EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of six profiles of 2017 mayoral candidates we will be publishing before the Stranger Election Control Board announces its endorsements.
Jessyn Farrell came into the world with a hole in her heart the size of a quarter.
Growing up in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood, Farrell's heart condition prevented her from running and skipping with kids her age. At age 7, doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital performed a rare surgery, funded by the hospital's foundation because her parents couldn't afford the procedure otherwise.
"I spent a lot of time literally being left behind," Farrell, a 43-year-old former legislator, tells a crowd of supporters as she kicks off her campaign for mayor at Yesler Community Center. On a Sunday afternoon, sun pours through the windows onto a crowd studded with local Democratic elected officials and the sound of fussy children.
"This story is really about a statement of what it means to be a progressive," Farrell says. "There are people who are literally falling behind in our community right now... We have to come together and help those people out." The city needs "bold solutions" to affordable housing and homelessness, education inequities, and the opioid epidemic. "Most importantly," she says, "we need to infuse a sense of urgency."
Farrell's allies in Olympia describe the three-term state representative and former transit activist as pragmatic, determined, and capable of wielding her political leverage when it counts. (Farrell resigned her legislative seat to run for mayor.) State representatives Noel Frame and Nicole Macri, both young Democrats from Seattle, call her a mentor.
"She is incredibly smart and beyond an amazing strategist," says Macri, who previously worked at the Downtown Emergency Service Center and backs Farrell's positions on housing and homelessness.
"So often," Macri says, "when talking to her, she's uttered the phrase 'Nicole, we have to go really big on this.'"
Back in 2015, a detail in a long-negotiated transportation package tested Farrell's political calculus. In order to offset a sales tax break for highway projects, legislators planned to take $500 million from the tax dollars raised to pay for the light-rail measure Sound Transit 3. The effect: Puget Sound taxpayers would have forked over an extra $500 million and that money would have gone into the general fund, where it could be spent across the state. Farrell, determined to keep the extra dollars in Puget Sound, set about stopping the broad disbursement. And if negotiators didn't accept her deal, she threatened to introduce an amendment to send the whole package to a statewide public vote. Other legislators conceded, and the big chunk of dollars will flow back to Puget Sound for educational programs, including support for homeless students. In Farrell's campaign for mayor, the transit dollars mark a cornerstone of her plan to address homelessness in Seattle.
Derek Stanford, a Democratic state representative from Bothell, says Farrell's push took more political will than it sounds. At the time, after a lengthy negotiation with Republicans, most Democrats just wanted to pass the package
"The whole system is set up to put pressure on you" to support bills backed by party leadership, Stanford says. "You have to be really sure of yourself, really convinced this is a battle worth fighting."
Farrell's supporters link her tenacity to a sense of optimism. Farrell's dad, Tony Staulcup, says his daughter showed those dual traits since childhood. The family often discussed politics, particularly environmental issues, as she grew up in the 1970s and '80s. By middle school, he says, Farrell was "very outspoken." He notes, "She was very quick to counter negative opinions and negative thinking."
In 2015, Farrell became the lead house sponsor of state Democrats' bill to raise the minimum wage to $12 (Republicans stalled the bill). One of few mothers of young children in the legislature, she sponsored a bill to increase pregnant workers' protections. This year, she sponsored a bill banning the use of cell phones while driving. Farrell has also signed on to a plan to redirect Boeing's tax breaks if the company reduces the number of people it employs in Washington. Frame, the bill's prime sponsor, credits Farrell for "fighting at the leadership table" to get that bill a hearing. (The legislation didn't make it any further.)
"It's not her 10th year in the legislature, and she's doing this stuff," Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib tells the crowd at Farrell's campaign kickoff. "Don't forget that."
The fight for more density in Seattle forms the core of Farrell's platform for mayor.
"We need to go bigger and bolder and faster," Farrell told me on the day she announced her campaign, referring to Mayor Ed Murray's current housing affordability and density plans. Along with urban planner Cary Moon, that commitment makes Farrell stand out. Even former mayor Mike McGinn, who rode into office on a swell of pro-urbanist sentiment, has taken a more cautious tack on this issue this go-around.
But Farrell has sat opposite environmentalists and urbanists before. Back in 2007, as executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, Farrell backed a regional ballot measure known as "Roads and Transit" to build 50 miles of transit and 186 miles of roads. Other environmentalists like McGinn and now-Council Member Mike O'Brien, both at the Sierra Club, argued building roads was antithetical to the benefits of building more transit.
A similar split in the environmental community emerged last year. Farrell endorsed and campaigned for Initiative 732, a statewide carbon tax. But the tax lost support from some in the environmental community, including the local chapter of the Sierra Club, due to concerns that it did not sufficiently address the needs of communities of color and because of the tax breaks it offered to companies like Boeing.
It's a truth any candidate who's tried to make the jump from state politics to Seattle City Hall knows well: What's radically progressive in Olympia doesn't necessarily earn the same level of cred in Seattle.
This year, Farrell voted for a bill to bring Washington into compliance with federal REAL ID laws. The bill would require the state to mark driver's licenses and ID cards with residency status. Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and another Seattle legislator, Rebecca Saldaña, raised concerns about that proposal. Farrell says the bill was federally mandated and the state mitigated its potential harm by specifying that IDs cannot be used as evidence of immigration violations.
She even disappointed some in the transit advocacy community when she supported a bill that would lower the amount of money Sound Transit gets from car-tab taxes to fund light rail. Farrell said the bill was a necessary compromise after taxpayers cried foul over car-tab taxes. Advocates denounced the $2 billion the legislation would cost Sound Transit.
Shefali Ranganathan, director of Transportation Choices Coalition, opposed that vote and calls it "disappointing." Yet the political arm of her organization, Transportation for Washington, endorsed Farrell anyway.
"There are things we disagree with," says Ranganathan, speaking on behalf of the political group, "but when it came down to values, I think she would stand up for transit and be a really good mayor for transportation."
Other decisions from Farrell show a less idealistic side of her political savvy. She announced her candidacy for mayor among a flurry of hopefuls jumping into the race after multiple sexual-assault allegations against Mayor Murray hurt his chances at reelection before ultimately ending his campaign. On June 14, when one of Murray's accusers dropped a child sex abuse lawsuit, Farrell issued a statement sympathetic to the mayor, saying, "As a city, we must reject the politics of personal destruction."
The news of the dropped lawsuit followed weeks of criticism against Murray for the way he characterized his accusers and did not change the course of two other abuse allegations against Murray that were not involved in the lawsuit. (Farrell's political consultant, Christian Sinderman, previously worked for Murray.)
To address Seattle's affordable housing and homelessness crises, Farrell argues the city needs to get comfortable talking about money—a lot of money.
"When it comes to transportation, we're not shy about talking about billions of dollars," she says. "We just passed a $54 billion regional transit package. And I think that we need to get used to talking about bigger numbers when we talk about the affordability side."
Farrell says the region should pursue $1 billion in affordable-housing funding by making city-owned surplus land available for public housing and by bonding against the $500 million coming from the transit taxes beginning in 2020. She says the city should offer more rental vouchers to people facing displacement and create a plan to increase density without "letting any neighborhood off the hook." (Her husband, Tim Farrell, works at a real-estate investment firm and is a small-time landlord and developer, but she says his projects are mostly outside Seattle.)
"One of the reasons I think we need an affordability plan across the entire city is to undo housing policy that was very overtly racist," Farrell says.
She supports a city income tax as a legal test case and charging developers impact fees to fund schools. Farrell also hopes to create a program to provide childcare for all children younger than 5 by 2020, funded using part of the $500 million in Sound Transit money, local levies, or an insurance-like program in which employers and the city split the cost.
For Farrell, childcare is driven by her own experience as a parent and the city's affordability crisis, as both parents and workers who care for children struggle to afford to live in Seattle.
"I'm a battle-tested politician," Farrell says. "I'm willing to make tough decisions on some of those really tricky issues around affordability that I think are some of the defining issues of our city right now."