In an attempt to revive a controversy that first surfaced earlier this month, Seattle City Council candidate Sara Nelson called a press conference today to slam her opponent Jon Grant over his tenure at the Tenants Union of Washington State.
Ballots for the primary election are due in six days.
Standing in the lobby of City Hall, Nelson used publicly available documents from a civil rights case involving the TU to paint Grant as untrustworthy, emphasizing that her opponent has touted his work at the organization as qualifying experience for a city council seat. "Seattle voters deserve to make an informed decision that's not based on empty claims," Nelson said. But Nelson also made claims about Grant and his time at the TU, some founded and some without definitive evidence.
For instance, Nelson claimed the TU "fired" Grant and, "in a brazen, coercive, and unfair move," he asked staffers for campaign contributions during a 2015 staff meeting. In recent weeks, The Stranger has not been able to verify either of those assertions. Former board members, who have signed non-disclosure agreements, would not comment on whether the organization fired Grant or he left voluntarily. Grant denies asking for campaign contributions during a staff meeting and says he left the organization on his own accord. Nelson said today she has not spoken to the former employees or board members referenced in the documents but "it is a conclusion I stand by."
The Fremont Brewing co-owner, who has been endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Seattle Times, trails Grant and another candidate in the race, Teresa Mosqueda, in fundraising. Grant says Nelson's claims are a political stunt.
Here's what we know:
The "Toxic Environment" at the Tenants Union:
As we’ve reported, the TU faced a civil rights complaint in 2015 after Grant left the organization. The complaint alleged the TU board fired an employee after she and others delivered a letter of concerns and demands to the board. The complaint did not name Grant, and the TU settled with the employee.
While the complaint happened after Grant left, its case file includes documents that show Grant had a tumultuous relationship with members of the organization's board and some staffers when he served as the TU's director. (The Stranger obtained those documents through a public records request.)
Sent by several employees after Grant left the TU, the letter claimed the organization suffered a “toxic environment bred by an executive director who lacked leadership and accountability.” Another document, which is unsigned and undated, includes a list of demands, including that Grant step down. The document also lists several grievances, including allegations that Grant “acts defensively when someone tries to question him” and “tokenizing POC’s [sic].” It’s not clear whether that document was provided to the board.
The former employee who filed the retaliation complaint and provided those documents to the city’s Office for Civil Rights declined to comment to The Stranger.
When asked about the complaints earlier this month, Grant said in a written statement he “tried in every situation to empower my staff,” but recognized that “there were concerns from some staff about my leadership.”
“I want to take responsibility for that as a person with both white privilege and positional authority,” Grant said. "It is clear I did not meet the expectations of these staff members to support them as people of color within the organization.”
Why Grant Left the Tenants Union:
The circumstances under which Grant left the TU remain unclear. The civil rights case documents do not show, as Nelson claims, that Grant was "fired." But documents and interviews reveal that TU board members expressed concerns that Grant did not sufficiently separate his 2015 campaign for city council from his work at the nonprofit. Federal tax law requires such separation for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which are barred from participating in political activity.
In an email from February 2015, then-board president Corey Snelson said she heard that Grant had asked for campaign contributions during a staff meeting. In a February 25 email to another board member, Snelson suggested that the board come up with a plan for “letting him go that is amicable and doesn’t negatively affect Jon’s campaign.” Last week, Kylin Parks, the TU's former education program manager, told The Stranger that Grant once asked employees for support for his campaign during a staff retreat. Though he did not explicitly ask for money, Parks interpreted Grant's alleged statement as a request for staffers to volunteer or donate, which felt “awkward.”
On February 25, Grant sent an email to some Tenants Union employees and board members asking for donations to his campaign. When he did so, he used his campaign email address and the personal addresses of TU employees.
In a declaration to the city during the civil rights complaint, Snelson wrote that the board planned to "put Jon Grant on administrative leave" and had "ethical concerns." When asked to elaborate, Snelson said in an interview, “we were quite concerned he was not separating the campaign from his duties at the Tenants Union."
It remains unknown whether those concerns led to Grant's departure. Grant was not put on administrative leave before he resigned, according to Snelson. Grant claims both he and the board shared the sense that it would become too difficult for him to simultaneously run the TU and campaign for city council. Grant declines asking for campaign contributions during staff meetings or events. He also said he did not use Tenants Union resources (including time, computers, and email accounts) for his campaign. Asked last week whether any of his behavior during his 2015 campaign could have threatened the TU’s nonprofit status, Grant said, “No, absolutely not.”
Emails among board members in early 2015 accused Grant of disrespecting the board's authority by making hiring and pay decisions without their consent. Nelson said today that shows Grant "routinely abused his authority." In response, Grant said "it had always been the purview of the Executive Director to hire or promote staff members" during his time at the TU.
Grant said he long planned to step down from the organization and that "it was a matter of when, which we came to by mutual agreement.”
“Leadership transitions are hard for any non-profit and it was a very stressful time for the organization,” Grant said, “but I did my best to make sure there was a transition plan and new leadership to take my place.”
But a former employee describes his departure as abrupt. Kylin Parks, the TU's former education program manager said, in March of 2015, employees received a vague email from a member of the board instructing employees to leave the office by 10 am and take the rest of the day off. The next day, Parks said, Grant was no longer the organization’s director. Parks said employees were not told why Grant resigned.
By April, Grant had signed a settlement agreement with the TU for $8,150, according to an email between board members. Former and current board members would not comment about whether he resigned voluntarily or was asked to leave.
Grant said he and the board "shared the same concerns that there was a natural tension to both be the figurehead of an organization and a candidate" and his departure was voluntary.
Snelson would not say whether concerns about his campaign led to Grant's resignation. She would not say whether he was asked to leave the organization or left voluntarily. This month, The Stranger attempted to contact a dozen other people who were on the board at the time of Grant’s departure. They either did not respond to requests for comment or would not speak on the record.
Former and current TU board members and employees who spoke to The Stranger did so before Nelson's announcement and do not appear to be supporting her campaign. Snelson, the former board president, has donated to another of Grant's opponents, Teresa Mosqueda, but is not formally involved with Mosqueda's campaign, according to Snelson and Mosqueda.
Today, Grant characterized Nelson's comments as a political stunt.
"I think there were certain circumstances where I could have done better at the TU and I take that seriously," Grant said, "but it’s really clear this attack is politically motivated. This is a candidate who’s being backed by the Chamber of Commerce—we’ve seen almost $100,000 of corporate money dumped in this race to support her candidacy. What this represents to me is an attack on our campaign’s progressive agenda."
This post has been updated to clarify that Snelson says her accusation that Grant asked for campaign contributions during a staff meeting was based on what she says she heard from others who were at the meeting.