Welcome to a new election column from The Stranger that looks at the biggest policy issue dividing each pair of candidates fighting for a seat on the Seattle City Council. We ask each candidate what they think is the biggest issue dividing them from their opponent, and then we decide what we think is really setting them apart. In District 1, we decided it was funding homeless service policies. In District 2, we decided it was the candidates' approach to police accountability. Today...
District 3: Council Member Kshama Sawant versus challenger Egan Orion. Sawant is a socialist who formerly taught economics at Seattle Central College, was first elected in 2013 and was reelected in 2015. Orion is a longtime Capitol Hill resident, was briefly the director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, and has never before run for office. If you're wondering where District 3 is:
What’s the biggest issue that divides Sawant and Orion?
Sawant says: affordable housing policy. In a statement sent to The Stranger, she says:
The biggest difference between me and my corporate-bankrolled opponent is on how to end the affordable housing crisis.
My office has introduced a draft Rent Control ordinance to stop economic evictions, which is very similar to the bill Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has just released, and comes in the wake of victories in New York, California and Oregon. I have also consistently advocated for a major expansion of high-quality social housing, and for holding tax-dodging corporations like Amazon accountable to help fund it.
My opponent, who’s supported by Vulcan and other anti-renter real estate interests, is openly opposed to rent control…
When my opponent does talk about the need to fund housing or homeless services, he doesn’t clarify who will pay for it…
Under pressure, my opponent has said he supports “progressive taxation.” Yet he also says he doesn't support the Amazon tax (the head tax). The problem is, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the head tax is one of the only progressive revenue tools at the city’s disposal, and my opponent is also not campaigning for any viable alternative progressive tax. So again, these are just empty talking points. This kind of bait and switch on taxation also comes right out of the Republican playbook…
After first agreeing to participate in this story, Orion’s campaign did not respond despite multiple follow-up requests.
Update: Oct. 4 8:45 a.m. Orion's campaign responded after we originally published this post. Here's what he said:
The biggest different between me and Councilmember Sawant is how to best help renters. There’s no doubt that the rent is too damn high! And it’s pricing workers and families out of the city. But instead of an unworkable, overly bureaucratic rent control bill that is illegal under state law and would effectively reduce private development to zero, drive non-commercial basement apartment, ADU, and backyard cottage landlords out of the market, and disincentivize developers from creating more affordable housing, there is more we can do to keep residents in place while we work with our state partners to stop price gouging by a few bad actors.
I've proposed immediate and long term solutions to address our affordable housing crisis, including bold and evidence-backed rent stabilization measures as well as an emergency fund and robust legal resources to keep people in the housing they already have. On the City Council, I'll build coalitions across government and with nonprofits, renters, and developers to fight for real, meaningful efforts to address housing affordability.
What we say: Progressive taxation.
The District 3 race is shaping up to be the most divisive race in this year’s election, with Amazon-backed Orion taking on anti-Amazon Sawant. The two actually agree on many issues, including building more affordable housing, fighting hate crimes, and prioritizing mass transit. That makes sense: District 3 includes Capitol Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods which tend to be deeply progressive.
But the candidates differ when it comes to paying for these policies.
Sawant is one of Seattle’s loudest and most consistent votes supporting taxation of rich individuals and big businesses—that’s the reason Amazon is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat her. Orion says he supports some progressive taxes but has largely shied away from talking about taxing the rich and has given contradictory statements on the subject.
Before we go further let’s clear up what we’re talking about: Seattle’s reliance on property taxes and sales taxes makes our tax system extremely regressive, meaning poor people are forced to pay a larger share of their income in taxes compared to rich people. Sawant has taken multiple actions to help reduce the regressiveness: she voted for Seattle’s income tax, which is currently being fought in the Washington Supreme Court, and is one of only two council members who refused to give Amazon a tax cut by voting against rescinding last year’s head tax.
Orion, who has benefited from more Super PAC spending than any other candidate in this year’s election thanks to the Amazon-funded Civic Alliance for A Sound Economy (CASE) Super PAC, hasn't prioritized taxing the rich in his platform and has given voters a different story depending on who he talks to.
For example, Orion told voters at a Washington Community Action Network forum this week that the city needs to find new money to build affordable housing and he would pay for it by the city taking out a bond and then having the city pay that back with progressive taxes. “There are a lot of different places," Orion said, "that I will get that money from: A progressive B&O tax, we will wait to see if the supreme court allows a higher-earners income tax, but that will get us about $140 million a year in new revenue… A vacancy tax on housing units that are not being used, and a foreign investment tax on non-American investors that come in and speculate on property…”
However, Orion’s response changed markedly when he was talking to CASE. According to a questionnaire he filled out for the Super PAC which he shared with The Stranger, he told the Amazon-funded Super PAC that “the city very likely will require more financial resources to meet our goals” but then proceeded to tell CASE that he did not actually want to raise any new taxes until the city’s budget was studied. He said after that “thorough review” happens he would then present that plan to the people “who we may seek new revenue from.”
Orion tells one set of voters that he “will” raise progressive taxes and then tells the big business Super PAC that he is unsure if new revenue is needed and promises to ask their permission before he will raise taxes on them.
Orion has also floated the idea of raising a new progressive business tax, but he has repeatedly said that he does not support last year’s head tax, which was literally a progressive business tax. And when the Stranger Election Control Board asked him about raising taxes he told us: “If we need progressive revenue then yeah we need to go back to big businesses,” with a big emphasis on that “if”.
Sawant is unequivocal when it comes to taxing the rich: we should have already been doing it and she has committed to trying to make it happen. Orion, who says he will raise progressive taxes when he’s speaking to one group and then tells the ultra-rich that he will ask their permission before taxing them, could have cleared this up by getting back to us, but apparently he would rather leave things murky.