Shaun Scott is an activist, journalist, filmmaker, and Democratic Socialist running to represent City Council District 4, the district I live in. I met with him at a Pioneer Square coffee shop. I was several minutes late because of the never-dependable 65 bus line that runs along 35th Avenue. That street is an incredibly divisive issue in the district right now. Scott is well-aware of it. My tardiness jumpstarted that conversation.
Graham: So, 35th?
Scott: 35th is funny because it’s kind of like an economic fault line. The Seattle Times did this great study across the districts in 2015, including District 4, that showed where the composition of the district started to change. 35th begins the demarcation of a district of renters, people with low-income, more people of color that exist in the rest of the district, to an area dominated a lot by single-family homeowners. The district becomes whiter, grayer, and richer to the extent that you travel 35th. It’s a real fault line in a sense that those of us who want to push the city forward run up against the anti-bike lane and anti-renovation crowd, who are people who have been historically catered to in politics. The amplification there, in a lot of ways, is very very outsized, there are a lot of folks who think that street redesign is helpful.
What do you think about the city hiring a mediator for that issue?
It seems to me that the outreach process for many city projects of various kinds has not necessarily been the way certain groups would like it to be. It doesn’t land well for me because there are a number of housing issues that people have in the University District. When I was a journalist for City Arts magazine I wrote a story about the American Campus Communities (ACC). They’re a sort of large real-estate conglomerate that has been forcefully entering buildings of student tenants and developments in the University District with the prospect of eventually renovating those for dorm-style housing.
They’re targeting mostly international students to the point where there’s a tenant’s rights association that has formed in one of the ACC buildings. I think about all that to juxtapose that in hiring a mediator. There was no mediator present for what’s going on with ACC. Rob Johnson has been reached out to repeatedly. I think about the disparity in who tends to get attention, who the political process tends to work for, the fact that renters in particular have not really seen the same amount of amplification. I think it’s ultimately an equity issue.
Do you think Rob Johnson has been effective in the role?
I have to give Rob a lot of credit for pushing the conversation on zoning. That’s credit where credit is due about what he was able to accomplish, not necessarily policy-wise but from an intellectual standpoint. There are a number of issues I don’t think he’s necessarily taken as much of a leadership role in. In specific, the murder of Charleena Lyles happened in his district.
A week after the election cycle ended in 2017 we had seen the Seattle Police Department declare that there was officially no wrongdoing that had happened. Here you have a pregnant mother at home with her kids, mentally unwell, cops had visited her before, that situation should not end in a murder and it should not end in a police department essentially investigating itself. We eventually got Rob to release a statement where he did end up saying black lives matter. That meant a lot to hear, but you can understand where we shouldn’t have council members that have to be pressured into saying that black lives matter. That should be in the forefront of a council member’s mind.
Also with the situation with Tenant’s Rights at ACC, there was a lapse. As much as Rob says he’s a champion of affordable housing as he’s been on paper, we didn’t see that leadership follow up in these conversations. I think about his no votes on the head tax and on [hiring six] eviction lawyers.
Those no votes speak to a discrepancy—not with Rob individually, I don’t want to just sit here and dunk on Rob—between where the words and the branding have been and where the leadership has been are things we need to be aware of. We need to make sure we don’t get someone else who reinforces that divide.
Are you confident you can follow through with your vision in this district that—if you compare the U District to, say, Sand Point—is wildly diverse demographically and economically? How do you feel going into this knowing there’s going to be pushback from some of your constituents?
As a council member, I realize I will have to govern on behalf of everybody who lives in the district and the city as a whole. I understand, for example, that childcare is a huge issue that impacts a lot of people in the eastern part of the district. The neighborhood outreach projects around improvement projects is something else we need to get really right and something I have experience with.
That said, there is a very large part of the district that is not used to having visible council leadership. I’m interested in talking about the things that are going to make them want to get involved so we have a city that’s actually representing where young people are at, what our anxieties are, where comparatively less well-off poor people are at, what’s going to make it so we can see ourselves actually reflected in government.
Does harassment worry you at all?
It’s not really something I feel fearful of. Observing Nikkita Oliver’s campaign last year gave me the sense that if you’re a candidate for local office, especially if you’re a candidate of color, there’s a certain level of vitriol you’re going to be exposed to that even Rob Johnson would think seems kind of drastic. I understand as a workplace organizer, politics are hard. We’ve had some really contentious debates internally at the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America that have prepared me for—even among your own constituency there are going to be people who don’t like where you stand on a certain topic. You’re going to have to depersonalize. Politics are a contact sport. I know that part of it is going to be difficult, but I say bring it on because that’s one of the reasons you know you’ve…
When there’s pushback you know you’ve hit a nerve?
Yeah, exactly. But not hitting a nerve for the sake of hitting it, but doing it to actually advance something that hasn’t be advanced before.
How do you think the composition of the city council will change if you’re elected? Do you think you’ll be able to work cohesively together with everybody?
Absolutely. But, politics are ultimately a competition. It’s a contest for who can articulate their vision most lucidly and who can get the most people on board. The vision that Chamber-of-Commerce-backed candidates have for the city is not a vision I share. In broad outlines, everybody agrees on education being important and ending homelessness—that’s not even up for dispute. What’s up for dispute is the means we’re going to take toward addressing those concerns.
How do you feel about Kshama Sawant?
I love her as a council member. People have to realize what, as a candidate, she’s been up against. The kind of resiliency it takes to be a woman of color advocating for the causes she does is something that’s really gone uncelebrated. In part, this is because she represents a very combative and unflinching approach to politics that says we have to be able to push for the things we need because we know that the political machine and the establishment without, in the words of Frederick Douglas, a fight— “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I think that’s a principle we’ve seen played out in her tenure as a council member.
Do you think zoning is going to be a big issue in District 4 in the coming term?
I hope it is because I hope that I’m able to help young people and renters and the less well-off residents of District 4. We look at something like climate change and we think to ourselves that there’s nothing we can do. Zoning and land use decisions we make locally are one the most impactful arenas we have to address climate change.
When so much of the city’s land mass is devoted to very sparse housing arrangements where there’s low density, that’s less room for affordable dense housing. Essentially, Seattle has a zoning configuration where multi-family housing is illegal in over half of, and up to two-thirds, of the city’s surface area. It creates a condition where the housing that we need can go up in fewer and fewer places. Those places are dominated by private interests who see housing as a commodity and not as a public good. People are going to get priced out and live further from where they work, and they spend more time in their automobiles. There’s a pretty clear link in our land use decisions and what we can do regionally to combat climate change.
With light rail coming in three years now, have you considered how small immigrant businesses, like those on the Ave, will be impacted?
So, this is a history we’ve seen play itself out over and over again, where progressive gains for the broader city have a negative impact on people of color and immigrants. There have been studies done that showed that there was a racially disparate impact on light rail’s opening in the South End. Isn’t it funny that light rail in historically white neighborhood travels underground, whereas light rail in communities of color is street level? It’s coded into how these decisions are made. We have the benefit of hindsight with these two stations opening up in my district.
In the past, Mayor Nickels established a system whereby many of the businesses put out or impacted received financial support from the city. I’m not somebody who’s a fan of corporate welfare. The small business decision is separate to me. I think about the Ugly Mug, for instance, near the new Brooklyn station. There has to be something in place to compensate these businesses. There’s a race and equity toolkit that the city has that I think should be expanded. If we’re not doing this from an equity perspective, we’re going to screw it up.
What policy points are you excited about?
In particular, what it would look like if we could get voting rights for international students and immigrants to participate in local elections. Just looking at the turnout question, at the demographics in my own district, there are a ton of international students who don't feel connected to their city.
You say you're not taking corporate money or PAC money, what do you think about that in our local elections?
Yeah, if you look at I-1631 failing, we had some pretty big guns supporting it. How it was combatted is really the story of how progressive gains have been combatted for 40 years. BP and other huge corporations were able to spend a lot of money and turn a lot of people against the carbon fee.
It played out that way because when you have interests that represent capital having that big of a sway over policies in front of us, we're going to have restricted outcomes. They're not going to be looking out for what effects all of us, they're going to be looking out for their bottom line. We're not talking about any individual initiative, we're talking about the interests behind it. I tried to issue a challenge to other candidates jumping in that I hope we can be honest about the corrosive effect money in politics have to the point where you think twice about the statement you're making being backed by Chamber of Commerce money.