The Seattle Fire Fighters PAC, run by the firefighters union, Local 27, has been around and involved in civic elections for decades. But never like this.
This year, Seattle's firefighters are more politically engaged than ever before, with their PAC raising more than $274,000 and spending more than $255,000 of that on the five candidates they've endorsed, all of whom are also favored by the Amazon-financed Chamber of Commerce PAC: Mark Solomon (District 2), Egan Orion (District 3), Alex Pedersen (District 4), Debora Juarez (District 5), and Heidi Wills (District 6). Almost $40,000 of the Firefighter PAC's dollars was spent making firefighter hat magnets to mail to voters.
"My members are very interested this year," Kenny Stuart, president of Local 27, told The Stranger. "We have seven council seats up for re-election; it could be a wholesale change."
For Stuart and Local 27, the big issue getting attention among firefighters—so much so that all of the nearly $300,000 the PAC has raised has come from firefighters themselves—is public safety. They endorsed candidates with strong public safety records and policy positions, Stuart said.
However, he got more specific with the Seattle Times. Local 27 endorsed candidates who "agree the city needs to clean up unsafe homeless encampments," the Times reported on October 27.
Last week, District 6 candidate Heidi Wills hosted a press conference in Ballard about preserving public safety funding, including funding for the city's Navigation Team, the task force that helps clear homeless encampments and is meant to connect homeless people to shelters.
Thirty percent of the money Local 27 has spent has been for Wills, who has been outspoken in her support of the Navigation Team as a means to help the homeless.
All of that Wills-supporting money ($76,758), and the money spent by the Firefighters in favor of District 3's Egan Orion ($74,923), and the money for District 2's Solomon ($20,479), and District 4's Pedersen ($12,156), and District 5's Debora Juarez ($3,762) has come from firefighters' own pockets, Stuart claims.
Tediously, for months—sometimes for up to two years—individual firefighters have been chipping in small $25-dollar, $30-dollar, and $40-dollar sums.
This is a big deal for the fire department, Stuart said, because they are responsible for educating all elected officials on what exactly the fire department does. ("You probably have no idea about what the fire department does," he told me, "Nobody does.") In the eyes of the fire department, the current city council isn't doing enough.
While they need more firefighters, more fire stations, and, overall, more resources, the homelessness crisis plays a part in their political involvement, too. "There is some cynicism," Stuart said.
Firefighters are the ones available 24/7 to help anyone in crisis and, Stuart said, they help the same people over and over. Stuart described it as a type of Groundhog Day.
"These people deserve the same level of service," Stuart said. Treating the same person every day wears on firefighters, though. "It doesn’t impact how we treat the people we run into, it impacts how we feel about the city and their lack of support to help us solve the problem."
Therefore, the firefighters' frustration increasingly lies with Seattle's elected officials.
"Firefighters are doers and like to fix problems," Stuart said. That is why they are spending heavily to elect people who will clear up encampments.
But, that doesn't really work.
Right now, especially, there isn't anywhere for people to go. As Daniel Malone, the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, told The Stranger: "The shelters are full. Even if everyone in an encampment were to become interested in going into shelter, the vast majority would have no shelter to go to."
In addition, candidates who weren't endorsed by Local 27 are not against public safety.
People like Shaun Scott, a candidate in District 4, and Tammy Morales, a candidate in District 2, prioritize different strategies for helping the homeless.
According to Morales, all sweeps are is disruptive. She said that she doesn't think "moving people from one side of the street to another gets to that root cause" of homelessness.
"We have to increase services and increase housing and treatment options for people and make sure we have enough case managers," Morales said. "That’s how we start to reduce the burdensome work situation for firefighters."
For Scott, getting to the root cause of homelessness means "not criminalizing people for being poor in public," he said. "The true solution to housing the homeless must start with housing."
Unlike what Wills' press conference would have people think, funding for the Navigation Team isn't going anywhere. Mayor Jenny Durkan has put funding in her new budget proposal for two new members of the Navigation Team.
Despite that, and despite Local 27's support for candidates who support these strategies, a report by Erica Barnett showed that only 8 percent of Navigation Team "contacts result in a homeless person going to shelter."