This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.
First up: My interview with Egan Orion, running against Sawant in a race that’s shaping up to be the most expensive City Council contest in Seattle’s history. Orion has been a retail worker, a barista, a tour guide, and a data analyst. He’s also worked as a web designer, a Microsoft engineer, and an event producer—and, for a brief time, the head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, which shut down after Orion left (after two months on the job) to run for council. We started out by talking about his departure from the Chamber.
The C Is for Crank (ECB): Why did you decide to leave the Capitol Hill Chamber to run for council? They shut down right after you left, and it seemed like the two events were related.
Egan Orion (EO): They had been working on the expanded [business improvement area] effort across Capitol Hill for about five years. And they had spent so much time and energy on that—to the neglect, in my mind, of some of the basics of expanding a local chamber—and it was clear that they needed more leadership. And they didn’t have an executive director at the time, just an admin who was very good at keeping things going. So I helped them write the Only In Seattle grant to get funding for 2019, and helped them plan the State of the Hill event on February 1, and then we started talking about, what would it look like if I came on board as a part time ED? So I gave the State of the Hill address on my first day working for them, and it wasn’t a week or ten days later that the admin who had been with the organization for so long decided abruptly that she was going to start to make her exit. And there wasn’t enough time for that transition. And that’s when the snowstorms happened as well.
I was doing the best that I could with what I knew about the organization. And then, two weeks into my tenure at capital chamber, Beto [Yarce] dropped out of the city council race. And I just started to think about it. I was really just praying that someone would step up that could defeat Kshama. And as the weeks passed, I just kept on waiting and not seeing anyone. And I started to think maybe this was a better way for me to advocate for my community. So I made that decision, and the chamber decided that they didn’t have the capacity to hire someone.
ECB: You’ve been the biggest beneficiary of spending by outside groups like People for Seattle and the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Chamber of Commerce PAC. Do you have any misgivings about the fact that the business lobby and Tim Burgess’ PAC have decided to invest so heavily in getting you elected?
EO: Oh, sure. I’ve got misgivings about it. I would prefer to run a race where we didn’t have to worry about money coming from outside the city, from powerful forces from within the city—where we as candidates had to connect with voters in our district. Districts are fairly small in the scheme of things. They’re very walkable. I know because I’ve walked all those precincts at one point or another connecting with voters. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why people responded to my campaign, is that me and my campaign manager and our volunteers knocked on 16,500 doors for the primary alone, and we’re going to surpass that in the general. We’ve been running a very local race and talking about the issues that matter, not just to a narrow set of constituents, like Kshama Sawant, but to all the communities in the district.
I look at this as a quality of life election. And the quality of life for someone that lives in Portage Bay or Madrona is just as important to me as the quality of life for people on Capitol Hill.
ECB: So is there any position where you would say you dramatically differ from CASE?
EO: I didn’t realize CASE had political positions. What they laid out for us [during endorsement discussions] was some basic stuff around transportation, safety and prosperity. And of course, I had a small business background and also represented a couple of different nonprofits that represent small business. I really had an obvious resume that they would respond to, because they have 2,000 small businesses that are part of their chamber.
So I don’t really pay attention to the political desires of CASE beyond those general values that, that I share with them. I don’t mean to be coy about that either. I really don’t look at the positions of what CASE wants. Businesses are as varied as voters in their views.
ECB: Mayor Durkan has continued expanding the Navigation Team, which has shifted its focus to removing encampments without providing 72 hours’ notice or offers of shelter and services. Do you support this approach?
EO: In general, no. I think that that when REACH was really embedded with the Navigation Team, they really brought that human services touch to that work. I mean, at the end of the day, if we’re sweeping people from a public place where they’re camping and we’re not providing any place for them to go, I see that as inhumane and a waste of money, because they’re just going to pop up somewhere else and then we’re just going to spend the money to sweep them somewhere else. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
ECB: So how do you address the issue of unauthorized encampments in the short term without having the Navigation Team pushing people from place to place?
EO: That’s the real tension. There are real concerns about having unsanctioned encampments where people are urinating and defecating in a place where humans live. And there’s a public health concern about that, as we’ve seen all over the West Coast with some crazy medieval diseases that have popped up. I don’t want my fellow humans to be living in a situation like that. We can do better. I would look to expand more low-barrier, 24-hour shelters, because we only have two of them right now, and to expand the tiny house villages to accommodate people while we’re building out more housing, particularly focusing on permanent supportive housing. And then what I would love to see is that those sanctioned encampments become smaller because we’re doing a better job [with housing].
ECB: Would you supporting a safe drug consumption site in District 3?
EO: At the beginning of the campaign, without talking to people, I was like, ‘Oh, totally. I’m a harm reduction guy.’ But as I’ve learned a little more, I’m a maybe on that. I would like to see it part of a comprehensive system. These one-off solutions—it doesn’t seem to me like a good way to approach it. And right now, we don’t even have treatment on demand. So I hear people saying that they can go into these places and they’ll have healthcare providers, people who can help get them into treatment. And I was like, ‘Oh, where are they getting them into treatment?’ because this is something we’re struggling with citywide.
ECB: You’ve said that you would oppose bringing back the employee hours tax, which your opponent championed. Do you think there needs to be a Seattle-specific funding source for homelessness programs and housing, or do you think regional consolidation and existing revenues will be enough to address the problem?
EO: If people are using this countywide model to say, ‘We’re spending enough already,’ then I would reject that. Ultimately, policymakers are here to solve problems. I also think we’re spending a lot of money right now on the homelessness and affordability crises and just cycling people in and out of a system that’s not working. So I do want to make sure that we go back and make sure that the way that we’re spending the money is the best use of taxpayer money. One thing that happened with the head tax was that you saw voters turn against the council because I think that they felt like council couldn’t be trusted and use their money, or anybody’s money, in order to solve this problem because they hadn’t shown that they could make much impact on the homelessness crisis.
“At the beginning of the campaign, without talking to people, I was like, ‘Oh, totally. I’m a harm reduction guy.’ But as I’ve learned a little more [about safe consumption sites], I’m a maybe on that. I would like to see it part of a comprehensive system. These one-off solutions—it doesn’t seem to me like a good way to approach it.”
ECB: Well, the just redid its whole contracting process in 2017 and implemented new performance requirements for providers. So you can’t really say they’ve made no progress on accountability.
EO: But I think the data tracking on that is so new that I don’t know if we have enough of a track record using this, this new system [to know] whether it’s being spent in the wrong way. And you know what, I have no doubt that we are going to need more in the way of revenue at some point in the future. And we need to solve this regressive tax system that we live under. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the state Supreme Court says about the high earners income tax and how that can frame the discussion in Olympia.
And I’m not a big fan of council members flying to New York City to talk to the communities about what they should or shouldn’t do. Or for a city council members here to be talking about Israeli-Palestinian policy. There’s a perception among voters that city council gets distracted about all these things when we have an emergency right here.
ECB: You’ve said you support some limits on rent increases. How do you distinguish what you would support from rent control, which is a centerpiece of your opponent’s agenda?
EO: The old rent control was a disaster for a rental market. I look more to a model like what they recently enacted in Oregon, where they [limit annual rent increases to] 7 percent plus inflation. Their current cap is at 10.2 percent, essentially since day one. And I’ve been advocating for no more than 10 percent a year. I don’t [support rent control] because what would I want to look at is, if we need to have more housing built, how do we do it so that we can incentivize it enough for developers to keep on building and so that we get some funding for affordable housing and that we make sure to watch out for renters as well. There’s a number of different things we have to be doing at the same time.
ECB: The Seattle Police Department has been found partly out of compliance with the federal consent decree. Meanwhile, the Community Police Commission has rejected the mayor’s idea of convening a committee to look at best practices for constitutional policing in other cities. What do you think the city should do? Should the contract be reopened, or would you propose a different solution to get the city in compliance?
“If I were a cop, I would feel like this council was genuinely anti-cop. I would feel like I was not getting support from the city council for the work that I’m doing.”
EO: For me, the main conflict comes in with opening up a contract that both sides decided upon. It just violates everything about collective bargaining. The contract was negotiated over a period of several years and both sides came to the conclusion that was something they could live with. You can force the contract to be reopened, but I think that’s my final potential way forward. That will make the police very angry. So I’m standing with the unions on this one for now.
ECB: In the absence of new contract negotiations, how would you propose getting the police department into compliance with federal accountability requirements?
EO: I have to learn more on this issue and I know that it’s front of mind for folks. I have not really been focusing a lot on policing and I know that also we get new information on the all the time on this. So I want to look into it and then we can have that discussion in a couple of weeks. I think it’s also super important to respect contracts that were signed between the city and a union, even if it is the police union, which is a kind of the favorite one for Seattle Council to kick around.
ECB: Do you think the consent decree is the main reason for problems with police officer retention?
EO: I think it’s a number of different things. I think that they see that the people that they’d pick up time and again are not getting prosecuted and then they’re just cycling out of that system so they feel like they’re not having an impact on making the community quote unquote safer. I think that going back to WTO, actually, there’s this been an increasing view of cops in some urban centers as the enemy rather than people that are doing their job to help protect the neighborhood or keep it safer. And then this particular city council—if I were a cop, I would feel like this council was genuinely anti-cop. I would feel like I was not getting support from the city council for the work that I’m doing.