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.
Today: District 6 candidate Heidi Wills. Wills, a former city council member, lost her reelection bid in 2003 and spent the next 13 years as the executive director of The First Tee of Greater Seattle, an organization that teaches kids “to play golf along with life lessons and leadership skills.” We jumped right in on the issue that led to her 2003 loss to David Della.
ECB: Let’s talk about Strippergate [the scandal in which Wills was reprimanded and fined for failing to report a meeting related to a zoning request from strip-club owner Frank Colacurcio, who contributed thousands of dollars in illegally bundled donations to Wills and two other council members.] What have you learned from that experience, and how has it changed your approach to campaign financing as a candidate?
HW: I think the democracy vouchers has that really lessened the influence of donors and special interests in fundraising and in fueling campaigns and it’s really given voice to average people who otherwise aren’t getting involved. Everyone has $100 to spend. When I ran 20 years ago and I felt like to get my name out there, and it was a citywide race, I needed to fundraise. And remember, this was pre-Google. [Editor’s note: Google was founded in 1998 and was pretty big by 2003. Yahoo had slightly more users, and MSN had slightly fewer.] I didn’t have Google as my friend. It was $650 per person maximum.
Remember, I was trying to solve a small business issue for Governor [Al] Rosellini [who was also involved… you know what? Just read this summary], who had been a mentor to me, and I did not question his motives or sincerity or his agenda. And in retrospect, I would have asked more questions. I would have wanted to know his relationship to the Colacurcio family. I didn’t ask that question. I didn’t know the history of the Colacurcio family.
I was the youngest person who’d ever been elected to the city council and I did not know the headlines about all their corruption and criminal activity. It raised red flags at the [Public Disclosure Commission] when those checks came in, but I wasn’t aware.
“In retrospect, I would have asked more questions. I would have wanted to know his relationship to the Colacurcio family. I didn’t ask that question. I didn’t know the history of the Colacurcio family.”
ECB: You and Judy Nicastro were booted from the council and Jim Compton, who took just as much money from the Colacurcios as you did, was reelected. Did you think there was any sexism involved in that?
HW: Yes. But I don’t want to get into it.
ECB: Density is a major point of contention in District 6, particularly in Ballard, which has changed so dramatically. What do you think of the changes that have happened around 15th and Market, where the new density has been most dramatic?
HW: I’m a supporter of density. I supported it when I was on the council, and I support it now, especially where we have transportation to support it. What’s concerning to people [about the six-story buildings at 15th and Market], and it’s a reasonable concern, is that it’s not human in scale. If we had courtyards. If we had setbacks, if it felt human in scope, not like a canyon, I think that people would welcome more density. So I think that’s really too bad that that was built in a way to maximize footprint.
The thing about [Mandatory Housing Affordability, which upzoned the city’s urban villages], which I think is a great way to include more density in urban villages, is that it feels as though it was one-size-fits-all. And there are parts of our community that would welcome more density. In talking with folks from Lake City, they want more density. I feel like neighborhood planning, which was disbanded, is the way to go.
I talked to [former Department of Neighborhoods director] Jim Diers recently and asked him, you know, what about this? And of course he agrees we need more housing in our community. He said that we can bring people with us, and I think that’s true. There’s been a lot of hostility within District 6 about the city’s engagement with community, that it’s been lacking, that community voices are not being heard or welcomed in these conversations. And I think that that’s led to a lot of unrest that we’re feeling now, probably leading to more incumbents not wanting to run for to reelection. I think if the city actually empowered community that would look a lot different.
ECB: When you say ‘community,’ what do you mean? Sometimes people use the word ‘community’ when they really mean ‘homeowners.’
HW: I bring that up. People talk about owner-occupancy requirements [for accessory dwelling units] and I ask what their objections are. They say they’re concerned about developer speculation and they’re concerned about homeowners not being on site, as if that leads to the degradation of a neighborhood. And I take issue with that, because I moved 13 times before I graduated from high school. I went to 10 different schools. Housing instability was hard on my childhood, and I know how disruptive that is. It’s hard on families, it’s hard on children. If we do care about community, we need to ensure that people have housing security.
ECB: If you’re getting that kind of reaction to the idea of backyard cottages in District 6, what are you hearing about homelessness?
HW: I feel like people want solutions. District 6 is very progressive and people care about ensuring that people have the services that they need. I think they recognize that we need permanent supportive housing, and that a housing-first approach is the only means by which we’re going to gain traction on that issue. At the same time, they’re frustrated by the city’s lack of communication and innovation around how to address homelessness. I think the integration [of the homelessness system], has broad support in District 6.
ECB: Other jurisdictions that have created regional homelessness agencies, like Los Angeles, have also passed large spending packages to actually build shelter and housing. The county’s proposed joint homelessness agency doesn’t come with any extra spending. You’ve said you oppose bringing back the head tax [a tax on high-grossing businesses that the council passed, then repealed], so what kind of revenue would you propose to actually start building housing and shelter?
HW: I didn’t support the head tax because I think that Seattle can’t solve homelessness in a silo and that we need a regional approach, [including] not just King County, but also Pierce, Snohomish, and maybe even Kitsap county. I’ve talked [state house speaker] Frank Chopp several times about this. He’s not wanting to show his cards and talk about what kind of funding package they’re looking at, but we need to have the authority to go to voters to address a housing and human services funding package. I think that if there is a plan that’s spelled out, if there is body that has done its homework with regards to what works and why we’re choosing to go that route, I think that we have a good chance of getting what we need to solve homelessness.
ECB: We’re still a long way from solving homelessness. What would you do in the meantime, given the growing number of people living unsheltered in Seattle?
HW: It’s the same exact issues we were dealing with 20 years ago. We’re not making headway and we need to come up with short-term solutions. I don’t believe that the city condoning people sleeping in tents in our parks and open spaces is a solution. And we have about 300 unsanctioned encampments around Seattle now. We don’t have enough sharps containers, we don’t have enough running water, we don’t have enough port-a-potties to serve the people that are currently living in these deplorable conditions. We need to double down on temporary shelter. Modular homes are one way to go. Council member Teresa Mosqueda also talked about a big tent—like a FEMA-style tent [that could serve as a temporary shelter.] These are real solutions. Why is the council not better tuned into these issues?
“We need to have the authority to go to voters to address a housing and human services funding package. I think that if there is a plan that’s spelled out, if there is body that has done its homework with regards to what works and why we’re choosing to go that route, I think that we have a good chance of getting what we need to solve homelessness.”
ECB: People, particularly women or women with children, don’t feel safe necessarily sleeping next to hundreds of random other people.
HW: That makes sense. A tent might work for some people, but not women and children or veterans with PTSD. But what about modular housing?
We need to have shelters where people want to be. When I went on a tour of [the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s shelter downtown, it felt like—if I could put the word despair in physical form. It was rough. We need more humane shelter space. We need more places like 1811 Eastlake. We need permanent supportive housing where people can get stabilized, so their road to recovery is not about survival. What about people thriving? Why are we not having these conversations?
ECB: If you propose low-barrier permanent supportive housing in the district, you’ll be in a situation like Mike O’Brien was last year, when hundreds of people showed up to scream at him at what was supposed to be a town hall about the head tax.
HW: I wasn’t there. I’ve talked to people who were there, and it sounds to me like people were frustrated about his shelter in place legislation that would have people living in tents in public parks. [Editor’s note: The legislation would not have allowed people to set up tents in maintained areas of parks, on sidewalks, or in playfields.] I feel like public parks are common spaces, and that as this district accepted more density, they need places outdoors that are safe and welcoming for families to come and to play.
ECB: You’ve said that you think the solution to completing the Burke-Gilman Trail is to build an entirely new elevated bike path at an unknown cost. [A 2016 city analysis dismissed an elevated option because it would cost four to five times more than an at-grade alignments]. As far as I’m aware, the only people proposing this option are opponents of completing the trail. Where did you hear out this idea, and tell me why you think this wouldn’t be a total non-starter.
HW: I doorbelled a man named Russell Bennett who ives in Phinney Ridge and he’s the visionary behind that idea. He asked me if I had been to the Highline in New York City, and I had, and he said, how about instead of this issue that has people at odds, why don’t we bring the community together around a vision that is a win win for everyone? And I thought that really would help the community embrace an elegant, elevated solution that maintains the industrial maritime jobs that are along Shilshole Avenue that are a cornerstone of the community and have been for over a hundred years. And it allows people to move safely as they’re riding above the ground.
“I want Seattle to have people working in the fishing and the industrial community. And if there’s even a concern that their businesses would be compromised [by the completion of the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail], I think that’s something that the city needs to pay attention to.”
ECB: As you probably know, the bIking community is very opposed to the idea of an elevated trail, and they don’t buy the idea that a bike trail is going to somehow kill jobs. They never have.
HW: I know they haven’t, and they haven’t had the same conversations with people that I have. When I first started my campaign, I was a proponent for the Burke-Gilman Trail, because I carry the water for that issue. Sixteen years ago on the city council, I co-sponsored that resolution. I am a lifelong cyclist. I bicycled across the country, and it took me seven weeks to do it. I used to be a commuter by bicycle exclusively until I had kids. So I am very much a part of the cycling community.
I thought that [the trail and businesses] could cooexist. Then I sat down with a company called Dantrawl. They make fishing nets, and have such big shipping trucks that they were worried about killing or injuring somebody on the trail. This recreational trail is not just for commuters, it’s for people of all ages. Young kids can be on that trail and not really looking out for their huge trucks. And they were so concerned that they moved their business elsewhere in Ballard.
ECB: But they’re still in District Six.
HW: Correct. But they’re moving again because they don’t feel like the city is supporting small businesses like theirs. And this is something that I’ve been hearing over and over on the campaign trail. They’re moving because the city put in a traffic circle in an industrial area that’s abutting a residential area. Residents were concerned about traffic calming and the city put in a traffic circle to calm traffic without consulting them, and it’s very difficult for their trucks to negotiate the traffic circle. They’re also concerned about homelessness, break-ins of their workers’ vehicles. [Editor’s note: According to the Arlington Times, Dantrawl and other companies also received substantial tax incentives to relocate to Marysville].
This was first time I took a pause on this issue and thought, wow. There are effects and impacts that I needed to explore. I talked with a lot of these folks with the maritime industry about the billions of dollars that come through that area from fishing, and how many fisherman are supporting our economy by having the ability to work on this piece of land abutting a waterway that that is not movable. I want a diverse economy in Seattle. I’m from Butte, Montana originally. I come from four generations of miners, and I value working class jobs, and I value a diverse economy. I want Seattle to have people working in the fishing and the industrial community. And if there’s even a concern that their businesses would be compromised, I think that’s something that the city needs to pay attention to.
So that’s what got me thinking about a win-win solution of an elevated trail. Folks in the bicycle community have accused me of delaying, and I thought, wow, this idea, that is Russell Bennett’s idea, is not delaying. It’s been delayed by the courts for decades. I’m trying to propose a solution that might actually get us to the place where people are safe cycling above Shilshole and we might actually be able to move forward.