This morning, veteran and Meta lawyer Rob Saka announced his campaign to fill the empty council seat in District 1, which includes West Seattle, South Park, and Georgetown. He wants to “prioritize public safety, act on homelessness, and build a ton of affordable housing.” But in an interview with The Stranger, he offered little in the way of specifics.
Saka grew up in the foster care system in Minnesota before his father, a Nigerian immigrant, “rescued” him from those circumstances at nine years old. He said he went to 13 schools throughout K-12, including Kent-Meridian High School.
After high school he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served for 10 years as an intelligence officer. He attended the University of Washington and went to law school at Hastings Law School in California. In 2012, he moved back to Seattle, settling in the Delridge neighborhood with his wife and three kids. He made use of that law degree representing tech giants Microsoft and Meta. Now he’s ready to represent District 1 in his dashiki to honor his West African ancestors.
Public Safety Ouroboros
Saka said police reform ranked as one of his top priorities as a Black man who had a “negative interaction” with police during an arrest.
“My lived experience teaches me that I will relentlessly pursue [police reform] with dogged passion and courage like my life depends on it. Like my kids' lives depend on it. Because you know what? They do,” he said.
He’s done some reform work as a member of the county's charter review commission, where he said he authored a 2020 amendment to allow the Executive to appoint the Sheriff and supported a measure to give more rights to families during the inquest process. As part of the Seattle Police Chief search committee, he helped in the decision to retain Adrian Diaz in that role.
If elected, Saka wants to drive down police response times, which currently sit at around 7 minutes for the highest priority calls, according to the latest report from the cops.
To lower that time even further, he said the city needs “the right number and the right kind of officer.” What’s the “right number?” The “right number” is whichever number brings down response times, he told me. After I balked at his circular reasoning, he said he’d ask “the community” for the right number. But he also said that communities don’t care about the specific number of police officers at SPD, they only care about bringing down response times, and at that point I stepped off the merry-go-round.
As for “the right kind” of officer, Saka said he wants to hire cops from within the communities they serve. His plan to do so during a national cop shortage is to “work collaboratively with a diverse coalition.”
He also stressed the importance of investing in first responders who don’t have a gun and badge, but he did not offer a proposal for how the City could invest in and bring to scale unarmed alternatives with existing funds, arguing that it was “irresponsible” for him as a candidate to “pick and choose” which programs and departments he'd like to fund.
He did not offer a proposal for a tax to pay for such efforts, either, saying he looks forward to seeing what the Progressive Revenue Stabilization Task Force comes up with.
That task force, which many candidates reference when they don’t want to talk about how they would fund their ideas, will present its findings to the City Council in quarter two of this year. Despite his purported anticipation for that info, it won’t form the sole basis of his decision. He’ll only do whatever D1 constituents tell him to do, he said.
Passing the Buck on Housing
Speaking of progressive revenue, Saka wants to invest in affordable housing, but, again, details remain thin.
He would not commit to increasing the JumpStart payroll tax, which helps the City fund affordable housing, but he's sure his plan would not require the City to generate more tax revenue.
He said the housing crisis is not just a Seattle problem, and so he wants to get the State Legislature to chip in more for affordable housing. When asked what the state could do in that regard, he told me to talk to state lawmakers about that. “All I know is this is not our burden to bear solely,” he said. When asked how he would make the state pay for housing in Seattle, he said he would work with them. “We’re not going to make anyone do anything,” he added.
As of the Friday before the election, he remained undecided about how he'd vote on Initiative 135, a proposal to bring social housing to Seattle. He said the term “social housing” is “terrific” branding, but he has “valid concerns” about where the City will get the money to pay for it, since the measure does not explicitly identify a funding source.
As for creating space where that housing could go, Saka said he wants to “responsibly” reform exclusionary single-family zoning and add density “where it makes sense.” He said he’s worried ending single-family zoning altogether would further gentrify and displace communities of color. He would combat displacement by funding relocation assistance, rent assistance, and giving the “right of first return” to renters displaced by new construction.
Luckily for him, many of these programs are already in place. In 2019, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order authorizing the community preference policy, which is designed to help people stay in communities at “high risk” of displacement due to the construction of city-funded affordable housing buildings. Landlords love rent assistance because it just means taxpayers paying rents, which makes it politically expedient, but most of that money is already coming from the state and the feds anyway. And Seattle has a couple of relocation assistance programs; one for those displaced by construction or a change of use, and another for low-income tenants facing economic evictions, though both could be beefed up.
But, again, Saka said the City should not have to pay for anti-displacement strategies on its own, and that the state should help out.
A Bruce Recruit?
Saka will compete for the seat against Veterans Administration clinician Preston Anderson, small-business owner (and cool-website-haver) AnnaLisa Lafayette, and Amazon fighter Maren Costa.
As candidates continue to develop their platforms and say goofy shit to reporters, we’ll get a better idea of which lane each one occupies. So far, Saka’s a mixed bag. He voted for business-backed Bruce Harrell in the 2021 mayoral election, but he's also earned an endorsement from progressive King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay, with whom he shares a consultant.
Speaking of Harrell: several sources said the Mayor scouted Saka as one of the candidates he wanted to challenge council incumbents back when Jason Rantz reported on leaked audio of Harrell gossiping with cops on roll calls.
“I don't know anything about that," Saka said. "Rumor, gossip mill, like who knows. I'm not here to speculate. I'm here to take this shot for the residents, the people of District 1.”