Last December Senayet Negusse attended a vigil to honor the life of SeaTac City Council Member Amina Ahmed, who had died in a car crash only a month after her appointment to the seat. Ahmed was considered the council’s lone voice for SeaTac’s sizable population of East African immigrants. But for Negusse, Ahmed was also a woman who’d entrusted her, even at her young age, to run a meal program for seniors at Refugee Women’s Alliance, a woman who had shown her how to lead in her own community.
A few days after the vigil the city council approved the sale of the SeaTac Center, a shopping complex that held over 50 mostly immigrant-run businesses, displacing the community for whom Ahmed advocated. Adding insult to injury, in January the council replaced Ahmed with a white guy named Stanley Tombs, vice-chair of the SeaTac Planning Commission.
“It was hard to witness,” Negusse said in an interview with The Stranger last week. “Being the daughter of immigrants, being the daughter of small business owners, being so fortunate to have the ability to communicate in English—I just felt like I had to do something in that moment.”
So she did do something. She decided to run for office.
Now Negusse finds herself among a slate of four first-time candidates working to restore and multiply Ahmed’s voice on the council.
Those candidates include Negusse, an educator and senior services provider; Damiana Merryweather, a small businesswoman; Takele Gobena, a well-known labor organizer; and Mohamed Ali Egal, a longtime social worker. Together they hope to oust the conservative, majority-white city council members who currently represent the town. But it's not going to be easy.
What Is SeaTac? I Thought It Was an Airport.
The differences between the people who live in SeaTac and the people who govern SeaTac are difficult to overstate. According to census data, the airport town of over 28,000 is mostly nonwhite, with large populations of East African, Latinx, and Asian immigrants. Over 46% of the residents speak languages other than or in addition to English at the house, according to a recent analysis. Most of the residents are working-class renters, the majority of whom (as high as 61%, according to 2013-17 ACS 5-year estimates) are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in rent. Every precinct, except for one little sliver, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Meanwhile, the council-appointed mayor, Erin Sitterley, is a Trump supporter who recently posted a photo of herself on Facebook brandishing a scoped rifle while wearing a pink cap with the word “infidel” scrawled across it in fake Arabic script.
Sitterley replaced former mayor Michael Siefkes, who resigned and skipped town after facing disbarment on suspicion of "swindling" large sums of money from his vulnerable client, according to the Seattle Times.
But wait, there’s more.
Siefkes replaced Council Member Rick Forschler as mayor after Forschler’s hand-picked city manager, James “Donny” Payne, called for the city to draw up a “tactical map” of Muslim residents due to his “concerns about Muslims committing acts of terrorism,” according to city investigators quoted in the Times.
And all this after enduring longtime city council member and former mayor, Gene Fisher, who cut development deals "intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood," according to the Times.
How did a bunch of conservatives take over the town? Honestly, a pretty modest injection of corporate cash and a low turnout.
Back in 2015 the “Forschler Four” (aka Sitterley, Siefkes, Peter Kwon, and Rick Forschler) flipped the council conservative, some say, as a backlash to SeaTac's support of the minimum wage increase to $15 per hour. The group disputes this characterization, saying they ran in response to anger surrounding a utility tax imposed by a previous council, and Kwon has said he was unfairly lumped in with the group.
Six of SeaTac’s seven council members are white, and most are retired engineers who fly the flag of "fiscal responsibility" and trickle-down economics. In pursuing those policies, challengers say, council members have created needless divisions among residents in the town.
“A microcosm of what’s happening at the federal level is happening right here,” says Merryweather. “They’re dividing communities, they’re disenfranchising communities, and it’s all in the interest of being able to steamroll those communities. It’s fundamentally wrong.”
What the Hell Is Going on in SeaTac?
Over the last few years, residents have been pushing back against council-approved developments that will displace large numbers of immigrant-owned homes and businesses.
The big one was the council's decision to approve the sale of the SeaTac Center to the Inland Group for $16 million.
In place of several dozen immigrant-run businesses located next to the light rail station on a major thoroughfare, the Spokane-based developer is planning five buildings with commercial space and 665 units of housing. Half of those units will be reserved for people making 60% of the area’s median income.
Though a coalition of affected small business owners and organizers pled with the council to hold off on approving the proposal, the council, with the exception of Forschler, voted for it anyway.
For his part, Forschler said the sale will “doom SeaTac to mediocrity for 50 years.”
Supporters on the council argued the development would bring in new residents with disposable income. “That income will benefit our business community, you’re our business community,” Council Member Joel Wachtel said before casting his vote to displace that very business community standing before him in protest. “There are 29,000 people in the city and many businesses that need the additional people, the additional income, to help them make this city better," he added.
According to the Times, the city is letting the Inland Group decide whether to take a $1.2 million offer from the state to include an "international marketplace" within the development.
Abdulhakim Hashi, a small business owner facing displacement, says a coalition of 24 small business owners are currently negotiating with the company on that point, and it's not going well. "They don't want us," he said. The tenants are also asking for between $150,000 and 250,000 in relocation assistance, but those talks aren't going well, either.
I left a message with Keith James of the Inland Group about this, and I'll update if I hear back.
The business owners are still trying to obtain relocation assistance from the city of SeaTac, too. In June the city rejected the request for any such funds. In a letter to Farah Abdi, the attorney for the businesses, SeaTac City Manager Carl Cole said the city wasn't on the hook "because the City of SeaTac is not a 'Displacing Agency' within the meaning of the Relocation Assistance Act."
Another Displacement Debacle
Then there was the situation with the Firs Mobile Home Park. In 2016 the park’s owner, Jong Park, wanted to turn the affordable neighborhood into a hotel and an apartment complex. When asked for help, the council rebuffed the community of about 170 residents, a vast majority of whom were Latinx.
In an October meeting, city manager Joe Scorcio said the city had no legal authority to prevent the sale of the park once the process started. The city further argued that the residents should take their concerns about relocation assistance and their requests for help to Olympia, as both were state matters. To prove they really cared about the Firs mobile homeowners, a city council spokesman told KOMO they lobbied the Legislature in support of a bill that would increase relocation assistance funds. That bill passed this year.
Ishbel Dickens, an attorney who worked with organizers in the neighborhood, said the city's hands were, in fact, not tied. The council could have rezoned the area as a mobile home district, she argued, as lawmakers in Tumwater, Spokane, Lynnwood, Kenmore, Marysville, and Snohomish County had done.
Residents of the Firs ultimately sued the landlord, which ended in a settlement awarding them $10,000 in relocation assistance, which Dickens says isn't near enough considering the cost of disposing the home and having to buy a new one or rent in the city. Never mind the disruption of having to completely upend their entire lives.
This month the First residents filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that "the city facilitated discriminatory housing conduct by the landlord...through its efforts to prevent Firs homeowners from speaking and being heard at city council meetings and by failing to comply with its own ordinance obligating it to host one of the meetings during the relocation process," according to their attorney Omar Barraza.
I've left a message with the city's outside counsel, Kenneth Harper, and will update when I hear back.
Yet Another Debacle
Then there was the parking permit debacle. Last month residents of the Windsor Heights apartment complex, few if any of whom were white, packed the council to say they were excluded from a parking permit program supposedly designed to stop flyers from clogging residential streets near the airport. As a result of the exclusion, tenants had to park in non-zoned areas several blocks from their apartment, and those who applied for permits say they were denied. Residents claim the city didn’t communicate with them during the process of developing the program.
In that meeting, Council Member Pam Fernald said the city was aware of the issue and was “trying to solve the problem, perhaps widening the permit area," according to SeaTac blog.
In an open letter published on SeaTac Blog in February of this year, Council Member Wachtel celebrated many of these development decisions, saying the city added a “$25 million surplus in three years, without raising city property taxes,” all by “making SeaTac easier to do business in.”
He demonized people who challenged the “major growth projects that will unquestionably benefit the city,” calling them “instigators” and comparing them to snake oil salesman. “These outside instigators are actually hired guns, organized by politically motivated groups to create theatre to showcase their made-up issues to move their agenda into the spotlight with little or no concern to the majority of the residents in the city,” he wrote, without providing evidence.
Meet the Challengers Hoping to Represent the Majority of the City
Merryweather, who’s running against Council Member Kwon, co-owns Bok a Bok fried chicken. She moved to the Seattle area 12 years ago and settled in SeaTac six years ago. Before starting her own food truck business (“back in the days when Seattle had, like, three,”) and eventually running her own local chain of restaurants, she worked as the political director for United Food and Commercial Workers. She’s also the primary caretaker of three kids—a two-year-old, a four-year-old, and a 14-year-old stepson.
With plenty already on her plate, Merryweather hesitated before entering the race. But the council’s decisions to “promote large commercial interests at the expense of residents and at the exclusion of small and moderate-sized businesses” spurred her to make the jump.
Merryweather says the current crop of council members want to turn SeaTac into “the Bellevue of the South,” a commuter town full of hotels and chain stores where young tech workers can sleep and play before hopping on the light rail in the morning.
“Change is inevitable. Growth is inevitable. None of us want to stand in the way,” Merryweather said. “But we do believe there are ways to do it that help preserve and maintain existing communities, that promote the values that these diverse communities bring here, and that do the least harm.”
As a small business owner, she balks at the Wachtel’s claims of fiscal responsibility, especially as they relate to the approval of the sale of the SeaTac Center. She said the move was “short-sighted” and demonstrated lack of fidelity with public resources.
“They could have gone a couple of routes with that tremendously valuable public asset,” she said. “They could have developed it as a city asset and retained all of the improved value over the long term. They could have entered into a public-private partnership so the city didn’t have to put up all the money. But instead they sold it off, lock stock and barrel, to a private developer who will get all the value and equity of developing it, and then said, ‘Look we’ve got money in the bank!’ To me, that is the equivalent of someone cashing in their 401K early and saying, 'Look how much money is in my checking account!'”
“At the same time, there are other assets they say they want to sell, like the old fire station, that they have managed not to sell to a willing buyer because that willing buyer wants to develop low-income housing there,” Merryweather added.
Her opponent, Kwon, is nice enough. But he’s easily duped by third-tier Facebook commenters spreading conspiracies about immigrant-run businesses supposedly not paying their taxes. And Dickens, the lawyer who helped the residents of the Firs, criticized his handling of the mobile home park debacle. “Kwon would like to say he’s been a champion of mobile homeowners by virtue of supporting some of these bills in Olympia, but that’s not being a champion, that’s going with the status quo,” she said.
Gobena is probably the slate’s best-known candidate. He moved to SeaTac in 2011 after escaping the cold of New York and Minnesota. While helping to raise his three daughters, he managed to pick up a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Washington and helped lead the fight for SeaTac’s $15 minimum wage. After college he took a job with the Teamsters, and he’s since been organizing Uber and Lyft drivers.
If elected he’d prioritize working with King County to build affordable housing around SeaTac’s three light rail stations. In a city where a majority of residents rent, Gobena notes that he’s the only renter in the race. As such he understands the need for stronger tenant protections, and he says he’ll fight for them if elected.
Gobena also accuses the city of “not having a clear plan” to address public safety. He’d work with King County to recruit more police officers who look like the people they serve. He'd also increase community engagement with police so that people don’t only call the cops when there’s an issue.
In general, Gobena also wants to bridge the divides that have grown in SeaTac. “There is a disconnect between the council members and residents, particularly people of color, and I want to repair those connections," he said.
Gobena is taking on Stanley Tombs, the white guy who the council appointed to Ahmed’s seat. Tombs is the vice-chair of the SeaTac Planning Commission and a “white-collar criminal defense” lawyer who also worked “in large scale commercial real estate development,” according to his city bio.
When he was growing up in Mogadishu, Egal thought of America as the land of milk and honey. A shining city on the hill. After he read about the city manager who wanted to draw a “tactical map” of Muslims in SeaTac, that image of America shattered. “I was in shock. I thought American people were too smart for that kind of thinking,” he said.
Egal, 53, immigrated to the U.S. 28 years ago and moved to SeaTac in 2008. He has seven kids. For several years he worked as a job developer at Hopelink, helping unemployed and underemployed people find jobs. He now more or less does the same work for the Somali community at Career Path Services, which is a program within the state’s Department of Social and Health Services.
As a social worker, he says his SeaTac clients have been forced to go to neighboring cities for certain services because they can’t find them in town. He wants to work to restore the city’s Human Services Department, pledging to leverage his connections to collaborate with the other cities.
Like the other members of the slate, Egal wants to add more truly affordable housing stock through inclusionary zoning.
He’s running against Erin Sitterley, the current council-appointed mayor.
Negusse also wants to see more services, particularly for children and the elderly in SeaTac. “That doesn’t mean raising taxes,” she said. “It just means making the services we have more available to the community.” The way they do that, Negusse says, is reaching out to the community more in the many languages that they speak.
Negusse, a dual language learner coach for Puget Sound Educational Service District and the secretary-historian for the King County Immigrant and Refugee Commission, was born and raised in White Center. Her parents were Ethiopian refugees who immigrated from Sudan. As is the case with many children of immigrants, she took a lead role as the family translator, setting up medical appointments, consulting on legal issues, and navigating educational systems.
At 13 she says she began volunteering as a tutor at the Salvation Army. She worked her way up to coordinating the organization’s summer programs and youth programs at 17, and she credits the free programming offered through the Salvation Army as the thing that led to her success.
She worked three jobs to pay for college, becoming the first person in her family to graduate with a degree. When her father had a heart attack her junior year, instead of dropping out she doubled up on coursework and graduated early, and then picked up a Master’s in education policy and leadership.
“So I can handle a lot of stress,” she says.
At 24, Negusse is the youngest person running for council, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s got the gravitas of someone twice her age and a knack for understanding complex systems quickly, as evidenced by her assessment of the city council’s orientation towards development.
"I initially walked into this thinking a lot of the immigrant businesses and mobile homeowners are being displaced. And then I go into the Bow Lake mobile home community [a mostly white, retired community] and learn their land has been purchased as well. So here we are in silos thinking that the city council is coming for us, but really we just have a council who’s not ready to represent working people, who’s not ready to advocate for us.”
Negusse wants to build a more connected SeaTac, one that increases transparency and communication between the council and its residents.
Okay, They Seem Nice, but Can They Win?
The whole slate will automatically make it through the August primary with the exception of Negusse, who has two primary challengers in former SeaTac City Council Member Tony Anderson and Rita Palamino. Anderson has a reputation as an absentee member. In 2015 he missed 10 of the 19 scheduled council meetings, according to SeaTac blog. I wrote to Anderson for comment on this and will update when I hear back.
Update: There were actually 26 meetings in 2015, and Anderson attended all of them—21 in person and five by phone, according to the meetings' minutes. His Skype appearances were allowed by council policy. Anderson said he was away representing the city at required conferences in his role on the National League of Cities Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee, and he also taught a training course with the International Association of Chiefs of Police that conflicted with a few scheduled meetings. Still, he called in.
On her website, Rita Palamino, a second-generation Mexican immigrant, says she plans to “build upon the success of the current City Council.” She promises to be “a voice for fiscal responsibility” and “keep taxes down.”
She also has a little acrostic of her own name. “*R* Responsibility *I* Integrity *T* Transparency *A* Accountability." So there you have it.
But there are other obstacles for the slate as well.
Only 3,946 people voted in the 2015 election that swept in the current conservative majority, which accounted for 32.74% of SeaTac’s 12,054 voters. 2017 was worse: only 3,668 people voted.
Gobena acknowledged that the slate needs to reach people who haven’t normally engaged in the political process, which will require a lot of labor and effort. Egal is helping to lead that effort by spending a lot of his time on the trail registering voters. He said he registered 52 people just last week.
Merryweather says she's unfazed by the work. As a primary caretaker, she wheels her two children behind her in a red wagon as she knocks on doors. “It literally takes 2,000 votes to get elected in this city,” she said. “If we talk to 11,000 people this cycle, then we’ll have talked to every registered voter who’s voted at least twice in the last four years. This isn’t a Herculean task.”
Some of the candidates have been met with resistance. Gobena says he’s had 21 of 24 campaign signs stolen. “Some people consider us a threat, but we’re not,” he said. “Most people are really receptive.”
Negusse has been working to scoop up endorsements and raise money, and, oh yeah, plan a wedding for next month. She says the work has been hard and draining, but her desire to have a voice at the table pushes her through.
“This race is bigger than any individual here,” Negusse said. “It’s about us coming together and bringing different perspectives from the community; perspectives from the lens of a business owner, from the daughter of immigrants and an educator, from someone who has been serving the community for years as a social worker, and from Takele, with his labor background, someone who’s been working for economic and social justice for years. We bring all that.”