ruled that the city must do a full environmental impact statement on new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build secondary units on their properties, is taking his show on the road.

Specifically, Kaplan is going to Bellingham, where he’ll share his experiences “fighting city hall” with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, a group that says it’s fighting “over-densification, parking [problems], congestion, tree canopy loss, noise, and removal of open space” in the small town. As in Seattle, it’s hard to see how allowing homeowners to convert their basements into apartments or build backyard mini-cottages will lead to any of those things (unless we’re now referring to private backyards as “open space”?), but as in Seattle, Bellingham’s homeowner activists appear to be for property rights except for property owners who want to share their property with renters. At any rate, they seem to have adopted some very familiar (and Seattle-specific) rhetoric: The meeting notice suggests that a proposal to allow backyard cottages will lead to “Bellingham being ‘Ballardized’ as city leaders legalize the bulldozing of historic housing stock to be replaced by duplexes, tri-plexes, four-plexes, townhomes, and apartments.”

2. This happened a couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town, but I wanted to highlight it here: Dupre + Scott, the real-estate research firm that since 1979 has been the local source for information about trends in apartment development, sales, rents, and vacancy rates in the Seattle area, announced in late December that they were shutting down at the end of the year. Patty Dupré and Mike Scott, who are married, made the announcement on the Dupré + Scott website on December 27. The closure will leave the city without a critical source of information and analysis about what’s going on in Seattle’s rental market, an especially troubling loss at a time when renters are poised to outnumber homeowners in the city and when rents continue to rise in response to an ongoing housing shortage in the city.

Plus, I’ll miss the hell out of their goofy videos. The latest, and last:

3. Last night, I attended back-to-back public hearings on two proposed developments, both of which could help address Seattle’s housing shortage, albeit in very different ways.

The first meeting was a special review board discussion of a proposed high-rise condo building in Japantown (part of the Chinatown International District), which would be built what is currently a surface parking lot at the intersection of Fifth Avenue S and Main Street. The project, which has to go through a special design review process because of its location in the historic CID, is, predictably, controversial.

Opponents have argued that the 17-story glass-and-steel tower, called Koda Condos, is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood and will contribute to the gentrification of the area. While the building, which is definitely tall and definitely modern, doesn’t look much like the two- and three-story brick-clad, tile-roofed buildings that dominate in the neighborhood, neither did the surface parking lot it will replace. Marlon Herrera, a member of the city’s parks commission, said the building will contribute to the “repeated bastardization of this community” and that the developer’s plan to include “privately owned public space” in the project “is a sham. Only rich white yuppies drinking lattes will be allowed to use this space and everybody else will be forced out by security,” Herrera said. The review board will hold at least one more meeting before deciding whether to permit the project.

The building would add more than 200 new condos to the downtown area, and is one of a small handful of condo projects currently underway in Seattle, where for years developers have focused almost exclusively on new apartment buildings.  Developers tend to favor apartments over condos because the state subjects condos to higher quality assurance standards than any other type of housing in Washington state, making rental units a safer bet.  Although condos don’t generally constitute affordable housing, they are still cheaper than single-family houses—about one-third cheaper, according to Sightline—making them a viable homeownership option for people who can’t afford the median $725,000 house in Seattle. The Koda condos will start in the mid-$300,000 range, according to the developer’s website—if the city allows them to be built.

The second meeting last night, of course, was a public hearing on a planned development on long-vacant Army surplus land at Fort Lawton, in Magnolia next to Discovery Park. Opponents say the proposal, which would include between 75 and 100 units of affordable rental housing, 85 supportive housing units for seniors, and up to 50 affordable houses for purchase, is too dense for a part of the city that several speakers described as “isolated” and “remote.” (Notably, some of the speakers who disparaged the area as an unlivable wasteland lacking bus service, shops, grocery stores, sidewalks, and other basic amenities  live in the area themselves and somehow manage.)

One speaker, Aden Nardone with SOS Seattle, said building housing at Fort Lawton would be tantamount to putting low-income people “in internment camps”; others suggested that nothing should be built at Fort Lawton until there was enough infrastructure (sidewalks, bus routes, retail stores, groceries, sewer lines, etc.) to support it.

I wondered on Twitter what the speakers claiming to support “infrastructure” at Fort Lawton would say if the city actually did divert its limited resources toward funding infrastructure to an uninhabited area, rather than the many neighborhoods that are always complaining they don’t have frequent bus service or sidewalks. And:

A big crowd in the back, which dissipated a little more than an hour into the meeting, seemed to be the source of most of the night’s heckling. People in the back booed a woman who was talking about how affordable housing reflects Seattle’s values as a welcoming city for all people, and repeatedly shouted that people who own homes in Magnolia were somehow being prevented from speaking. For example:

For the most part, though, the speakers at last night’s meeting were resolutely pro-housing, a welcome change from many meetings about homelessness and affordable housing, including several at the same venue (the Magnolia United Church of Christ), that have been dominated by anti-housing activists. A majority of those who spoke, including many who identified themselves as homeowners in Magnolia, renters in Magnolia, people who were born and raised in Magnolia, and people who were priced out of Magnolia, supported the proposal. And some people with actual experience living in affordable housing spoke up about the stability it brought to their lives  as children:

To read all my tweets from last night’s meeting, check out my Twitter feed.

 

Best of Crank 2017: Hate Speech and Violence at the University of Washington

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

The 12th and final post in my “Best of Crank 2017” series focuses on professional troll Milo Yiannopolous, who ended up in the news several times over the course of the year. (Here’s a story from October, about how Yiannopolous coordinated his work at Breitbart with neo-Nazis). In December, documents from a lawsuit he filed against Simon & Schuster after the publisher rescinded his book deal in response to widespread protests revealed to a wider audience the extent of Yiannopolous’ virulent misogyny, racism, and self-hating homophobia. (Yiannopolous is gay).

In January, the UW College Republicans invited Yiannopolous to speak on campus, inciting protests that kept most would-be audience members outside the building. However, I got in (as did several neighborhood activists, who later insisted they were merely “there to learn”) and I wrote this post about his “speech”—a PowerPoint presentation of alt-right memes punctuated by “fat dyke” jokes, which also summarizes his book.

This post ran on January 23.

UW Creates Safe Space for Notorious Troll While Violence Breaks Out in Red Square

 

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“I am considered, today, so dangerous that today I’m the second most dangerous man in America—after, of course, Daddy.”

“Daddy,” of course, is Donald Trump, and the person speaking was Milo Yiannopoulos—the professional outrage purveyor best known for promoting Gamergate, getting kicked off Twitter for his racist rants against actor Leslie Jones, and signing a $250,000 book deal. Yiannopoulos spoke Friday night at the University of Washington to a crowd of about 200—students and paying “VIPs” who made it inside Kane Hall before protesters outside blocked the entrance.

For those who made it inside the hall, Yiannopoulos’ talk was a rare opportunity to enjoy jokes about “hairy dykes,” “trannies,” and “Sasquatch lesbians” while police in riot gear protected them from the diverse community outside.

It was, in other words, a safe space.

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While Yiannapoulos cracked jokes about delicate liberal “snowflakes” who can’t deal with the rough and tumble of the real world, protesters outside were getting pepper-sprayed and even shot. When word came down of the shooting, Yiannopoulos immediately pivoted to blame “the progressive left” for the violence, telling the crowd that it was under assault by “left-wing protesters with sharpened protest signs, with baseball bats, with flammable liquids, and, it sounds like, with firearms.”

That wild speculation turned out not to be true; the man who was shot was a medic for the protesters, not a Milo supporter. (Earlier today, the Seattle Times reported that the victim’s condition has been upgraded from critical to serious, and that the alleged shooter, who remained at large for several hours while the event continued, has been released .) Meanwhile, Yiannopoulos continued with his talk—because, he said, “if we don’t continue, they have won.”

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For someone whose “Daddy” just won the White House, Yiannapoulos certainly loves to play the victim. Like many on the far right, he at least claims to long for a halcyon past where men were men and women were “happier in the kitchen,” neatly eliding the fact that men like him—pretty, vulgar, flamboyantly gay—were even more hated in that supposedly superior past than women who worked.

Yiannopoulos’ own sense of put-upon entitlement and victimization plays well with fans who feel their right to dictate the terms of the world has been stolen from underneath them. He flirts with the deep-seated homophobia of the right by joking about volunteering for electroshock conversion therapy now that Mike Pence is vice president, but he’s a cartoon character, both fundamentally unthreatening and, in the actions he provokes with his hate speech online, deeply dangerous.

In person, he comes off as an insecure narcissist. Onstage, he’s a kind of gay minstrel, applying lipstick and cracking jokes about sucking cock before crowds that would, likely as not, be more than happy to bash his head in if he wasn’t mouthing the words they wanted to hear. His flippant misogyny and racism come across as opportunistic and insincere. His thirst for the spotlight is palpable, and he seems like he might blink out of existence if people stopped paying attention to him.

So should we? It’s a classic question: Is it better to refuse to print noxious speech, on the grounds that reporting it only gives a platform to hate? Or better to expose it to sunlight, so that people outside the alt-right bubble can hear what its hero is saying and judge for themselves?

Well, I listened to the guy for an hour, and I think it’s worth knowing what he said—if only so readers can get some sense of how the alt-right thinks. (Yiannopoulos deniesthat he’s part of the alt-right, because, he says, he isn’t a “white nationalist”—his mother is Jewish—but the former Breitbart editor exists firmly within the alt-right milieu, and he is closely associated with white nationalists and their fans even if, as he claims, he is not one himself.)

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The crowd—overwhelmingly young, male, and white—laughed uproariously at jokes that would have been right at home in an Andrew Dice Clay set circa 1988. (Google it, kids.) A woman protesting Trump: “Sexually ambiguous super retard turbo lez.” Rachel Maddow: “That nice young man.” The fake roses on his podium: “Lena Dunham’s seen more action. Well, actually, that’s not fair, because she did rape her sister.” Saturday’s Women’s March in DC: “Can you imagine 50,000 lesbians lost in Washington, D.C.? You’d be finding them in creases for weeks.” The women attending the Seattle Womxn’s March: “armpit-hair-braiding West Coast Femsquatches.” On the spelling “Womxn”: “The ‘X’ is silent, just like their own ex-boyfriends are silent. Because they ate them.”

You get the drift. Milo Yiannopoulos’s juvenile act, conducted with a heavy assist from PowerPoint and a script on his iPad, consists almost entirely of tired, faux-“outrageous” jokes about women, particularly lesbians and “trannies,” Muslims, and “cucks.” For someone who’s widely vilified as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi, Yiannopoulos has always targeted women with far more zest than racial or religious minorities.

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“Fat retard who wants to rape herself.”

Interspersed with the fat jokes, though, were a few genuinely frightening statements about specific women Yiannopoulos believe have wronged him, including Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, one of the main targets of Gamergate. (Yiannopoulos relentlessly promoted Gamergate, the online and real-life harassment campaign aimed at silencing women who spoke out against sexism in games and gaming culture). Of Sarkeesian, Yiannopoulos said last night, “People don’t hate you because you’re a woman. They hate you because you’re a cunt.”

So what about Yiannopoulos’s outrage performance art shtick appeals to College Republicans? It isn’t funny, it isn’t well-executed (a lot of the jokes failed to stick, in part, because Yiannopoulos drifted off on tangents, at one point literally getting distracted by a fly), and it isn’t, strictly speaking, new. What it is, I think, is what has always passed for rebellion among young conformists—speaking “truth” to “P.C. culture,” which is to say, parroting the racism and sexism of their fathers and grandfathers, even when they don’t really mean it.

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But there are real-world consequences to Yiannapoulos’s seemingly harmless antics. Milo tells women to kill themselves, encourages his followers to harass women who cross him, and drives women off Twitter by inciting threats that make them fear for their lives. He loves to say that there is “no such thing as cyberbullying,” but his online bullying has led to real-life threats against people—like game developer Brianna Wu, who had to leave her home after a Twitter user sent her “a string of threats including a pledge to choke her to death with her husband’s penis,” according to Mother Jones. (Wu, according to Yiannopoulos: “Another straight white male.”)

The UW probably learned its lesson about interpreting “free speech” to mean “the right of anyone to use university facilities to say anything, at any time.” (Then again, maybe not: A student told me UW President Ana Mari Cauce responded to her letter asking the school to cancel or move the event by saying that, hopefully, Yiannopoulos would decide to cancel himself.) But there’s a lesson for progressives tempted to show up in numbers, too. Sometimes, even in the face of a loudmouth shouting insults, it’s more effective to ignore the bully.

Notes: If you’d like to see an archive of my tweets from the event, including more details about the protests outside, I’ve collected those tweets on Storify.

Also, readers who follow news related to neighborhoods and homelessness may be interested to know that the four primary members of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance—the ones who show up to council meetings, write letters to council members, and serve as the public faces of one of the most vocal groups opposed to the city’s proposals for addressing homelessness and the heroin epidemic—came to see Yiannopoulos together. The four were in the “VIP” line that made it into Kane Hall before protesters blocked entrances to the building, and they held Trump signs and stood up during standing ovations for Yiannopoulos. I note their presence not to castigate them for supporting Trump or attending this particular event (for which VIP tickets cost $250), but because it’s newsworthy that a group this active and influential at City Hall attended a talk by a man who is widely viewed as a purveyor of hate speech. Last year, Yiannopoulos was kicked off Twitter for leading sexist and racist harassment campaigns, and his online actions have led to real-world death and rape threats against many of the feminist women who are his favorite targets.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Read even more reasons to support The C Is for Crank here!

Best of Crank 2017: County Presses Pause on Safe Consumption Sites

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Of all the recommendations that came out of the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, by far the most controversial was the suggestion that the county authorize two supervised drug consumption sites (known euphemistically as Community Health Engagement Locations, or CHELs), where drug users could consume illicit substances under medical supervision. The idea was to prevent people from dying of overdoses, and to provide drug users with basic first aid and medical services as well as access to detox and substance use disorder treatment. In July, the county council tapped the brakes on the proposal, voting to only allow supervised consumption sites in cities that explicitly voted to allow them, and cut off access to funding for the sites, effectively “killing” supervised consumption, in the words of one longtime drug-policy reform advocate, until the end of 2018.

This post ran on July 18.

County Presses Pause on Safe Consumption Sites

Two weeks ago, rejecting the unanimous recommendation of the King County Heroin and Opiate Prescription Addiction Task Force, the King County Council voted to prohibit funding for supervised drug consumption sites except in cities that explicitly approve them—a sop to suburban cities and rural areas where residents are vehemently opposed to the sites and a slap in the face for the task force, which recommended a pilot project that would include one supervised consumption site in Seattle and one somewhere else in the county. (The county refers to supervised consumption sites by the clunky acronym CHELs, for Community Health Engagement Locations).

The council also voted to prohibit the county from funding safe consumption sites anywhere outside Seattle, and barred spending any of the county’s general fund on a Seattle site. As a result of those restrictions, any money for the pilot project would have to come from the county’s Mental Illness and Drug Dependency levy—a tax that generates about $66 million a year but is already largely spoken for. The supervised consumption pilot was never supposed to be funded entirely through the MIDD, and supporters say that as the cost estimate for the pilot has ballooned to more than $1 million, the likelihood that it can be funded MIDD dollars alone is virtually zero.

“EFFECT: Restricts the General Fund Transfers to DCHS and Public Health such that 86 no General Funds can be used to establish CHEL sites. Restricts the MIDD  appropriation such that no MIDD funds can be used to establish CHEL sites outside 88 the city of Seattle.” – King County budget amendment barring county spending on safe consumption sites outside Seattle

Kris Nyrop, who wrote an op/ed for the Stranger comparing the council’s move to the “state’s rights” politics of the 1980s, says the vote “effectively kills” safe consumption sites, at least for the next two years, because “The MIDD dollars are all already accounted for until the fall of 2018” and because “the [King County] health department has dithered so long on this that they have given the opposition time to really organize” against it.

Supervised consumption sites, where addicts can use illegal drugs under medical supervision in a location that also offers medical care, detox, and referrals to treatment, are common in Europe but almost unheard-of in North America, where more puritanical attitudes toward addiction have made them controversial. The idea behind supervised consumption is that it keeps people from dying of overdoses and treatable conditions (like wound infections), prevents disease transmission via dirty needles, and gets people who may not have seen a doctor in years into the health care and social service system, providing a lifeline toward housing, treatment, and recovery.

 

“We haven’t yet done the work that we need to do at the council to understand the proposal, the benefits, or the criteria for when and where these [safe consumption sites] make sense.” – King County Council Democrat Claudia Balducci

 

The sites are controversial for obvious reasons: Intuitively, giving drug addicts a safe place to consume dangerous, illegal drugs seems like condoning their behavior. (This view assumes that addiction is a choice and ignores the fact that forcing people into treatment, an alternative that safe consumption opponents frequently suggest, is cost-prohibitive and doesn’t work, but it’s ultimately an emotional argument, not a rational one.)

“Trust me, you don’t treat alcoholism by inviting alcoholics to the bar,” Republican county council member Reagan Dunn, who has been public about his own struggles with addiction, said before the vote. “Fifty-six percent of my constituents said they are extremely against these sites. Only 20 percent of people indicated they were open to considering these sites.” Dunn said he was concerned about the county’s liability if users OD and die inside the facility (in almost 15 years, not one person has died at Insite in Vancouver) and worried that the sites would become magnets for heroin dealers. He suggested that Seattle should be a test case for the site, “before we take the show on the road” to suburban areas that don’t have the same capacity to provide treatment and emergency services.

Republicans weren’t the only ones arguing that safe consumption sites should be limited to the state’s largest city. Suburban Democrats like Claudia Balducci (a former Bellevue City Council member) and Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, argued that the county would be overstepping its authority if it opened a safe consumption site where residents opposed the idea. “One of the things that always drove us crazy at the city level was when higher levels of government told us what to do at our city,” Balducci said. “I come from a city that has decided this is not what they want in their city. It doesn’t fit the needs or the desires of their community…. [Safe consumption sites] work best in locations where there’s a lot of street drug use,” she added.

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who sat on the heroin task force, argues that “it sets a dangerous precedent to withhold funding for health services from residents of towns whose elected officials have ideological problems with those medical strategies. … The health and well-being of people who live in Kirkland and Kent affect that of people in Seattle, and vice versa.”

Larry Gossett, a Seattle Democrat, scoffed at the implication that drug addiction—particularly heroin addiction—is a problem restricted to big cities like Seattle. Noting that, nationally, heroin and opioid addiction is largely a rural and suburban problem, Gossett said, “I do not understand this concept that people who live outside of Seattle and in suburban and rural areas are different than people who live inside of cities.” Council member Rod Dembowski, whose district includes Shoreline, Kirkland, and Woodinville, added, “There is a serious rural crisis going on, with people dying every day, and I don’t think it’s fair to the citizens of my district to say, ‘No, you don’t get to have return on your investment’ if such a facility would serve their needs. … I don’t think the public health of the 2.1 million residents of this county should be decided based on fear.”

On the  phone last week, Balducci defended her vote, arguing that the budget amendment is a temporary pause, not a permanent spending prohibition. “We haven’t yet done the work that we need to do at the council to understand the proposal, the benefits, or the criteria for when and where these [safe consumption sites] make sense,” she said. “We have to do a little more background work and figure out, what are these [safe consumption] sites and who do they serve.” Balducci also suggested that a huge debate about safe consumption sites could blow up her ongoing efforts to establish the first permanent men’s shelter on the Eastside in Bellevue. “We are facing a really tremendous backlash about that, and one aspect of the opponents’ position is that this is just the camel’s nose under the tent and they’re going to legalize heroin next and [addicts] are going to be out in all the neighborhoods.”

Of course, they’re already there.

Daugaard, who still holds out hope that the council could reverse its decision during the ongoing budget process, says that if they don’t, “it will be very difficult to keep the promise that the heroin task force made to neighborhood leaders in Seattle: that Seattle would not be left alone to respond to this need, which is fundamentally unfair given the widespread use of heroin and opiates throughout the county.  Waiting until 2019 to move forward inevitably will mean avoidable overdose deaths, and no solution to drug use in unsupervised public sites like bathrooms and parks.  Hopefully we all can agree that the status quo is unacceptable. Waiting is not a plan.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please considerbecoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Best of Crank 2017: C Is for Crank Endorsements

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This was the year that I decided to start doing endorsements at The C Is for Crank, starting with the races for mayor, city attorney, and city council. This post, which ran on October 23, includes a link to my original (and first-ever) endorsement for now-City Council member Teresa Mosqueda, the longtime labor leader who defeated former Tenants Union director Jon Grant for council position 8, previously occupied by Tim Burgess.

The C Is for Crank General Election Endorsements

Mayor: Cary Moon

The 2017 election season began in earnest when former mayor Ed Murray, once considered a shoo-in for reelection, was felled by charges of sexual assault. Twenty-one people put their names in the running, and things have only gotten more interesting since then. For the first time in Seattle’s history, women came in first, second, third, and fourth, and you had to go all the way down to sixth place to find a white guy (former mayor Mike McGinn, for the record, at 6.5 percent). That’s amazing, but of course, it shouldn’t be—the fact that Seattle hasn’t elected a female mayor in nearly a century (and has never elected a woman to a full four-year term) is a sign of how far this “progressive” city has to go.

Perhaps predictably, there have been complaints from certain quarters that neither of the two women who made it onto the general election ballot—Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan—has the requisite “experience” or “gravitas” to be mayor. While it’s true that neither Moon nor Durkan has experience directly relevant to the job of mayor—neither has ever served in elective office, nor run an organization with thousands of employees—I think concerns about “experience” are overblown. Durkan has experience managing a US Attorney’s office with dozens of staffers and a complex portfolio, and is familiar with the way the city works from her time working on the historic consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the city; Moon has a long record as a civic activist working on land use and transportation issues in Seattle, most notably on the waterfront, where she fought against the downtown tunnel (and, for the record, was right). Either candidate will face a learning curve; both bring skills and knowledge that will serve them well as mayor of Seattle.

I’m endorsing Moon because her vision of Seattle is the Seattle I want to see—a Seattle where people of modest means can afford to live in city limits, where all parts of the city are accessible to all people via high-quality, high-frequency transit, and where solutions to homelessness don’t begin and end with market-based vouchers and punitive encampment sweeps. Homelessness is a go-home, bottom-line issue for the future of Seattle; the next mayor can choose to pursue half-measure solutions that only help a few people on the margins while pushing the rest from place to place while dozens more join their ranks every day; or she can go big, tackling Seattle’s homelessness problem like the crisis that it is.

Moon is best known for her work to stop the construction of the downtown waterfront tunnel, which she argued would do little to improve traffic flow through downtown while decimating the waterfront with a massive highway-like “boulevard” that cuts off the waterfront from the rest of downtown as surely as the elevated viaduct does today. Moon was right about that (and about the inevitability of cost overruns) and her vision for a car-lite waterfront remains the single most forward-thinking proposal for the future of downtown in the last 20 years. Although her idea for the waterfront was ahead of its time, the vision Moon showed back in 2004 demonstrates her capacity to think about the city at a 20,000-foot level, and—importantly—to prioritize people over automobiles. Her opponent has expressed general support for transit, sidewalks, and electric cars, but Moon’s record demonstrates a real commitment to, and understanding of, the fact that thriving 21st century cities cannot put cars—any kind of cars—first.

As the city grows at an astounding pace, we don’t have time for leaders who cater to narrow constituencies (like the aging minority of Seattle residents who own single-family homes) or spend their days rushing from crisis to crisis (sweeping homeless people from place to place to placate housed residents who would prefer that humanitarian crises happen somewhere else). When asked whether she would revisit the portions of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda that preserve 1950s-style single-family zoning indefinitely, Durkan has been noncommittal, suggesting that HALA is the best we’re going to get; Moon has said she supports reopening single-family areas to row houses, townhomes, duplexes, and stacked flats, which is the bold plan that Murray abandoned as soon as he came under pressure. Both candidates are clearly committed to increasing density to accommodate population growth, but Moon will make pro-housing policies a priority.

More than any other issue, Seattle’s response to the homelessness crisis (and the separate but related addiction epidemic) will determine what kind of city we will be in the coming decades. Under Murray (and on the basis of two reports by out-of-town consultants), the city has pushed homelessness policy in the direction of “market-based,” “results-oriented” solutions that look good on paper but won’t pencil out in an expensive city where homelessness is directly tied to a lack of affordable housing. The city’s Pathways Home plan, which Durkan supports, assumes that a majority of homeless people will be able to go from living on the street to making a living wage within just a few months—an unrealistic plan that privileges the easiest-to-house while leaving people suffering from addiction, mental health issues, or simply long-term joblessness behind. Moon is the only candidate in any race who has zeroed in on this plan, criticizing its unrealistic promise to “permanently” house thousands with short-term housing vouchers.

At a time when Seattle is deciding what kind of 21st century city it wants to be, it needs a leader who can think in broad strokes, not one who promises more incremental changes. Moon has shown the capacity to be that kind of leader. More than Durkan, she has expressed broad support for big-picture solutions, and a healthy skepticism that the “free market” will solve problems like the lack of affordable housing for low-income and homeless individuals and families. She has also demonstrated a willingness to listen to people and perspectives that have historically had trouble getting a foot in the door at city hall, and—importantly—to reconsider her views when challenged with new information. Mike McGinn, the former mayor to whom Moon is often compared, had a fatal flaw—he didn’t listen. Moon listens, even to people with whom she disagrees. She’s collaborative, not combative, and driven not by ego but by a genuine desire to build a more inclusive city, even if that means listening to people with whom she disagrees.

Moon’s platform isn’t perfect, by any stretch. Her plan to expedite Sound Transit expansion by offering to extend loans to the agency is almost certainly unworkable and unaffordable. Her commitment to city-funded broadband, after study after study (and mayor after mayor) has failed to justify its expense, feels like pandering. She has continued to insist that Vancouver-style property speculation is a major driver of housing prices here despite evidence that this is not the case. And her commitment to “inclusiveness” and “collaboration” in city government could tip too far in the wrong direction—listening to stakeholders is important, but excessive stakeholder input is a major reason Seattle is stuck with a 1990s zoning code in 2017.

All mayors learn on the job. My hope is that, if elected, Moon will learn which of her campaign ideas are realistic and worth pursuing and which should be abandoned. If she achieves a fraction of the vision she has outlined, the city will be visibly changed for the better. I’m voting for that vision.

The C Is for Crank endorses Cary Moon.

City attorney: Pete Holmes

City attorney Pete Holmes has a long record of fighting for progressive causes. He defended protections for hotel workers against a lawsuit by their employers; ended the widespread practice of prosecuting drivers who lost their licenses (and often their cars and livelihoods) because they couldn’t pay their traffic fines; and reduced sentencing for minor crimes to protect undocumented immigrants from unjust deportation. He has also been deeply involved in the city’s efforts to counteract the Trump Administration’s efforts to crack down on progressive cities, defending Seattle’s status as a sanctuary city.

Holmes was active in the creation of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which connects drug users with health care, human services, housing, and treatment instead of throwing them in jail for minor crimes, and has worked to reform laws against drugs and prostitution—most notably, by directing police to target sex buyers, not sex workers, in prostitution stings. He was an early, vocal leader on drug reform, working to pass I-502, which legalized recreational pot, while leading a crackdown on shady (and illegal) “medical” dispensaries and home-delivery services that gave the legal weed industry a bad name. And he has led on police reform, navigating a tricky process in a way that has, at times, angered both the police union (which has opposed efforts to impose additional oversight on its members) and some police reformers (who want the power to reject or approve contracts and to hire and fire the chief of police.)

Holmes’ opponent Scott Lindsay, a former public-safety advisor ex-mayor Ed Murray, has shown a troubling affinity for law-and-order approaches to the problem of homelessness and downtown “disorder” (a Rudy Giuliani-style dog whistle if ever there was one). Earlier this year, Lindsay leaked legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien that would have provided additional protections for homeless people living in their vehicles, in a transparent effort to torpedo the proposal. Lindsay’s willingness to violate city officials’ trust for political ends speaks to a lack of judgment that’s concerning in a candidate for a job that requires strict attorney-client privilege. Lindsay raises concerns about declining prosecutions for domestic violence that appear to be legitimate, but it’s hard to know whether to believe him when, for example, he also claimed recently that Seattle has the highest property crime in the country, an alarmist assertion that turned out to be misleading. (Holmes disputes Lindsay’s interpretation of the domestic-violence numbers). Lindsay has also exaggerated the impact of the Navigation Teams (groups of police and social-service workers who do outreach to homeless people living in unauthorized encampments) and suggested that homeless people are far more likely to commit crimes than data suggests—a disturbing tendency toward alarmism for someone seeking an office where measured realism is a far more important quality than the ability to rally a reactionary base.

Holmes could be more active on certain issues, like expanding LEAD to the rest of the city and promoting restorative justice for people accused of low-level crimes. However,  sometimes a steady hand is better than an itchy trigger finger. The C Is for Crank endorses Pete Holmes. 

City Council Position 8: Teresa Mosqueda

The C Is for Crank stands by its endorsement of Teresa Mosqueda, a longtime labor leader who has spent her entire career fighting for workers, women, children, and other marginalized people. Back in July, I wrote,

As the campaign chairwoman for Raise Up Washington, Mosqueda helped draft and lead the successful campaign last year for Initiative 1433, which increases the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 an hour and requires employers to provide paid sick leave. As legislative director for the Children’s Alliance, she fought for implementation of Apple Health for Kids, the state’s Medicaid program. And as campaign director for the Washington State Labor Council, she was deeply involved in this year’s paid family leave negotiations, which resulted in a bill that will provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers who take time off to care for a new or newly adopted child, to recover from a serious illness, or to take care of a sick family member. Mosqueda continued to work on family leave even after she declared her candidacy—a reflection both of her strong commitment to women and families and the fact that she, unlike some of her opponents, can’t afford to quit her job to run for office full-time. If she wins, she’ll also be the only renter on the city council. (No wonder the Seattle Times didn’t endorse her.)

Much of Mosqueda’s work has been behind the scenes—the kind of efforts that tend to go unnoticed but have lasting and important consequences. As the head of the state’s largest health care advocacy coalition, the Healthy Washington Coalition, Mosqueda served on the state’s health insurance exchange board, where she fought to require insurance companies to disclose what services they provide, including reproductive health care. She also insisted that the state of Washington provide information about voter registration to people buying plans on the exchange, an ACA requirement the state tried to circumvent. These issues aren’t flashy. They don’t make headlines. But they matter.

The C Is for Crank endorses Teresa Mosqueda.

Seattle City Council Position 9: Lorena Gonzalez

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Lorena Gonzalez, the capable head of the city’s public safety committee, a leader on gender equity issues on the council, and the first council member to publicly call on former mayor Ed Murray to step down, is being challenged by Pat Murakami, a Mount Baker neighborhood activist who has spent decades fighting against density and light rail in the South End. The choice in this race is obvious. If you’d like to learn more about  Gonzalez’s record and plans for her first full four-year term on the council, I encourage you to read my interview with her from earlier this year, where we discussed a wide range of issues, including displacement, homelessness, and police accountability. And then vote for Lorena Gonzalez.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Best of Crank 2017: San Francisco’s Navigation Center

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today’s post came out of a reporting trip I made to San Francisco, which opened its first low-barrier homeless shelter, called the Navigation Center, in 2015. San Francisco’s Navigation Center was the model for Seattle’s own shelter of the same name, which opened several months later, and it was unique in several key respects: It didn’t require clients to be clean and sober, it provided storage (a major barrier for many people who accumulate lots of stuff in their effort to be secure and self-sufficient on the streets), and it allowed people to stay with their partners and pets. I’ll be doing an update on San Francisco’s Navigation Center in the next few months—highlighting some of the challenges and roadblocks they’ve faced over the past year—but this piece gives a good overview of how the Navigation Center was doing in January 2017, when this post originally ran.

The Future of Seattle’s Shelter System is in San Francisco

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San Francisco’s Navigation Center for the homeless is a promising model for Seattle—if the city decides to really embrace it.

Last month, the Seattle Human Services Department dropped several pieces of bad news in the laps of the city council’s human services committee: First, the department had failed to locate sites for all four of the sanctioned encampments Mayor Ed Murray promised as part of his “Bridging the Gap” proposal to shelter some of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, now several thousand strong. Second, ongoing sweeps of unauthorized encampments will no longer be monitored by the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was charged with overseeing encampment removals and making sure workers comply with rules about notice and disposal of people’s tents and other possessions. And third, a planned low-barrier shelter known as the Navigation Center, to be operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, won’t open on schedule due to trouble locating an acceptable site for the facility. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said at last month’s meeting.

The Navigation Center delay was a blow to advocates who’ve argued that Seattle needs shelter options that serve the hardest to house among the city’s growing homeless population—those who don’t use regular shelters because they have one or more of the “three P’s”—pets, partners, and possessions, which aren’t allowed in traditional shelters—or because they’ve been scared away by bad experiences in the shelter system.  Add to those three disqualifiers a fourth “P”—problems. Shelters don’t work well for people in acute mental distress, people who happen to be drunk or high, or people whose mental or emotional troubles make it difficult for them to stay in close quarters with hundreds of other people.

It’s a fairly safe bet that the city will announce the Navigation Center site sometime in January—too late to help those stuck sleeping outside in subzero temperatures during the first half of this unusually cold winter, but in time for Murray to attend the opening before his reelection campaign begins in earnest. But what do city officials really mean when they talk about “low-barrier” shelter, anyway—and what will make the Navigation Center different from other shelters DESC operates, like the Morrison Hotel downtown, which takes people in any condition on a first-come, first-served basis?

To help answer those questions, I headed south to San Francisco, where the original Navigation Center opened in the Mission District in March 2015. (The city has since opened another Navigation Center, and is working on a third; all three are temporary facilities on public land slated for eventual redevelopment.) Located in the middle of a a dreary street of Mission Street populated largely by street kids and older people just sort of hanging around, the Navigation Center stands out for its clean sidewalk, airy entryway, and woodsy, modern exterior. It looks more like the entrance to a pricey new condo building than a shelter—if that condo building  was flanked by two portable buildings painted institutional yellow, and fronted by a short but official-looking sturdy iron fence.

“It’s hard to explain that it’s never looked so good [on the street outside], but there it is,” Sam Dodge tells me as we walk through the center. Dodge is the deputy director of San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness, and he—along with John Ouertani, the site manager—is one of the chief evangelists for the Navigation Center model. “This property is open 24 hours and is very low-threshold,” Ouertani says. “There are a few rules, but the guests pretty much come in and out as they please.” As we’re talking, a new guest comes in—a skinny young man, probably 30, staggering under some unseen weight, his head parallel to the dusty ground. A case worker steers him toward his dorm, urging him to get some sleep.

Physically, the center consists of several low portable buildings—an admissions center, a dining hall/TV room, an ADA-accessible building with showers, restrooms, and free laundry facilities, and five dorms—clustered around a central courtyard. The layout gives clients (the Navigation Center calls them “guests”) more physical room than a traditional shelter, to walk around, play with their pets—and sleep. The dorms themselves house a maximum of 15 people each, a far cry from the hundreds of bunk beds that crowd a typical shelter, and some beds are pushed together in pairs, to accommodate couples who want to sleep together. Meals are available all day and night in the common building, and showers are open 24/7, to give people a sense of autonomy and to differentiate the center from other institutional living situations that guests may have encountered and found unwelcoming or traumatic in the past.nav-center-portables

“A lot of people [the Navigation Center serves] haven’t had contact with a shelter for a very long time, but they have past memories of shelter or they’ve heard rumors on the street, and that’s kept them out,” Dodge says. “I think it’s really important that we’re telegraphing to people that ‘You are going to make this amazing life change, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of appointments and all this stuff, but we’re here to make it easy for you, and we want to make a tranquil environment where you can rest when you need to rest, and you can eat when you need to eat, and stay focused on the goal of ending your homelessness.” In contrast, traditional shelters typically serve meals, if they serve meals at all, at standard times, clear out sleeping areas during the day, and are anything but tranquil.

DESC director Daniel Malone says that during one of his visits to the San Francisco Navigation Center, he and his colleagues witnesses a client become “really agitated about something,” yelling and pacing around frantically. What they noticed, he says, is that the man “was basically able to blow off some steam—the physical environment there seemed to allow for him to have that moment, or that event, without really significantly affecting anybody else. And some of us from DESC observed that and immediately made the connection that if that had happened in the DESC shelter—and things like that happen in the DESC shelter all the time—he would have had a different reception, because a lot of people would have been around and wouldn’t have had the patience for that happening.

“It helped some of us feel more confident that there could be some real differences by going this route of creating a place where we weren’t just trying to squeeze in as many people as humanly possible.”

Another key difference between the Navigation Center and a traditional shelter is that the Navigation Center is truly low-barrier, welcoming people who have partners, pets, possessions—and problems. Ouertani estimates that at any given time, there are a dozen or more dogs on the property—many of them pit bulls—and says that as long as they’re vaccinated, on a leash, and don’t attack people or other dogs, they can stay. “We had about 17 pets come in within the first month and an half after we first opened up, and that’s pretty much what dictated where the guests went, because you can’t put 10 pit bulls in one dorm,” Ouertani said. People are also allowed to bring large possessions, like shopping carts, bikes, and what Dodge calls “survival stuff from the street.” (Weapons are taken at the door and stored for clients to retrieve later.) And they’re allowed to stay with partners‚ unlike typical shelters that require couples to split. (Dodge says there have been times when women, for example, or transgender people have said they felt unsafe sleeping in coed dorms, and the Navigation Center has accommodated them by making one of the five dorms single-gender). Finally, they’re allowed to stay at the center even if they’re  under the influence of drugs or alcohol—or, in most cases, even if they consume drugs or alcohol at the center. “We’re not so much focused on the drugs and alcohol,” Dodge says, “because we know those are almost a given. So if you get caught using on the property, it does not mean that you are asked to leave. That’s our time to outreach to you.”

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Clients can’t just walk in to the Navigation Center, nor will they be able to do so in Seattle. Instead, the center seeks out new clients at encampments (often right before announced raids by San Francisco city authorities) and through groups serving homeless people from marginalized communities. “One of our [initial] ideas was that we could go and just take a whole encampment and bring them inside,” Dodge said. “And then we saw from some of our data that in taking the whole encampment, we started to preference a younger, whiter group that felt comfortable in places of conflict, so then we started to say, ‘Let’s select for some racial equity and try to balance those numbers out a little bit.’” Like the city of Seattle, San Francisco uses a race and social justice lens when designing and funding city programs. “And then we went to the Haight Ashbury [neighborhood] and worked with some of the groups up there, and said, ‘Let’s work with a younger cohort. Let’s try to preference transgender people who seem to feel unsafe in a lot of our shelter system.’” The result is a population that goes through demographic changes based on the center’s current outreach priorities. f the population looks a little too young and white, they can tweak their outreach to bring in more Latino immigrants; if it’s skewing heavily toward straight, older couples, the center can increase outreach to groups that serve LGBTQ youth.

“Part of the model is being able to experiment and try new things and collect data and analyze it and experiment again,” Dodge says.

One reason  the original Navigation Center has been so free to experiment is that it’s funded largely by private dollars, through a no-strings-attached grant from an anonymous wealthy donor; Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded by a combination of state and local dollars.

Daniel Malone, the DESC director, says his group plans to emulate the experimental spirit of the San Francisco Navigation Center, but notes that the city will choose clients based on its own set of criteria, which will in turn be dictated, to some extent, by federal priorities. “Essentially, folks are going to [come] to us after being selected by the Human Services Department,” Malone says. Johnson, the HSD deputy director, says Navigation Center clients will be chosen by outreach workers who will “engage with an unsheltered person or couple to try to tease out what that couple might need to move from living outside to living inside”; if it seems like they’ve rejected other shelter options because of barriers like restrictions on partners and pets, “then the Navigation Center comes into play.”

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Johnson says Seattle’s Navigation Center, when it opens, will still embrace “the core themes that hold true at the San Francisco Navigation Center,” but it will be uniquely Seattle.”  For example, Johnson says, people will be expected to move out of the center, and into more stable (if not permanent) housing within 30 days—an ambitious goal given that, also according to Johnson, the average shelter stay in King County is 200 days. Johnson says the San Francisco Navigation Center has “changed their model” to move people through the center in 30 days, but Dodge says that for those who are seeking stable housing (as opposed to shelter or treatment), moving through the system takes longer, about 90 days on average.

San Francisco’s Navigation Center has moved nearly 300 people into more stable housing since it opened in 2015, which is quite a feat—especially when you consider that many people enter the center with few or no prior connections to the city’s homeless “system.” That’s another thing that’s different about the Navigation Center—instead of just providing phone numbers and addresses for service providers and sending clients on their way, the center provides each client with an on-site case manager who helps them make appointments and actually show up, as well as service providers who come to the center weekly.  Of all the barriers to housing, Dodge says, the sheer number of appointments can be one of the most daunting. “At one point, we were averaging 28 appointments that someone had to make coming from the street [before getting] housing, and for some of these other cases, where you’re dealing with immigration and maybe the Veterans Administration, it’s much more.”

The most ambitious versions of San Francisco’s plan max out at about six Navigation Centers, which works out to about 450 theoretical clients at a time. The unsheltered homeless population of San Francisco is nearly 6,700, according to a 2015 count; in Seattle, it’s around 3,000. (The actual numbers are likely much higher, since those figures only represent the number of people homeless count participants actually encountered sleeping on the streets.) Johnson says Seattle has no immediate plans to start siting a second Navigation Center, and indicates that the site the city will choose won’t be a temporary use of publicly owned land, like the ones in San Francisco.  Given that a single low-barrier shelter will barely make a dent in the growing demand, many advocates point out the obvious: Seattle needs more low-income housing, and not just in the form of short-term “rapid rehousing” rental vouchers.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that, when I got to Seattle 20 years ago, there were literally a third of the homeless people that we see now,” says Real Change director Tim Harris. “My issue with the [Navigation Center] approach is just simply that 75 beds doesn’t go all that far, given the depth of the need.”

Malone, whose organization will be charged with making the Seattle Navigation Center a success, says that “if the Navigation Center fails and doesn’t have a lot of throughput”—that is, people entering the center and exiting into housing—”then it’ll end up being a very expensive shelter, and that’s not what anyone’s looking to do.”

A final unknown: What will federal housing policy look like under the Trump Administration? Immediately after the election, housing and homelessness advocates were deeply concerned about who Trump would pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets federal housing policy. (The federal government provides about 40 percent of Seattle’s budget for homeless services). Now that Trump has chosen Ben Carson, the libertarian-leaning surgeon and failed Presidential candidate, they’re looking for funding closer to home, at the state and local levels.

Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s health and human services committee, says that “as dire as it is, what we’re facing right now, I actually don’t think that the federal government was going to help us anyway, because of the Republican Congress. I believe firmly that what we do, and every step of progress that we make is going to be done by the city and the county, with, hopefully, some help from the state.”

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Best of Crank 2017: Should the City Consider “Privatizing” Public Facilities?

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This post takes a look at a question that will no doubt continue to come up as the city looks for ways to save money to pay for pressing concerns, like addressing the opiate epidemic and housing some of the thousands of homeless people currently living on Seattle streets: Should the city enter into public-private partnerships to pay for basic services? Earlier this year, the city discussed partnering with a nonprofit to pay for badly needed upgrades at Green Lake Community Center, and a group of community center and pool users mobilized to stop it.

This post ran on April 18.

Should Seattle Avoid “Privatizing” Community Centers at All Costs?

Seattle’s Green Lake Community Center is in disrepair. The gym floor is buckling along the walls. The kitchen has been closed for months because there’s no money in the current city budget to bring it up to code. Buckets are placed at strategic points throughout the building to collect the rainwater that drips from the leaky roof.

As a population boom puts pressure on public facilities like parks, pools and more, the city of Seattle has identified eight community centers that need extensive repairs or total replacement, at an estimated cost of $62 million ($25 million for Green Lake alone). A parks levy for maintenance and operations, which passed narrowly in 2014, provides just $4.3 million a year to maintain and repair all 26 community centers across the city.

The budget gap has prompted the city’s parks department to consider an option that is close to anathema in liberal, pro-tax, anti-corporate Seattle: a public-private partnership, not with a for-profit company but a nonprofit. The idea is a group like the YMCA would provide capital for building and repairs and then operate the center. (The city has not formally reached out to the YMCA, but because it operates community centers in many other cities, both proponents and opponents assume it would be a leading contender to operate Green Lake.)

Although many cities have partnered with corporations in various ways to raise revenue, such deals are virtually unheard of in Seattle, where even the prospect of partnering with a widely respected nonprofit is being labeled “privatization.” See the Seattle Times opinion piece titled “Don’t Privatize Seattle’s Favorite Community Center.”

In response to the still-nascent proposal — which Jesús Aguirre, Seattle parks department director, first brought up at a community meeting in March — a group of Green Lake Community Center users formed a new organization, Save Green Lake Community Center and Evans Pool, to keep the city from shifting operations of a facility they say should be funded out of existing city dollars. “[We were] just appalled that the city would take [the community center] out of public management and effectively give it to a private nonprofit,” says Save Green Lake cofounder Susan Helf. “Providing recreational facilities is a core mission of the city, and it’s inappropriate for the city to transfer that over to a private organization” — particularly one, Helf says, that may pay its workers less than city employees earn, charge higher fees to users, or restrict access to homeless people who currently use the showers at the pool for free.

Aguirre disputes the notion that partnering with a group like the YMCA amounts to privatization. “Privatization would be, let’s give them the keys and they can build a restaurant, they can do whatever they want, as long as they give us some money,” he says. “We’re talking about some kind of operating agreement where we identify an organization that shares our values and continues to provide the same service that we’re providing, but does it better.”

Aguirre says such a partnership would allow the city to close the gap between what tax revenue provides and what the community demands. “There’s always going to be a gap. My challenge is, how do I try to bridge that gap in creative and innovative ways,” he says. Other options Aguirre says the city will consider, if this idea falls through: increasing the levy to 75 cents per $1,000 of property value, which the city can do without another vote; financing a new community center through bonds; or focusing levy dollars on Green Lake at the expense of community centers elsewhere in the city.

Aguirre notes, with some exasperation, that the city already partners with other nonprofits; the Woodland Park Zoo Society runs Seattle’s zoo, for example, and the Associated Recreation Council runs athletics programs and preschools in community centers across the city, including at Green Lake. Opponents point to some of those same deals as examples that make them wary — such as a controversial partnership that allowed a private tennis club in a park in northeast Seattle, or the zoo itself, which engaged in a years-long battle with the surrounding neighborhood over its plans for a multistory parking garage.

Aguirre refers to the model as a “public-benefit partnership,” and says he would never agree to a deal that took away services or made them less accessible to city residents. “Before we enter into any kind of agreement, there’s going to be a clear list of some non-negotiables,” he says. “You can’t create a situation which residents get less than they were getting before, and there’s got to be some community interest being served.”

Helf and her organization want the city to fund community center renovations out of the parks levy, or find the money elsewhere. “The city’s rolling in money. Where’s the money going?” Helf asks. “[Privatization] is the trend now in recreation and parks, and it may be good in small cities that can’t afford a pool, but it has no place in an extremely rich city like Seattle, where money is pouring in.”

Ultimately, city officials say, they won’t force a partnership with the YMCA or any other group if a community doesn’t want it. “What I’ve heard universally from the community that uses the [Green Lake Community Center] is that ‘We don’t trust a partnership,’” says City Council Member Mike O’Brien, who represents the district that includes the Green Lake center. “If the community is flatly opposed to it, I’m fine with that. We won’t do it.” However, O’Brien adds, the money to fund community center improvements has to come from somewhere. “The money’s not just going to magically appear to pay for this, so let’s stay flexible,” he says.

In the long term, partnerships with outside organizations may be unavoidable if the city wants to not only maintain what it has, but expand with its growing population. Putting off a decision this budget cycle may just delay the inevitable.

“We’re going to have to ask, for example, what do the community center needs of the future look like?” Aguirre says. “I’m not being stubborn and saying we have to do this, but in my view, we need to take a step back. We have a system that we’re responsible for. … We have this problem to solve: How do we meet the needs of that system? I think we need to look at partnerships [to do that]. And our charge as the public agency will be to make sure that the overall benefit is greater to the public than it would be without that partnership.”

Best of Crank 2017: Candidate Interviews

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

This year, I sat down for interviews (in some cases, multiple interviews) with the top six candidates for mayor as well as the two candidates for city attorney and the top two candidates for City Council Positions 8 and 9, which were both on the ballot this year. This post is a compendium of my pre-primary mayoral interviews, which included conversations with former mayor Mike McGinn, former state legislator Jessyn Farrell, current state legislator Bob Hasegawa, educator and activist Nikkita Oliver, and the two candidates who made it through the primary, now-Mayor Jenny Durkan and urban planner Cary Moon. Each excerpt links to my full interview with each candidate.

This piece ran on July 31.

Election Day Is Tomorrow. If You Haven’t Voted, Read This.

If you haven’t voted yet, you still have until tomorrow, August 1, at 8pm to get your ballot into a King County Elections drop box (locations here); if you’re planning to mail your ballot, do it today so you won’t miss the August 1 postmark deadline.

And if you haven’t decided who you’re voting for in the mayoral election, check out my interviews with the top six candidates, which cover topics ranging from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda to the controversial North Precinct building to gender and transportation equity. Or check out  a few key moments from each of those interviews below.

Former mayor Mike McGinn

ECB: One specific thing Murray has done is to distance the city from the neighborhood councils, and as you know, there was a backlash to that. His response to that backlash, and I think it was a appropriate one, was to say, ‘We’re not excluding you, we’re just including other people too.

MM: I personally was bothered by the way Ed kind of got rid of them. I do think they have a place but—you should go reread the article I wrote on Crosscut. I expressed that there were weaknesses. But I think that [cutting ties with the councils] was a divisive act. It was perceived by those folks as an attack. And I think there’s a way to say, ‘Look, you’re a voice and we’re going to continue to solicit your views, but we’re also going to invite more people in. That’s a process issue as well.

ECB: But I feel like those people hated you anyway. So how are you going to convince people that Ed is divisive but you’re not?

MM: You have to define what you mean when you say [divisive]. Are there are people in every neighborhood who are resistant to changes? Sure. But I think there are also people in every neighborhood who are open to change. I’ll give you an example: Bicycling in the the city. When it was portrayed as, the mayor is imposing his will on neighborhoods on biking, that was not something that went so well. That was one of the beauties of the road safety action plan. We actually brought folks in the room and we found a different way of talking about and approaching the issue. That helped change the debate. Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection. I look at the HALA focus groups. The reason people dropped out is that ultimately, it didn’t feel meaningful to them, for whatever reason. And so that’s what I’m trying to get at, is you need to have that engagement on the front end. When I went to a town hall and had a group of people saying we can’t do something on this street, and we had other people saying, ‘I live in this neighborhood, and I do those things.’ That fundamentally changes the debate.

ECB: It’s my impression that the neighborhood-versus-city or homeowner-versus-renter divide is much sharper now than it was when you were mayor. What’s the breaking point, when you have to say, ‘Sorry, you might not like this policy, but we’re going to do it anyway’?

MM: Ultimately, you have to make the call, but first you have to listen.

And I walked into rooms with hundreds of people yelling at me, and I brought my staff with me and I brought my department heads with me. Has [Murray] ever just walked into the room and said, ‘Anybody in the neighborhood who wants to ask me a question, go, one after the other’? I did. And what I learned was, the first meeting, people really unload. And the second meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s showing up again.’ And by the third meeting, maybe you feel like you’re starting to make some progress. But you need to show that you’re going to have a continued commitment to showing up in the room, and the next time you show up in the room, you show that that you’ve delivered something, and that you’ve heard what they say and you’re trying to deliver an outcome. Who you speak to, who you let question you, changes what you do, and if you’re just in the room with the lobbyists, if you’re just in the room with the donors, certain things are going to become priorities. If  you don’t hold yourself accountable to the neighborhoods, other things become priorities.

Educator and attorney Nikkita Oliver

ECB: You’ve focused on the issue of displacement, particularly in the Central District. What is your policy plan to prevent displacement? If you could erase HALA and MHA today, what would you replace them with?

NO: I don’t think it’s about erasing HALA and MHA. I think the real problem there is that the Grand Bargain [between social justice advocates and developers] really created a developer incentive to just build as much as they want to at whatever cost they want to, because they don’t have to actually invest in the communities that have been impacted by the very fast change that’s happened in our city.

The same areas have taken the brunt of that zoning over and over again, and there are solutions for that. Some of that’s [building] mother-in-law [apartments in single-family areas]. Some of that is simply saying to a neighborhood, ‘Look, our city is growing. We’re absolutely going to have to build some places, maybe somewhere in your neighborhood. Where would you want that density to go?’

What HALA and MHA does is, one, it doesn’t ask for enough in investment from developers in the city. It makes us very reliant on the private market to develop enough housing to meet the needs of the people who are already here and the people who are coming, and we just know from basic supply and demand that that’s going to increase the cost of housing. So yeah, we do talk a lot about displacement, because Seattleites of all colors and ethnicities and backgrounds have actually been displaced from the neighborhoods. So when we think about displacement, there’s making sure we don’t continue to push people out, and there’s finding ways to build enough housing fast enough that people could in theory actually come back.

And I think it’s a multifaceted strategy. It’s not just MHA and HALA. It’s also thinking about market intervention strategies, like looking at who’s buying what, what places are left unused, addressing the conversation about speculative capital and how that’s impacting our overall economy.

And also, if the city truly cares about ensuring that people have the right to stay, the city will get invested in building housing and will expand what our own housing authority is doing around providing affordable housing, as well as redefining what is affordable.

ECB: Did you support the housing levy? Because Murray touts that as a big achievement in that direction, in the direction of providing for zero to 30 [percent of Area Median Income]– you know, whatever you think of AMI, because I know it is like $70,000 or something like that—*

NO: Which levy?

ECB: Sorry, the $290 million one—

[Oliver campaign manager Gyasi Ross]: You mean the one he retracted? [Murray initially proposed, then retracted, a property tax to pay for shelter, housing, and services for homeless Seattle residents.]

ECB: No, no, no, we’ll talk about that in a sec, but no, the one to actually build affordable housing.

NO: Honestly, I don’t remember.

ECB: Because that was aimed at building that kind of housing, you know, and it was a property tax levy.

NO: That’s where we’re at, right? Using property taxes to pay for things. If we’re not asking developers to invest at a higher level, we’re going to have to continue to leverage the dollars of people that have already taken on the burden of what development is doing in our city instead of asking the developers to take their fair share of that burden.

* Although I usually edit interviews for length and clarity (adding or removing explanatory information from the questions, omitting redundant answers, etc.), this portion of my interview with Oliver has been repeatedly called into question by some of her supporters, who have accused me of misquoting or misrepresenting our conversation to do a “gotcha” on the candidate. For this reason, I have transcribed the interview to include a background comment from Oliver’s campaign manager, sentences that trail off, and verbal tics like “you know.” The question followed immediately on Oliver’s previous answer about the need for the city to provide affordable housing; I was pointing out that the city did just vote to spend $290 million on affordable housing, and asking if Oliver had supported that ballot measure. 

Urban planner Cary Moon

ECB: To what do you attribute rising housing prices?

CM: If you look at what’s happening in other world-class cities, you see this phenomenon of outside investors piling on and taking advantage of everyone wanting to move here. It’s just like Wall Street—when Wall Street sees a stock go up two days in a row, all of Wall Street piles on to that stock. That same phenomenon is going on in our housing market.

Housing used to be local. It used to be local players, building housing for local people. Now they’re acting more and more like Wall Street, where outside predators are piling on just left and right.

ECB:  You’ve mentioned this theory before—that foreign investors from places like China are snapping up properties here as investments and leaving them vacant, which helps drive up housing prices. But all the available data seems to show that while this is happening in Vancouver, it isn’t happening here. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen in the future, but what evidence do you have that so-called hot money is driving up housing prices now?

CM: I don’t have any secret information that nobody else has, but the dynamic is there. I’ve read enough articles that have said that investors that have been in Vancouver are now looking at other cities, and Seattle is one of their choices. It’s not just hot money, it’s not just foreign investors, but everything has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be, you buy property, you build a building, you get a certain rate of return, and you get your money back, maybe 7 percent in 20  years. It’s completely different now. Now, you buy a building and sell it right away, and the return on investment comes not from the slow, long revenue stream of rents coming in, but from the quick turn of selling at a higher rate and doing the same thing again and again and again and again. Our development world is behaving more like Wall Street than it used to. It’s developers leaving buildings vacant, it’s people buying investment properties, it’s Airbnb, it’s people building second and third and fourth homes that might not have anybody living in them for most of the year. Real estate is a great place to put your money, if you have money.

Former US Attorney Jenny Durkan

ECB: Do you support the idea of a supervised drug-consumption site?

JD: Here’s what I think. We have a huge injectable heroin problem in this city. You go to any city park, alley, street, or neighborhood in any part of the city and you can see that it’s there. The battle and the discussions we’re having now almost mirror exactly the debates around safe needle sites. I mean it is the same arguments: ‘Its legitimizes heroin.’ ‘It’s saying it’s okay to shoot up.’ It’s not. It was harm reduction and this is a harm reduction measure now. It makes no sense that we can have a site where we can have someone come in for a needle exchange, and you hand them the clean needle and you say, ‘Okay, go to the alley. Go to the park. Go to the street where you might OD and die in the middle of the night.’ And you have no access to health care treatment services or even someone to talk to. It is not a solution standing by itself, but I think it is part of a humane health care solution for dealing with a very real problem.

ECB: You said recently that you’re skeptical that a citywide income tax would be legal. Can you elaborate on why you think it might not be, and would you pursue it further if elected?

JD: If I could wave my wand, we would have a statewide income tax tomorrow.

ECB: OK, you don’t have a wand.

JD: Nobody does, but that’s what they’re trying to do, is wave a wand.

Look: I think if there’s a time to make a test case, now’s the time to do it. I am not persuaded that the legal landscape has changed. You have two barriers. The first is the RCW, the state law that prohibits cities from establishing an income tax. Then you have the state constitution, and in multiple cases, the [Washington State] Supreme Court has held that an income tax is unconstitutional. People think the makeup of our state Supreme Court might change that second outcome, but you still have to get around the first one. I’m skeptical that it will meet the legal test.

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Former state legislator (D-46) Jessyn Farrell

ECB: There’s been a lot of debate over the payments developers will be required to make under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program; some social justice advocates say they’re too low to make a dent in displacement, while some urbanists, including the Sightline Institute, say they’re so high they discourage development. What do you think? Would you change anything about MHA, or the mayor’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA)?

JF: I am fundamentally supportive of HALA. I deeply believe that Seattle needs to increase its housing stock and housing options across the economic spectrum in a really significant way. I think the zoning changes, though, are only one piece of the affordability puzzle, and I would like to go much beyond that.

We need to inventory all the surplus property in the city—whether it’s WSDOT, Sound Transit, Seattle Public Utilities—all publicly held property, and land bank it as the cornerstone for a major new investment in public housing. That has traditionally been a really important strategy for providing housing stability and economic mobility for people, especially in Seattle. And it then becomes an effort around matchmaking, so that you find the nonprofit or private developer resources to do the development.

Just as we allocate population growth across the region through [the Puget Sound Regional Council’s] 2040 plan, I think we need to set a target of $1 billion in affordable housing and allocate affordability targets across the entire city, so you’re not really letting any neighborhood off the hook. Then you create neighborhood-based plans that use an array of affordability tools, so some neighborhoods are going to focus more on rental vouchers so that people who are living in current housing can stay there; some neighborhoods are going to focus more on [accessory dwelling units]; some neighborhoods are going to have more traditional density. We need a strategic plan for the city that allows us to hold ourselves accountable, and then we can create programs within every single neighborhood.

That, obviously, is not easy. There are neighborhoods that aren’t necessarily going to want it. But here’s what I see: There are people in every single neighborhood who are worried about affordability, whether it is their kids not being able to buy into Seattle, whether they’re worried about property taxes or whether they’ve been in their houses for 40 years and now they’re on a fixed income. Clearly, renters are worried. And I think that you appeal to people from that perspective: Look, we are all in this together. We cannot solve this problem in traditional ways. Our traditional frame in Seattle has been around zoning, and that is a piece of the puzzle, but it cannot be the only piece. We need major public-sector investment, and then we need to really open up all of the different tools. And I think it becomes really micro, property-by-property, arterial-by-arterial planning. Part of that is preserving cultural spaces in neighborhoods and preserving environmental spaces in neighborhoods. Upzoning certainly has a role, and there are places where we need to do it, but there are so many other affordability tools that we can use and that I think neighborhoods would embrace.

11th District State Senator Bob Hasegawa

ECB: What do you think of Mayor Murray’s decision to cut ties with the neighborhood councils? That was an effort to get more new voices included in city planning, including, importantly, people of color.

BH: I think we need to be going the opposite direction from dismantling the neighborhood councils to empowering them more. The city’s argument was that the community councils don’t necessarily represent the diversity of the people in the community, and I think that’s true. They’re pretty much white, middle-class, older—even in the Rainier Valley. That’s the people that have the time to do it. I think grassroots organizing is the hardest job in the world, and the most underappreciated, and that’s why it never gets done. But it is the only way democracy can succeed. So if we are going to reverse our top-down structure, which is what the city has become, to a more bottom-up structure, we have to put a lot of work into it. So I want to fund the neighborhood councils so they can go into the neighborhoods and start organizing.

ECB: What is your definition of gentrification and how would you deal with it?

BH: I don’t know if there is a definition. It’s the loss of the economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity—what the city has always had. The income inequality that’s facing the whole country right now is being demonstrated to an extreme in Seattle, because you’ve got so many people making six-figure salaries moving in and displacing minimum-wage people.

When you look at the [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] set-aside for South Lake Union, they only require 2 percent of the units to be affordable, whatever affordable is. I think other cities are at 25 percent or above.

ECB: So what’s your alternative?

HB: A public bank.

This year, The C Is for Crank also made endorsements in two races—the mayor’s race and Seattle City Council Position 8. Read my endorsement of Jessyn Farrell for mayor here, and my endorsement of Teresa Mosqueda for council here. And look for more endorsements for the general election in October.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Best of Crank: Does “Our Best” Leave Black Girls Behind?

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be hard at work meeting a big deadline (finishing up my book—eek!), so I’m re-running some posts that represent the best of The C Is for Crank in 2017. The posts I’ve chosen include breaking news, longer features, endorsements, and editorial pieces that capture the year in local news.

Today’s post looks at a program funded in this year’s city budget called “Our Best,” which aims to  close the achievement gap and create mentoring opportunities for African American boys. Like former President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program (which is also in place in some Seattle schools), “Our Best” promotes responsibility, accountability, and achievement for black boys—at the expense, some critics have argued, of black girls, who face different but no less daunting challenges on the way to graduation and self-sufficiency. Additionally, critics such as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw have argued that programs aimed exclusively at young black men enforce antiquated gender roles by promoting the image of boys as future breadwinners and husbands whose success will trickle down to the women they eventually marry; my interview with Crenshaw, a celebrated writer and academic who coined the term “intersectionality,” is here.

This post ran on August 28.

Does “Our Best” Leave Black Girls Behind?

In 2012, only 57 percent of African-American boys graduated from high school in Washington state, compared to 73 percent of their white counterparts.

The achievement gap for young black men goes far beyond their graduation rates. Nationally, African-American boys are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white boys, and are three times as likely to be suspended. In Seattle, African-American boys are nearly three times as likely as white boys to be referred to special education, and these students in general fall far behind their white counterparts on nearly every standard measure of success—from third-grade reading scores to seventh-grade math proficiency to graduation rates. In 2015, 56 percent of white Seattle Public Schools graduates ended up going to a four-year college; just 30 percent of black students did the same. This achievement gap has lifelong ramifications; nearly 70 percent of young black men who drop out of school will end up in prison, and one in three black boys will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

“If you look at discipline data or graduation data or just regular third-grade test data, you’ll see just a huge discrepancy in the gaps between black males and their counterparts,” says Dwane Chappelle, director of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

The achievement gap between black and white boys has been documented for decades, but the emphasis on programs targeted at improving the outcomes for black boys is a more recent phenomenon. Last year, after the City of Seattle’s first Education Summit, Mayor Ed Murray convened a 32-member advisory committee to come up with recommendations to close the gap. This year, to help accomplish this audacious goal, Murray organized a Youth Opportunity Cabinet, which includes African-American city department heads, such as Chappelle and Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development, and announced a new initiative focused on improving young black male achievement, called Our Best. (“If they are given resources that others take for granted, our young black men are our best,” Surratt says.)

The city has allocated $300,000 for the first year of the program (with few details on exactly how the money will be spent), which is modeled after former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, but aimed at boys and youth between the ages of 14 and 24. A good portion of that money will support a one-year pilot project, which began in July, to double the number of black male mentors, by providing a clearinghouse and technical support for existing programs; the money will also fund a new special adviser to the mayor on young black male achievement.

Mentors, Surratt says, can give black boys the kind of positive role models they may be lacking in home or at school, and from experience can provide lessons on how to cope with challenges. “It’s not a cultural deficiency model,” says Surratt, referring to a model that says young black men are broken and need to be fixed. “It’s an asset richness model”—one that takes the assets that already exist in the African-American community and puts them to work guiding young men who may be struggling into responsible adulthood.

Our Best also includes a new mayor’s council on black male achievement, with the goal of increasing the number of black boys who graduate high school; providing young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 more pathways to “meaningful,” well-paid employment; and reducing the percentage of young black men entering the criminal justice system.

While the city’s renewed focus on young black male achievement is both admirable and necessary, some worry that male-focused programs like Our Best leave black girls behind.

Black girls are six times as likely as white girls to get kicked out of school—a racial gap in suspension rates that dwarfs the gap between black and white boys.

Like those of their male counterparts, black girls’ reading and math scores are at or near the bottom level, and four in 10 black girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy or parenthood as the reason. Black girls who drop out may suffer greater economic consequences than black boys, largely because the jobs that are available for female high school dropouts pay significantly less than those available to male dropouts. Black girls are also far more likely to be single parents without other sources of support, which compounds the impact of lower wages. Little wonder, then, that the median net worth of single black women is $100, compared with almost $7,900 for black men and $41,500 for single white women.

Moreover, black girls experience harm at school that the standard “achievement gap” yardstick simply fails to measure, such as sexual violence, suicide, harassment and the consequences of single parenting, says Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the founder and director of the African American Policy Forum and a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University.

“There is a whole range of ways that girls are impacted by these environments that people aren’t even talking about because the point of departure is always the boy,” says Crenshaw. Much like health research that for many years only used male subjects, the data available on African-American student achievement is largely centered on outcomes that primarily impact boys, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a feedback loop that leaves girls out. “It’s not just one gender that’s struggling, [but] the conversation up ’til now has assumed that the only students in crisis were boys,” says Crenshaw.

Proponents of Our Best say they’re aware that girls face specific challenges that boys don’t. “We all know that our young ladies need support as well,” Chappelle says. But, he says, “We have to get that infrastructure in place first, and then we will be able to provide the young ladies with support, too.” Supporters of Our Best also insist that by helping young men, the program will benefit young black women as well, by fixing systems that hurt everybody when they’re broken.

“The intent is that if you fix a demographic that is clearly doing statistically the poorest, you are in fact fixing the institutional problems for the other demographics as well,” says City Council member Bruce Harrell, an Our Best proponent. “In fixing a lot of the institutional practices that work to the detriment of young black males, I think young black females and even others will reap the benefits.”

Surratt adds, “Unfortunately, across almost every metric that you can imagine, every social, economic and health indicator, young black men are suffering the most, and so we wanted to tackle this part of the community first.”

Crenshaw, who criticized Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program for excluding girls in a New York Times op-ed piece, is less convinced, calling that theory “trickle-down social justice” that “doesn’t work any better than Reaganomics did.”

Chappelle points to the fact that at least one school in Seattle that implemented the My Brother’s Keeper program, Aki Kurose Middle School, has since added an analogous Our Sister’s Keeper program for girls as evidence that the program will probably expand—eventually.

“Once we get Our Best down as far as young black men are concerned, then I would anticipate we would figure out a way to make sure that we are weaving in the support we need for our young black women, and also other young women of color who have historically been marginalized,” Chappelle says. The question is, how long will it take? And will it be soon enough to help the latest generation of young black girls who are at risk of falling through the cracks?