You can't get much further from the typical candidate for Seattle City Council than Dorsol Plants. He's 24 years old. He lives in a rented room in a house in West Seattle's scrappy Highland Park neighborhood. He doesn't own a car. Back when he was working full-time at a Seattle homeless shelter, before daily campaigning required him to scale back his hours, he was on track to earn just $20,000 this year. When asked about his leadership experience, he points to his two tours with the army in Iraq, service he signed up for after September 11, 2001, in order to do what his parents repeatedly told him while he was growing up in West Virginia: "Give as much back as you can."
Plants shipped off for Iraq as an enthusiastic supporter of the war, but the experience changed him. "To be honest," he said, "I was really young. And to believe that our commander had lied to us—as naive as it sounds—it was just something that I couldn't fathom." But after participating in a cavalry charge to Baghdad, then policing the chaotic city, and all the while watching as the rationale for the war unraveled and veterans back home complained about being abandoned by the Bush administration, Plants began to fathom just how big a mistake he'd supported. He took an honorable discharge in 2007 and moved to Seattle, having visited during breaks from his military service.
"It wasn't like New York or Chicago," he said. "I could actually see trees." He remembers getting into a spirited political debate with a stranger in front of the downtown library. He couldn't believe that the man not only wanted to drop everything and debate, but also seemed to enjoy the exchange of views as much as he did. "I've been in love with Seattle ever since," he said.
Plants quickly got involved in the Highland Park Action Committee, eventually becoming chair of the group and fighting to keep the city from building a jail in the neighborhood. He became a huge Barack Obama fan, served as his neighborhood's precinct committee officer during the 2008 primary, and tried (unsuccessfully) to become a delegate to the state nominating convention. Then, frustrated by his feeling that the best interests of neighborhoods like Highland Park were being ignored, he decided to run for city council.
Now, Plants is in a tough race for the seat being vacated by Jan Drago, a well-known and well-connected Seattle politician from exactly the mold that Dorsol is trying to break. His opponents, too, are familiar Seattle political types: David Bloom, the aging, rumpled affordable-housing activist, and Sally Bagshaw, the plugged-in civic do-gooder with a gold-plated résumé and a lot of powerful Democratic friends. Plants has $6,000 and a core of about 10 reliable volunteers. He has no professional political consultants. Nevertheless, he's getting attention and endorsements for his platform of improving transportation, listening to neighborhoods, and promoting sensible density that keeps Seattle livable for people in his income bracket.
It's an audacious bid, but Plants has a quick response for those who say he's too young, should get more experience first, should, essentially, wait his turn.
"A lot of the big things we are facing in Seattle are not two-years-from-now issues," he says. "They are 20-year issues. We need someone from our generation on the city council, watching to make sure the decisions that are being made are going to be the best for us when we are 'old enough' to be on the city council."