The current Seattle City Council can be very progressive when compared to, uh, conservative cities. They've gotten good at entertaining banter from the dais. They wear fleece and ride bikes and pass feel-good resolutions. Sometimes they even tackle serious issues (minimum wage, public preschool).
But often, the council amounts to a bunch of rich older people answering letters from other rich older people. It's been that way for years now. A third of the council members have served for a decade or more. There are three former attorneys and a former CFO. Their average age is in the 60s. Nothing wrong with spending your golden years in public service, but the council rarely feels like a group in touch with what it's like to be, say, a renter in your 20s or 30s who lives paycheck to paycheck.
And that's a big demographic in Seattle.
When voters resoundingly passed a measure last year creating new geographical districts for city council races, it opened the door for a new kind of campaign. You can run an effective door-knocking ground game in a neighborhood-based district in a way you never could in the city at large. Which in turn could mean a new kind of candidate: younger, less wealthy, less entrenched with donations from the status quo donors, perhaps more in tune with a new generation of Seattleites.
Meet Halei Watkins.
Watkins is the Seattle field organizer for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and, she says, she's worked in progressive politics for a really long time. "Or, a really long time for me," the 26-year-old laughs. She thinks it's time for a voice on the city council like hers.
"I am a renter myself," says Watkins. "My husband and I both work full-time. We experience the real struggle of making rent when rents are going up and up and up. I think that is a struggle that, frankly, some of our city council members have been far removed from for a very long time." She lives in Northgate and plans to run in North Seattle's 5th District. No one else has thrown their name in for that seat yet, giving Watkins an edge for now. Watkins would not have run under the old at-large council system, she says, but the district system "changes the game." Her background as an organizer means she's raring to get out in the district and talk to people, which is part of why she's announcing so early for a race that won't be decided until next year.
If she wins, she'd certainly be Seattle's youngest council member.
The bedrock of her platform: affordability. Watkins manages a rhetorical balance that's refreshing, walking a line between appealing to a young, indebted, carless generation in an increasingly dense city but not torpedoing her appeal with middle-class homeowners.
For example, she talks about things popular with both camps: density, walkable neighborhoods, better transit, and incentivizing smart development, while also lauding North Seattle's neighborhood charm.
She's also backing so-called impact fees, the fees developers pay to mitigate the impact of developments, which are something cranky neighborhood activists have been cheering for years. Coming from Watkins, though, it sounds less like a way to punish the evildoers behind tall buildings and more like an interesting way to help pay for better infrastructure in a rapidly growing city. "We have to raise revenue," she says, noting that we don't seem to have room in the current budget for basic infrastructure like sidewalks. "And impact fees are one way to do that."
Before young urbanists get freaked out by all this talk of North Seattle sidewalks and impact fees, listen up: She also wants to incentivize development around transit hubs and in urban villages, she's "really excited" to see recent council legislation on minimum density requirements, and she says we need to "stop forcing developers to build underground garages for residents who don't have cars or don't need cars."
But for now, much of her platform is vague. Pressed on issues like microhousing and mass transit, she hedges a bit, saying microhousing "may have a place in the affordability puzzle" and promises to focus on "how our neighborhoods can become more walkable and accessible by a variety of transit options," without necessarily promising support for specific projects.
She has time to refine her message, but if she is throwing her hat in the ring early, she'd better be prepared for extra scrutiny. Her first step, she says, is a "listening tour" through her district.
Can she win in what may well be a field of old dudes in expensive suits? "I'm going to have to out-work every other candidate. I'm going to have to knock on more doors and raise more money." She says she wouldn't be surprised if the race costs $200,000—and "I think I can raise that money." She's hired former mayor Mike McGinn's campaign consultant John Wyble (who didn't win the last race for McGinn). But will it work for her? "I'm really excited to do this," she says brightly.