“The first thing that’s going to happen right out the gate is I’m going to be called a corporate shill," says Egan Orion over a cup of coffee at Vivace on Broadway. If you look at his resume, it's not hard to guess why.
Orion directs the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Broadway Business Improvement Area, which organize small businesses on the Hill to do stuff on behalf of the neighborhood (and especially on behalf of small businesses). He also runs a production company called One Degree Events, which, aside from producing flash mobs, now produces the PrideFest parades on Capitol Hill and at the Seattle Center. He voted for Mayor Jenny Durkan in the general and in the primary. And aside from his disappointment in incumbent Kshama Sawant's leadership over the last six years, the main driver of Orion's candidacy was the early exit of Beto Yarce, who pretty much ran as chamber bait.
Why He's Running
After Yarce dropped out on Valentine’s Day and “broke the collective hearts around Seattle,” according to Orion, Orion said he waited around for a suitable challenger to enter the race. That challenger did not emerge. "Then I realized, 'Why am I waiting for someone to jump in? Why don’t I jump in?" he said.
Of course, Orion isn't entering an empty field. Hashtag Cannabis owner Logan Bowers, public defender Ami Nguyen, and three other people are also running against Sawant. When I mentioned those contenders, Orion said they were all "great," but wouldn't say more.
“If Kshama was an effective leader in council for this district, there’s not a compelling reason for me to run. I like the work I do currently," he added.
Orion is mostly mad at Sawant for not listening to him and people/organizations he knows. When he came on board as director of the Broadway BIA, for example, Orion said he asked Sawant to help reinstate the homelessness outreach workers, whose jobs had been cut by the city. The outreach workers, who are now back at work as of Monday, develop relationships with unsheltered people on Broadway and serve as a point of contact for businesses who want to connect a person in crisis to services instead of to the cops.
"She would never take a meeting with me. I hear that story over and over again,” he said. "I went to give public testimony on a Monday, and she wasn’t even on the dais the day that I went. There was no way for me to reach her."
He added that Sawant refused to engage with affordable housing organizations in the district, but he wouldn't say which ones because he didn't know what was told to him in confidence. He also said that constituent services “were not a focus” of what Sawant does in general, claiming that “someone on council said that [Councilmember] Lisa Herbold was picking up that job for District 3.” He doesn’t remember who said that to him specifically.
Herbold did not respond to request for comment.
When asked if Sawant remembers rebuffing Orion on the issue of homelessness outreach workers, Ted Virdone, policy analyst in Sawant's office, said he "spoke at length with the Chamber of Commerce representative during the budget discussions last year" but didn't think "an organization like the Chamber, which represents the interests of big business, and which fiercely campaigned against the Amazon Tax and other funding for affordable housing and homeless services, should be given public money."
"The Chamber can certainly afford to fund its own initiatives," Virdone added.
There's no formal relationship between the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The neighborhood chamber is “more about doing large events on Capitol Hill in order to bring people from other communities to Capitol Hill," says Orion.
But if you think all that means Orion is a shill, Orion wants you to know that he's succeeded in business at great personal financial risk to himself, and, he claims, he's not exactly raking in the dough. "If I were focused on making money I chose the wrong career path," he said.
"I don't think of myself as a 'business person,'" Orion added. "I think my work with the Chamber and the BIA is about creating vibrant communities, and business is part of that. I’ve been doing the pride festival for 13 years. That’s mainly about community and equity, And that’s mostly about highlighting the stories of queer people locally and nationally."
As evidence for his potential effectiveness on council, Orion points to his ability to accomplish "impossible" tasks in business with the support of the community. Back in 2007, he put his own money on the line and took over PrideFest six weeks before the first go-go dancer stepped into his cage. He did so despite the fact that he'd never produced a festival before. "I just said 'Why not, fuck it. Let’s do this. We’ll figure out a way,'" he said. And he did figure out a way. Just like he figured out a way two years ago, when he took over Capitol Hill PrideFest after the city pulled the previous producer’s permit 11 days before it happened.
Producing a successful Pride parade in six weeks while enduring a bunch of drama takes some doing. Producing a successful Pride parade in 11 days also takes some doing. Running a successful event promotion company also takes some doing. (Producing an alarmingly boring Tedx Talk about falling into the business of organizing flash mobs, however, does not take much doing, as Orion clearly demonstrates.)
Orion also seems very cool, calm, and collected. He's amiable. He comes off like a smart surfer, and he sits well in his apparent germophobia. (Orion scrubbed his hands with sanitizer and drank an immunity booster during our discussion. I could be wrong, but my understanding was he had a number of interviews scheduled yesterday and would be shaking a lot of hands. Sure, we seem to be passed flu season. But you can never be too cautious, tons of people are sick right now, and I respect the foresight.)
But to be a good candidate for city council, you need to have some new ideas. Orion has a few. But some of them are very bad.
He wants to build more shelters, he wants to build more permanent supportive housing, and he also wants to work with local software companies to develop “for lack of a better term—a tracking system.” He compared this possible tracking system to the intake process at hospitals, a database listing all the issues a given homeless person might be dealing with, including financial crises and troubles with addiction or mental health.
Update, 9:49 a.m. The federal government already has a database designed to track people accessing homelessness service.
He also wants to "hold nonprofit service providers accountable" with "metrics."
To pay for all that, Orion says he's looking at instituting a progressive business-and-occupation tax in Seattle "so that small businesses are not hit hard by that but you could capture more money from the large corporations.”
Orion was against the head tax because he "thought the process didn’t bring all the stakeholders to the table." Like every candidate who says they "want to bring all the stakeholders to the table," Orion has no idea what he'd demand of Amazon if they showed up to "the table," but he does think council members can motivate one of the biggest companies in the world by dangling the prospect of "a big PR win" in front of them.
That said, Orion does think "corporations are going to have to pay their fair share in order to solve this crisis," he just thinks "there’s a better way of going about the conversation."
To flesh out some of those ideas, Orion suggested traveling to cities who have had some success in combating homelessness, including "Atlanta, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Eugene, Oregon," though he admits their problems won't exactly be the same as our problems.
For guidance, Orion will turn to former interim mayor Tim Burgess, who Orion says he talks to regularly. He'll also rely on relationships he has with people on the city's Navigation Team, homelessness outreach workers that were part of the Metropolitan Improvement District, which is part of the Downtown Seattle Association, and also workers at REACH.
Orion says that current zoning, which marks 75 percent of the city for single-family homes, "is going to have to change over time." He said he would have voted for the recent upzoning package, which allowed for taller buildings in some "urban villages" and only affected 6 percent of single-family lots.
He also wants to find out how many property owners are sitting on empty apartments and hotel rooms, mentioning some apartments above the Comet that have been closed since the 1970s, plus hotels with small rooms in the International District. "How can we incentivize property owners to open up those spaces?" He asks.
On helping small businesses
Orion's frustrated with vacant storefronts and says he's looking at a vacancy tax recently passed in San Francisco, wherein property owners have to pay a tax on storefronts left empty after six months. "I would rather have the carrot than the stick," he said, "But I don’t want empty storefronts because they create dead zones in neighborhoods and affect small businesses around them."
He also wants to review programs the city has developed for helping people of color start small businesses. "Talking to the folks in the Central District who have recently started small businesses, the programs are not working the way they’re meant to," he said.
On criminal justice
Orion is not sure how to deal with the slight increase in shots-fired incidents in the CD, and said he’d have to “sit down with the police” to figure out if it’s a blip or part of a larger narrative on crime. He likes the LEAD program, which redirects people to services instead of jail, and he does not like the Youth Jail.
On Democracy Vouchers
He's using the program, and he wants to see Sawant pledge to take less than 10 percent of funds from outside the state for her campaign since she is not using the program.
In her last race, most of Sawant's contributions (40 percent) came from outside Seattle. But, as I reported back in January, 72 more donors inside Seattle supported Sawant over her challenger, Pamela Banks.
In all, though the Chamber didn't ask him to run, it seems like they have their candidate in Orion.