This year's races for city council have been very quiet—surprisingly so, considering that 101 candidates lined up to fill the open seat vacated by Jim Compton in 2005. With another seat coming open, the one currently occupied by Peter Steinbrueck, who recently announced he would step down after his term ends this year, many observers anticipated a rush that would include many of the 2006 contenders.
Nope. Just two candidates have lined up so far to fill Steinbrueck's shoes: public-affairs consultant Venus Velazquez (who was among the frontrunners for Compton's seat) and attorney Bruce Harrell. The race for the open seat doesn't have any clear favorite yet, and it's likely that at least one more viable candidate will jump into the race. (It's also possible that either candidate will switch seats, or that one will drop out, although both adamantly insist they're staying put.) The first candidate to enter the race, Venus Velazquez, is a public-affairs consultant best known as a finalist for the open seat vacated by Jim Compton in 2005 and as the high-profile spokeswoman for CASA Latina in 2005.
A native of New York who came to Seattle via St. Louis in 1991, Velazquez worked on neighborhood planning for the city in the late 1990s, shepherding the contentious West Seattle and Admiral neighborhood plans through the planning process. She now runs a small public-affairs firm. In 2005, her firm took on CASA Latina as a client at a time when Rainier Valley residents were accusing the organization of trying to "sneak" its day-labor facility into the Chubby & Tubby site on Rainier Avenue. The negotiations, a racial and class minefield, ended with CASA backing away from the deal. Although detractors criticized Velazquez at the time and subsequently for behaving "divisively" during the negotiations, proponents like Steinbrueck (who supported her for the open seat in 2006) say she did a good job dealing with a thorny issue. "You can't achieve meaningful things without making some people unhappy," Steinbrueck says.
Velazquez acknowledges that her way of communicating is different from the typical, passive-aggressive Seattle style. (In fact, it's reminiscent of New Jersey native and former City Council Member Judy Nicastro, though more thoughtful and less brash). "When I sit in a room with 300 people and they're calling Mexicans 'trash,' I'm going to tell them that's not an acceptable way to talk about a project you don't want in your neighborhood," Velazquez says. "My style is direct and definitely forceful. But everywhere I go, I get things done."
On the council, Velazquez says she wants to focus on issues that matter to people like her—a working mother of two who sends her kids to public schools. Specifically, her goals include improving public education, possibly by changing the way the school district is governed. She also wants to focus city investment in working-class neighborhoods like South Park, which has "been neglected in terms of city investment because it's poor and way on the south side of town." She's "pro-density in the urban core," but seems most excited about developing housing that's affordable to lower-middle-class people, who are poorly served by existing housing programs. And she wants to develop a surface/transit viaduct option that includes rapid transit—"not just mass transit"—and doesn't displace the working waterfront. "We've got to get people like me on transit," she says.
In contrast to Velazquez, Bruce Harrell is soft-spoken, reflective, and chooses his words slowly and carefully. A former Garfield and UW football star, he has lived all his 48 years in Seattle, including college and law school at UW. His mother is Japanese American; his father, who died three years ago, was African American; both were city employees throughout their careers. Harrell has represented several high-profile clients, including US West (now Qwest); the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, set up by Sound Transit to compensate Rainier Valley businesses impacted or displaced by light rail; and employees at the Boeing Co., where he won a $15 million settlement in a racial-discrimination case that was later overturned because the judge ruled the payment to Harrell's firm too high.
Harrell, a self-proclaimed "political neophyte" (he's given money to a few candidates, including Margaret Pageler, Mark Sidran, and Richard McIver, but has never run for office) says his experience representing small and large businesses gives him a unique ability to negotiate and understand complex financial and budget issues. "A lot of my clients struggle with payroll revenue, and they can't just tax people to solve their problems," Harrell says. "I know how to think very strategically about... the concerns the business community would have." At the same time, he says, he would "emphasize collaboration" with his political opponents on the council. "Most inexperienced negotiators and city council persons spend too much time simply advocating their position and not enough time establishing what the other position is."
Harrell is not as specific as Velazquez when asked about policy matters, but he does say he would prioritize improving school oversight by making sure school-board members have "a certain skill set," including finance, strategic planning, labor management, and curriculum. (Harrell's own children, who he declined to discuss, go to private school.) He also said that while he, like the mayor and Steinbrueck, supports more police officers, "As long as I can recall we've never had enough money" for cops. "The question is, how do we do more with less?... I would like to have a meeting with [Police Chief] Gil Kerlikowske and Fire Chief Gregory Dean to discuss how we might be able to [consolidate] some of their cross-functions and overlapping roles to deal with the issue of public safety." Harrell also thinks cops spend too much time waiting to testify in court when they could be on the street.
Harrell's endorsement list is largely a who's who of the local Asian and African-American communities, including McIver, David Della, state Rep. Dawn Mason, consultant George Griffin, Port Commissioner Lloyd Hara, and others. Velazquez's, meanwhile, includes many local Latino leaders, like community activist Juan Bocanegra, Minority Executive Directors Coalition head Dorry Elias-Garcia, United Way VP Jaime Garcia, and city neighborhoods department director Yvonne Sanchez. Richard Conlin has also endorsed her, and Steinbrueck, a "fan," is weighing it. Velazquez is slightly ahead of Harrell in fundraising, with $27,365 to Harrell's $19,885; however, Harrell's number doesn't include any money raised in March.