The C Is for Crank Interviews: Tim Burgess

Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined, after repeated requests, to speak with me) over the next few weeks, starting today with incumbent city council member Tim Burgess, running for citywide Position 8 against former Tenants Union director Jon Grant.

I sat down with Burgess at Pegasus Coffee near City Hall earlier this month.

The C Is For Crank [ECB]: Now that the results are pretty final, it’s clear that you’re ending up the primary election well under 50 percent. [From an election-night high of 48.34 percent, Burgess slipped by the time results were certified to 45.74 percent. Grant ended up with 30.85 percent of the total].

Tim Burgess [TB]: I don’t know if I was surprised. I think he has been tapped in, both with the Stranger endorsement and some of the [independent expenditures] he got [from groups like SEIU 925],  to the whole equity issue. He has played on that effectively with his rent control approach and his anti-[Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] approach. We’ll see if that can be more broadly based. We have to work hard. We wanted to have 48 to 52 percent on election night and we got 48. That’s gone down to 45 or 46 since.

He did well. The race is going to be much more difficult than what we expected.

ECB: What do you think the race will look like between now and November?

TB: He’ll do in the general what he’s done in the primary—all kind of accusatory, outlandish stunts. The classic so far is to point over to me and say, “Tim burgess is the biggest obstacle to police reform we’ve had in ten years.” He never gets specific. He makes the point that John T. Williams [the Native woodcarver who was shot in a crosswalk by a rookie SPD officer] was killed while [I] was chair of the public safety committee, as if I was complicit in that horrible murder. He points to 200-plus cases of excessive force and says I did nothing. Well, I was only public safety committee chair during my first term. I’m not even on the committee. I don’t even know where he got that number. For all I know, he’s just making it up.

I talk back when he says that and say, “Here’s what I’ve done.” At the downtown Seattle library forum, he made some comment that no police officer has been fired for excessive force under Tim’s watch, and I just pointed out that if he gets on the council, he’ll realize that the council has no power to do that. I think that will continue. That will be his MO—very accusatory.

ECB: The “council’s most conservative member” tag has dogged you since you were elected. It seems to me that on a liberal council, there’s some legitimacy to that label. [Burgess infamously sponsored a bill that would have cracked down on aggressive panhandlers, for example].

TB: People like to label people. I get that. But if you actually look at my record on the city council, it’s a progressive agenda. In fact, it’s a very liberal agenda. Just this week we passed the firearm tax [now being challenged by the NRA]. That’s a very progressive law.

I don’t like the label. I don’t think it’s accurate. I don’t have a need to label people or put them in boxes.

ECB: As we’re talking, Mayor Murray just backed down on a symbolically important part of the HALA plan—the recommendation to allow more housing types, including triplexes and row houses, in single-family areas. Do you think that, by doing so, he hurt the HALA cause?

TB: What people miss is that, for the first time in Seattle, we have an effective coalition of leaders of labor unions, environmentalists, housing advocates, and social justice advocates all on the same page and pulling in the same direction. That is huge. If you look back in the last eight years, during the battles around incentive zoning and height, those groups were all battling with each other. The mayor has created a coalition that’s really strong and committed to pulling things through. That is huge, and that is a game changer.

Jon opposed all that. He was the one negative vote against HALA, and his subsequent actions have been to pursue a set of policies that would break that coalition.

ECB: You announced that you were no longer supporting that portion of the recommendations before the mayor made his announcement. I heard he was really pissed at you about that. Did you try to tell him before you made your announcement backing off the single-family changes?

TB: I certainly had communicated with his staff for two and a half weeks. That’s when Ed was over in Rome, so he and I were not communicating directly on that. We probably could have done a better job. We had not communicated [that I was going to disavow the single-family changes] to him directly, but I told his staff Sunday night, and then Monday morning, I made the announcement.

ECB: Why did you decide to pull support for the most controversial part of HALA? Doesn’t that send a message that you’ll cave on other controversial recommendations, like citywide height increases in multi-family zones?

TB: That issue is too fractious. Single family was so volatile and toxic in the neighborhoods that it could have bogged down the whole process.

It’s really important to understand what we took off the table. We took off the table duplexes, triplexes, and stacked flats in all single-family zones. What we did not take off the table were [detached accessory dwelling units] and [attached accessory dwelling units] because we want to do that. I think there is a very broad acceptance that those are changes that will produce immediate affordable housing. There will likely be some opposition, but nothing like what we got with single-family.

I’m neutral in District 4,  but I was very disappointed when Michael Maddux went with the Jon Grant approach to HALA [by signing off on Grant’s HALA alternative].

ECB: But now that you’ve changed your mind on single-family, what’s to say you won’t change your mind on other aspects of the plan?

TB: I think you’re not going to see me cave. During the Roosevelt upzone [a density increase for transit-oriented development near light rail], the neighbors were furious. I pushed it through. In Pioneer Square, I tried to get one more story. I had the votes and in the last week, the historic preservationists turned some of my colleagues against it, but I tried.

ECB: Right after doing a 180 on single-family in HALA, the mayor made what many consider another political misstep, when he announced city plans to shut down all 11 of Seattle’s hookah lounges because, he said, they were linked to violent crime and possibly the death of International District community leader Donnie Chin. You backed the mayor up on that. Why?

TB (putting head in hands): All of those hookah lounges have been cited for illegal behavior, including smoking indoors. I get the legal basis of his decision. I’m very conscious of the use of the city’s police power in situations like this. I think the mayor will [back off on shutting down] hookah lounges that don’t have certain activities associated with them. I have not heard any  indication that [Chin’s] death was connected with hookah lounges. I don’t know. Some of them do have problems. We’ve had mismanagement, and I know some of them don’t pay the city taxes. In its enforcement of tax laws, the city is very focused on education and compliance, and we don’t shut businesses down for a minor offense.

24 thoughts on “The C Is for Crank Interviews: Tim Burgess

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  18. I was especially glad to see that Michael Maddux went along with the additional recommendations to the HALA plan that did a lot more to protect the rights of tenants then the HALA recommendation.

    I don’t believe the HALA recommendations did enough to protect tenants rights and I’m not surprise Maddux supports tenant rights as he is the only renter I’m aware of running for city council so he actually shares in my experience.

    This is very disappointing because one of the improvements is in increasing the amount of time a landlord has to give for an eviction specifically if the landlord decides not to renew the lease. It’s currently only 20 days which is unrealistic for someone to find a new place to live. Extending that to 90 days is more realistic, and I’m sad to see that Burgess doesn’t support some basic rights for tenants.

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    • While I think they’re both great, that decision probably secured my hypothetical D4 vote for Johnson. I understand what Maddux is trying to do–he’s got to differentiate himself from Johnson in some way, and appearing to be to Johnson’s left is probably his best bet for doing so in an electorably appealing way. And while I agree with the policy you outline giving renters more time to find a new home, Grant’s stunt is dangerous and toxic attempt to blow up HALA for his own electoral benefit. Climbing on board with that project demonstrates poor political judgement on Maddux’s part. I’m confident he’ll be a better than average (and light years better than Grant) CM if elected, but vote Johnson.

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  19. Thanks for the post, Erica. I volunteered for John Roderick during the primary, and was disappointed that he didn’t get through, but alas I’ll be voting for Burgess. IMO, Burgess’ biggest problem is his lack of a political spine. He backed off from HALA’s SF provisions way too late in the primary to tip the scales to John, but still can come around to the right position,.

    If Tim or his people are reading this, they ought to attempt to put Grant (who I agree is an appalling candidate w.r.t. his treatment of both John and Tim in the various election fora) in a NIMBY corner by going full ‘urbanist’.

    Loved his comments here on adding a floor to the Square and on HALA.

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    • I really do hope Roderick’s supporters (I was one too) realize that even though he’s a status quo kind of guy, Burgess is closer to the values and priorities Roderick was invested in than Grant.

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    • I was torn between Burgess (a known better than average urbanist) and Roderick until Burgess tucked his tail between his legs and ran from the NIMBYs (which it should be noticed got trounced in the primary) on HALA.

      Between the Burgess and Jon Grant it isn’t even a question. This Roderick voter is a firm Burgess supporter.

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    • The thing I’d need to know, before I’d try to prognosticate about this race, is whether the majority of Roderick voters are well-informed, or just casting a vote for this cool-seeming musician against the status quo.

      If the former is more common, like you and I, I don’t see Grant coming particularly close. If the latter dominates Roderick voters, this will be close.

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