It’s nearly impossible to judge candidate “performance” at an unscripted, barely moderated event like last week’s District 2 forum without writing first about why it was a fiasco, and in this case the answer boiled down to three words: Josh Farris acolytes. Or: Unprepared forum moderator. Or, even shorter: No crowd control.
Whichever way you characterize it, the issue was that Farris, the relatively soft-spoken, seemingly reasonable, socialist-leaning third candidate in the Southeast Seattle district, showed up accompanied by a cadre of noisy, boisterous, disrespectful fans. Meanwhile, the moderator, Lakewood Seward Park Community Club board member Jeannie O’Brien, made essentially no effort to discipline the Farrisites by asking them to be quiet or stop heckling, creating an atmosphere of chaos that allowed them to commandeer a mic later and stretch the two-hour forum—which, again, featured just three candidates—until nearly 10:00 at night. (The Lakewood forum became the community’s de facto introduction to the three candidates after the 37th District Democrats canceled a forum for the 2nd and 3rd District races because Kshama Sawant, the popular Socialist council incumbent, like Farris, is not a Democrat).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the lay of the land in District 2. Bruce Harrell, longtime council incumbent and Seward Park resident, is running for the new District 2 seat. His main challenger is food-systems nonprofit manager Tammy Morales, another Seward Park resident who is running on a platform of affordability, police accountability (an issue on which she frequently attacks Harrell, who’s head of the council’s Public Safety Committee), and general “progressive values.: Flanking both of them on the left is Farris, a Occupy Wall Streeter and Iraq war veteran who’s running on an anti-eviction platform.
The trouble started right after Farris’ intro wrapped up and his supporters, mostly young guys who had ringed the room, started screaming and cheering uproariously, prompting an elderly lady in the front row to whisper to the Farris supporter next to hear, “Please stop screaming. I’m wearing hearing aids.” When the screamer continued screaming anyway, she explained further the hearing aids are “basically little microphones in my ears,” prompting the women next to her to begin openly mocking her, setting the tone for an evening that was frequently punctuated by cheers and interruptions from hecklers.
Through all the noise (or perhaps because of it), I was reminded of something I forget about Bruce Harrell between elections: The man suffers no bullshit from his audience. And despite his affinity for binders full of notes (a security blanket that was clearly visible on the table in front of him), Harrell’s a strong campaigner, and he doesn’t back down when challenged even if his challenger, like Morales (and Farris), doesn’t pose much of a threat. Last week’s forum was no different, and at times it was fun to watch Harrell (act? play?) indignant when Morales tried to paint him as “someone who claims to be a social justice advocate but fails to step up for working people,” or who only became interested in “investing in the community after he’s been [on the council] eight years.”
Harrell—who previously said he’d “never had so much fight in me as I have [in running] for this position”—responded, in full non sequitur battle mode, “I’ve never been afraid of anything—never. I don’t do things on the basis of fear. That’s a baseless accusation.”
The most striking difference between this debate and the council forums I’ve been to in the North End was the extent to which the issues down south are almost the reverse image of those that dominate up north. Whereas in the North End, people expressed concern about ugly apartment buildings coming in and depreciating single-family property values, the Lakewood forum centered on preserving racial diversity, keeping rents affordable, and preventing gentrification. Whereas everyone in the North End seemed obsessed with sidewalks to connect their single-family neighborhoods to local schools, the main transportation issues that came up in Southeast Seattle were the proposed restriping of Rainier Ave. S. to accommodate bike or bus lanes, and the fact that Sound Transit light rail has been so successful that many rail commuters are driving into Southeast Seattle and parking their cars on neighborhood streets, reducing the parking supply for residents.
All three candidates bemoaned gentrification, but they differed on what (if anything) to do about it. Morales suggested that the city should subsidize “not just very low-income housing, but housing for average workers who need a place to stay,” while Harrell said he would help improve Southeast business districts by prohibiting the “clustering” of marijuana retailers in the Rainier Valley. Currently, Rainier Ave. S is home to around a dozen medical-marijuana shops, some of which feature signs boasting “Open until midnight!” and offering free samples for first-time buyers.
And all three candidates agreed that the city needs to adopt a “linkage fee,” a citywide tax on new development, to help make developers “pay their fair share,” in Harrell’s words, to subsidize affordable housing. Farris, a new homeowner who called himself “basically homeless” (he was recently kicked out of his apartment following a long dispute with his landlord and is currently in between those two places), also said the city should adopt anti-eviction laws, a “blight tax” on banks that buy foreclosed homes, and rent control.
When the issue of transportation came up, all three displayed the familiar mix of conflicting opinions that often come up in discussions about “road diets,” the (fictitious) “war on cars,” and bike lanes. For example, while Harrell declared himself a passionate supporter of restriping Rainier to slow traffic and improve safety (“I don’t want another life lost on Rainier Avenue … If it takes a minute off your schedule, then start a minute earlier!”), he also said cyclists should be content to ride on “neighborhood streets” and that “I don’t think there should be a prohibition” on new park-and-ride lots in the city.
Morales followed up on Harrell’s park-and-ride comment by declaring herself “flummoxed” at the fact that the city does not allow new park-and-rides next to light rail stations (city officials prefer transit-oriented development to acres of bare pavement) and said she generally can’t walk the mile between her house and light rail because “sometimes I like to wear heels” and because she has young kids.
Farris, who is white, awkwardly attempted to demonstrate his cultural competency by talking about the need for more crossings on Rainier: “You see elderly folks crossing [Rainier] who don’t understand that when a car’s coming, you have to stop. It’s not part of the culture. I’ve been to Vietnam, and when a car’s coming, you just walk out into the street and expect them to stop. That doesn’t happen here.”
The evening ended in what was supposed to be a Q&A with the audience. The problem was, no one was screening questions, and O’Brien neither enforced nor even provided any parameters before declaring it open-mike. Or, as I tweeted:
And guess what, I was right. The unscreened “questions” turned out to be mostly lengthy speeches by Farris supporters about everything from the new juvenile detention center (Harrell: “The jail is not controlled by the city … You can shake your head all you want, but I want some bad people locked up”), to how to solve the affordable housing crisis (Harrell again: “I’m 56 years old. I don’t need people to applaud the linkage fee… Let’s not cheapen this process with this yes or no crap”), to whether the candidates would “give up” most of their salaries, as Farris has promised to do in the alternate universe in which he gets elected.
While new homeowner Farris used this last question as a chance once again to highlight his poverty (“I’m sleeping on a couch… It’s hard to be poor”), Harrell responding by saying that he earns his keep.
“If your question is, Would I give 50 percent of my salary to charity?, the answer is no,” Harrell said. “I would not be willing to do that. I have two kids in college and bills to pay, and I work very, very hard for it.”
After several more questions, and many more speeches (including one by a Farris supporter who claimed to have come to Harrell’s office seeking help “with tears in my eyes, representing Latino families and all families in the city”), the forum was over and everyone drifted into the night, a bit more knowledgeable and probably a little more confused than when they went in.