EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth of six profiles of 2017 mayoral candidates we will be publishing before the Stranger Election Control Board announces its endorsements.
"Do you mind if I vape while we talk?" asks the Washington State senator as he sits down for an interview.
He takes a long drag from his palm-sized tobacco vaporizer. When he exhales, the air smells cloyingly of artificial banana bread.
Bob Hasegawa is wearing a faded Seattle Mariners T-shirt and shorts. His dining-room table is mostly covered with scattered papers and open binders. His campaign manager sits beside me writing e-mails and darting out of the room to answer phone calls.
"In the legislature, I'm realizing I'm just one of 147 legislators to make policy," Hasegawa says of his decision to enter the Seattle mayor's race just six months after being reelected to the state senate. "It gets frustrating sometimes trying to, at the same time, be the voice for communities of color, for working families, and labor and environmental issues—all those things I've been fighting for all these years."
Hasegawa, a Democrat, has represented South Seattle, Tukwila, Renton, and Kent—among the most racially diverse cities in the state—in Olympia for nearly two decades. First elected to the Washington State House of Representatives in 2005, Hasegawa eventually convinced voters to put him in the state senate in 2013.
As a state senator, Hasegawa pushed for progressive policies, successfully getting fellow legislators onboard to add racial-impact statements to proposed bills and advocating for a capital gains tax while opposing massive tax breaks for Boeing. He also served as a begrudging light rail expansion supporter, earning the ire of some pro-transit wings that criticized him for pushing a false narrative that Sound Transit misrepresented the cost of the project.
"To try to make change in there has been frustrating," he says after exhaling another plume of vapor. "It's been mostly a defensive game in the legislature. I think, as city mayor, it would be less about defense and more about actually trying to implement a vision for Seattle."
But that vision is unfocused—and it wasn't just the miasma of sweet smoke filling the room.
As Seattle mayor, Hasegawa wants to create a municipal bank to help fund city projects to address current crises, including homelessness and housing affordability. Establishing a publicly owned bank has been Hasegawa's pet issue for years. In 2011, Hasegawa, then a state representative, submitted a house proposal to create a state-owned bank to fund projects across Washington. (The bill, possibly the least sexy issue in Olympia, died for the fifth consecutive legislative session this year.)
Now Hasegawa is bringing his wonky proposal to Seattle, convinced a municipal bank could "make money for the taxpayers" and "vastly increase our financing capacity" for Seattle projects. He views a city bank as a panacea of sorts for all of our economic woes. Expanded financing, coupled with rent control, Hasegawa said, could help build public housing units for low-income and formerly homeless people and help "invest back into local communities."
Additionally, funds could be used to provide renters with short-term bridge loans to pay rent when they are at risk of eviction. While landlords have "a legitimate need to collect the rent they're owed," city officials must "try to keep people in their homes" to prevent them from slipping into homelessness, he says.
"People forget we're one of the wealthiest cities in one of wealthiest countries in the world," Hasegawa says. "There's no reason for us to have this livability inequity in our city... We have to recapture wealth to rebuild the system for everyone."
Before diving into politics, Hasegawa represented truck drivers during his time as secretary-treasurer of the Pacific Northwest's Teamsters 174. Hasegawa empathizes with struggling working-class families in which "everyone under the roof [is] scrambling to try to make ends meet... so they don't get kicked out of their house," he says.
Hasegawa, like many lifelong Seattleites, is nostalgic for a mythical "old Seattle." But it seems the senator isn't entirely familiar with some of the biggest issues our city faces today.
Asked about his stance on the $210 million plan to rebuild the King County Youth Detention Center, Hasegawa said he needed "to learn more about it, hear what the community feels about it." Opposition to the detention center, which King County voters approved for reconstruction in 2012, inspired the vocal #NoNewYouthJail movement, which led several protests in the last year. When asked in June about his stance on the detention center, Hasegawa said he "didn't really have a chance to follow up."
"I don't know the specifics of the plan, but I'm not a fan of incarcerating kids," he said. (Hasegawa added that detention should be used only for kids who have committed "serious" crimes and that "crimes of survival" such as shoplifting should not be jailable offenses.)
During a mayoral candidate panel on June 14, Hasegawa also floundered when asked for his position on rapid rehousing, which would provide formerly homeless people with rental assistance vouchers. Rather than addressing the question, Hasegawa rambled about the need for a state bank without addressing the program.
The following week, when
The Stranger asked again about his thoughts on rapid rehousing, Hasegawa said city officials should focus on building public housing after engaging neighborhood residents who live near the public housing units. To simply "parachute" programs into communities, particularly those that are underrepresented, "is kind of indicative of the problem with the government right now. It's all top-down [governance]," Hasegawa said.
"We need to be able to provide immediate shelter for everybody who needs it," he said. "Just focusing on the transitional, immediate needs, it's like putting a Band-Aid on the gouge, on the underlying problem. Once that runs out, what happens?"
At a time when the Washington State Senate is essentially split between Democrats and Republicans, should Hasegawa, a strong advocate for progressive issues, really leave the statehouse to lead "progressive" Seattle?
"They don't want to lose me in the state senate," said Hasegawa, who prides himself on his ability to reach across the aisle to create bipartisan legislation. "It's flattering, but I really do think I can use my organizing skills and administrative skills to much greater [effect] by leading Seattle in a new direction. We can be a shining example to the rest of the state."
State representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, whose district also includes parts of Seattle, said Hasegawa's aim to "put the lens of social and economic justice" on legislation is valuable in the midst of the latest wave of gentrification sweeping Seattle.
"He is a champion of issues involving income inequality [and] pertaining to people who are marginalized or disenfranchised, particularly within communities of color," Santos said. "He's such a strong believer in moving things from the grassroots up. Bob's vision is really to turn back to empowering individuals in their neighborhoods to make decisions for themselves."
Hasegawa began working double duty after announcing his candidacy in May, moving back and forth between Seattle and Olympia where the senate is in special session. Because he is a sitting state legislator, Hasegawa cannot receive donations for his current campaign. Instead, the mayoral hopeful spends his off-hours schmoozing at events.
On June 17, the senator is about two hours too early for Block Party at the Station, a neighborhood hiphop and arts festival. With a coffee in hand, Hasegawa introduces himself to other early risers who are setting up for the afternoon's events: community organizers, business owners, artists, and two high-school debate team members who request a selfie.
After dodging a pair of burly roadies setting up the stage, Hasegawa talks at length about housing affordability with an arts community organizer. He later takes a few minutes to compliment a group of farmers from Carnation on their pots of healthy tomato plants.
Two of the mayoral hopeful's campaign aides and I watch amused from a few booths away. One of them laughs about the difficulties of going to events with Hasegawa. "He wants to talk to everyone," the other says. "And he's genuinely interested. He could talk all day."