Urban League President Pamela Banks is running against Kshama Sawant for the new city council district covering Capitol Hill and the Central District.
Urban League President Pamela Banks is running against Kshama Sawant for the new city council district covering Capitol Hill and the Central District. Courtesy of Pamela Banks

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She’s been publicly toying with the idea for a few weeks now, but today she made it official. Pamela Banks, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, will take on City Council Member Kshama Sawant in the newly created District 3, representing Capitol Hill and the Central District.

“I’ve learned over my career that you solve more problems with a telephone than a megaphone,” Banks says in an announcement. “I have stood with union members demanding fair wages, worked with community and faith leaders on racial and social justice measures, and organized with neighborhood leaders for police response and accountability. I won’t be making rebuttals to the State of the Union. I’ll be working for the families of District 3.”

Zing!

Banks spent 30 years at the city, most recently as a program manager in the city’s Department of Neighborhoods until she was hired for the Urban League job in 2012. Her role at the organization has been defined by overcoming past scandals and serious financial challenges. But she's been generally praised for turning things around, and the group has refocused on housing and education programs.

In the wake of grand juries’ non-indictments last year of police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York, Banks wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times about addressing racial inequities through education.

“Children born today in Washington can expect to see the level playing field promised in Brown [v. Board of Education] by 2056 — more than 100 years after the case was decided,” she wrote. “That is unacceptable. We are not a nation that affords equal opportunity to succeed and equal protection under the law. That simple fact should inspire us to devote even greater energies to creating a better future for all of our children.”

We’ve been hearing rumors for a while that Mayor Ed Murray was actively looking for someone to run against Sawant, whose popularity and organizing skills will be hard to beat. But Murray’s people maintain that he’s not recruiting and Banks told Seattle Weekly no one from Murray’s office approached her. Even if she wasn’t hand-picked by Murray, Banks will be a serious challenge to Sawant, who's taken some high-profile stances against Murray, like voting against the confirmation of Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole.

Banks joins two other challengers who've called Sawant divisive (that was Rod Hearne) and too focused on a "socialist revolution" (that was Morgan Beach). It appears Banks' attack will be Sawant's inaccessibility, which Banks recently told the Seattle Times she herself had experienced trying to get a meeting with Sawant.

"Banks was approached by many community leaders and neighborhood residents to run for District 3," reads her announcement. "Many recounted difficulties in gaining access to Sawant. This mirrored Banks’ own experience as she unsuccessfully sought to meet with Sawant to discuss a city program to help African American and other men of color find livable wage jobs."

We feel you. Sawant’s office can be impossible to reach. But that won't be enough to pin a whole campaign on. I've called Banks three times, including once more than a week ago, and haven't heard back.

UPDATE: Well, Banks just returned my calls, and she is really focused on Sawant’s inaccessibility.

“I don’t think we differ much in our values,” she says about Sawant. “The biggest difference is how you get things done.”

Banks says she’ll focus her campaign on income inequality and housing affordability, and she’s especially worried about gentrification in the Central District, where she’s lived for almost 20 years. But she’s still hesitant to share specifics and wouldn’t take a position on linkage fees or rent control. (She also said she doesn’t have a position on whether we should continue with the troubled downtown tunnel project, but that she wants to help make sure the city isn’t on the hook for cost overruns.)

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Income inequality and housing affordability are not, needless to say, issues that are going to distinguish her from Sawant, who helped push for last year’s minimum wage increase, wants to lobby the state to allow the city to institute rent control, and has floated a plan to build affordable housing on surplus city land.

But Banks thinks Sawant’s style will be enough to distinguish them.

“Her highs are as high as her lows,” Banks says. “She has the highest name recognition on council, I believe. But if you’re not accessible and not accountable and not in the community, that doesn’t matter because this is a district election. You better know your district and be in your district.”

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