Of the nine (and counting) candidates who’ve declared their intention to run for the District 6 City Council race, Heidi Wills certainly has the most name recognition. But the name she’s stuck with might not help.
Wills served on the Council from 2000 to 2003, when she lost to David Della. In what this paper called “one of the dirtier campaigns in recent history," Della dubbed Wills “Rate Hike Heidi” after the committee she oversaw pushed for steep rate increases for Seattle City Light customers. She had a valid reason for this: At the time, the region was in the midst of a serious drought and much of the city is powered by hydroelectric energy.
“To encourage conservation, I implemented what was called a ‘third tier’ for residential customers so high-energy users paid more for kilowatts above a certain reasonable threshold,” she told me in an interview this week. “Wealthy households did not like paying disproportionately more for higher usage per kilowatt hour and exerted considerable pressure on the Council to roll back the third tier, which we eventually did. To protect low-income customers, I expanded rate assistance from 125 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level so 50,000 more low-income households could qualify for half off their bills.”
Still, the rate hikes weren’t exactly popular, and the nickname "Rate Hike Heidi" stuck.
Rate hikes aren’t the only baggage hanging around Wills’ neck. Google her, and you’ll quickly learn about “Strippergate,” another controversy that derailed her time at City Hall. As the Seattle Times noted last week, in 2003, Wills was fined $1,500 for violating the city’s ethics code after she failed to disclose that she’d met with members of a notorious crime family who owned a Lake City strip club and were advocating for rezoning that would be favorable for their business. Wills, along with then-Councilmembers Jim Compton and Judy Nicastro, accepted thousands in campaign contributions from the Colacurcio family and when all three voted to approve the zoning changes, it did not look good. When I asked Wills if she’d take money from developers this time around, she said there will be no need: She’s participating in the Democracy Vouchers program.
Since leaving the Council, Wills has spent much of the past 16 years as executive director at the non-profit The First Tee of Greater Seattle, which runs youth development programs. She says she’s learned a lot both in this executive role and from her role in Strippergate.
“I learned to ask more questions,” she says. “At the time, I thought the issue was controversial because it involved a strip club. I had no idea about the history of the family, so I wish I’d asked more questions.” Still, she says she’s ultimately glad she lost her seat because it gave her an opportunity to work in youth development and equity, an experience she calls “transformative.”
Wills left The First Tee in 2017. Since then she’s says she’s been voluntering in her community and at her kid’s school. She’s also, she says, used the time to realize that she wants to serve in larger ways, which, in her case, means running for Seattle City Council to replace Mike O’Brien, who announced last month he won’t be seeking re-election.
“There’s a lot of frustration in District 6,” she says. “People feel like City Council is off track in response to their needs. Mike was a strong leader on the environment and I’m concerned about losing an environmental champion on the Council, but he didn’t transition well to repping District 6.” (In 2013, the city moved from citywide to district races. O’Brien first won his seat in 2009.)
Wills says that like O’Brien, she has a lifelong background in climate protection and environmental stewardship. As the president of the student body at UW, she says, she brought recycling to the campus and championed a bus pass program that was so unpopular among student libertarians that they started a recall effort against her. She’s served on the boards of Climate Solutions, Conservation NW, and, currently, she's on the board of the state chapter of the Sierra Club. While on the City Council, she says she “pushed for investment in our first wind power contract, divested from the Centralia Coal Plant, and started the Green Power Program. At that time, there was pushback in investing in green energy because it cost more than dirty power, so the Green Power Program allowed the public to voluntarily donate to green power projects on their bills.”
If elected to the Council, she says, she would continue to prioritize making Seattle a leader in the fight against climate change. “There are a lot things we can do as a city to lower our greenhouse gas footprint,” she says. “We need to help people get out of cars and look at investment in conservation through utilities. Seattle City Light can incentivize using charging stations at home. We can require car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to be all-electric.” She also says she would advocate to bring scooter-shares to Seattle, which can help people access mass transportation hubs like light rail stations. “People want to use mass transit but it needs to be accessible, reliable, and affordable,” she says.
Wills, unlike most of the candidates in the 6th District, has solid policy positions at the ready, which makes sense: She’s somewhat of a policy wonk. It our 2003 endorsement of Wills, the Stranger Election Control Board wrote that “with her wonky smarts and worker-bee commitment,” Wills was “poised to be the council's next progressive leader.” Clearly, the good people of Seattle failed to listen to us, but she’s got a history of pushing through progressive legislation (whether or not the voters appreciate it).
Wills says the first thing the city needs to do to address the homelessness crisis is immediately double the number of personnel on the Navigation Team, a group of behavioral specialists and outreach workers who work with the Seattle Police Department to move unhoused people into housing.
“At a minimum, we need transitional housing where people can go and feel safe with their belongings and receive treatment,” she says. “Everyone has a right be somewhere but I don’t think we should condone sleeping in tents in public places. That is very hard on people living in tents. It’s not hygienic, it can be dangerous, and it’s a clear sign that people need our help. So how do we help them? More Navigation Teams.”
She also says we need to stop thinking about homelessness and housing as a Seattle issue and start thinking about them as regional issues.
“I’m not sure the city of the Seattle can go on it’s own,” she says. “Talking with folks at the county and state, there is interest in a much broader approach this. We could have a regional housing affordability plan where we’re working not just with King County but Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap Counties. It’s a systemic issue facing communities around the region.”
Wills, who says she was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay rent and eventually moved the family in with her parents, is well aware that the housing crisis doesn’t just impact the poor. “The City Council needs to be more mindful that it’s already too expensive to live in Seattle,” she says. “If you work in tech maybe it’s not an issue, but if you are single parent or working class, it’s a huge issue. We need to have a Council that is mindful of the working class and how these economic pressures affect people at the margins.” As part of this, she says, the Council should work to strengthen renter protections so people aren’t forced to move out every time property taxes rise and the rent goes up. And we need more affordable housing.
Increasing housing density is a contentious issue in the 6th District, especially in Ballard, a neighborhood that has undergone remarkable changes as the city has grown—not all of them welcome to old-timers and people who own single-family homes.
“We need more housing,” Wills says, “At the same time, there’s concerns about the types of development. There are a lot of people who would support housing but it depends on the design. They want courtyards and tree canopies and natural lighting and they want to be included in the conversation. That hasn’t been happening and the only way we are going to get more housing—and we need more—is by talking with each other and hearing each other's concerns and involving the people who are impacted.”
Wills compares the struggle over upzoning and redevelopment to working on commercial energy codes her first time on the Council. “We proposed one of the strongest commercial energy codes in the country, but the business community was against it because it costs more,” she says. “It took two years but we brought all the stakeholders to the table and got it done. That’s how you work with diverse perspectives: Listen, collaborate, and compromise.”
She saw little of this, she says, over last year’s debate over the head tax, which would have charged some Seattle-based businesses to fund homelessness service. The tax initially passed the Council but after outcry from the business and labor communities, it was quickly repealed. Wills says she would not have supported it. “I don’t think the head tax was good policy and it wasn't handled well politically,” she says. “I’ve been in fundraising most of my adult life and the first thing you need to do when you are raising funds is state your case. I don't think the City Council did a good job making their case.”
As for what the Council is doing right, Wills mention their work on early childhood education, which has expanded access to child care for middle- and low-income families.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Wills the same two questions I ask everyone running to represent the 6th: What’s your favorite brewery and what’s something you’ve changed your mind about recently? The first question is easy (Hales Ales) but the second generally takes people some thought—turns out, people don’t change their minds very often.
Wills, however, had an answer right away: The thing she changed her mind on was running, and she might not have done so had Mike O’Brien stayed in the race.
“It’s a lot to subject my family to,” she says, “so I thought, you know, maybe it isn’t such a good idea, but I do want to see an environmental leader on the Council. Having done the job before, many of the same issues we faced then pertain today but now we have 100,000 more people and a severe homelessness crisis.” Later, she followed up, adding that her kids were a big part of the reason she decided to run in the end. She wants to be a good model for them. “It means putting yourself out there. Using your voice. Organizing. Leaning in. Showing your caring with action. This will be a great civics lesson for them and I plan to take them doorbelling. I hope it instills in them the desire and courage to get involved with their community when they think that they can make a difference for others.”
Wills is joined in the race by Jay Fathi, a family physician; Jon Lisbin, the president of Seattle Fair Growth; Sergio Garcia, a Seattle police officer; Dan Strauss, a policy advisor for Councilmember Sally Bagshaw; Terry Rice, a business manager; Kate Martin, a neighborhood activist; Joey Massa, an Army National Guard veteran; and, in all likelihood, dozens more. We’ll be bringing you interviews with many of them in the coming weeks.