The Urbanist seems concerned about Gonzalez on climate. Should we be too?
The Urbanist seems concerned about González on climate. Courtesy of Lorena Gonzalez for Seattle Mayor campaign

Though most candidates in the mayoral race stress the need to address climate change as one of their main priorities, last month the Urbanist's endorsement committee raised concerns about how one front-runner could fail on environmental policies.

In their endorsement of Colleen Echohawk, the editorial board described Council President Lorena González as a "stalwart for our issues," but they feared "one of [González's] strongest assets—Labor solidarity—can turn into a liability if Labor can’t get on board for bold climate action."

That fear caused former Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien to post a video endorsing González and dispelling this idea that labor couldn't go big on climate.

While it was nice to hear from O'Brien and to see his new beard, his argument felt a little broad.

He said labor unions helped pass statewide measures such as the clean fuel standard, and that labor support will be crucial for national policies such as the Green New Deal, which includes a just transition to a green energy economy.

All of that tracks, but I felt as if he left the key aspect of the Urbanist's concerns unanswered. Namely, how do we know González won't kowtow to labor interests on climate issues, especially when labor unions have raised $450,000 for her campaign?

González on climate

Though Gonzalez has advocated for urbanist policies such as a 15-minute city in candidate forums and briefly on her campaign website, she hasn't laid out a detailed climate platform the way some of her opponents have. (Update 7/20: She has now laid out a detailed climate plan that puts an emphasis on eliminating building emissions, ending exclusionary zoning, completing the Bike Master Plan, "recommitting" to transit, and speeding up electrification.)

Echohawk, for instance, lays out a plan that includes creating a path toward community land trusts and establishing an Office of Indigenous Affairs to advise the mayor on urban ecological practices. Andrew Grant Houston, an architect, wants to fund Seattle's just transition to a clean energy economy by levying a 1% income tax. Houston also wants to create a Public Development Authority to explore sustainable construction. Jessyn Farrell's incredibly detailed climate plan includes the goals of building a network of 100 miles of bus-only lanes and 100 miles of Stay Healthy Streets, and on the trail she often points to her work in the Legislature to secure funding for Sound Transit 3, the ballot measure that expanded light rail.

However, unlike most of her opponents, González has a lengthy legislative record we can review to see whether she's all talk on climate. However, that record is part of the sticking point for the Urbanist's board.

In their endorsement article, the Urbanist's board supported its caution about González's labor ties with two examples. First, after initially supporting the 2017 head tax, González caved to pressure from the public (and some unions) and voted to overturn it. Second, in 2018, she voted for the bad Seattle Police Officers Guild contract after the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Council lobbied her to do so.

But how has she acted on climate? Looking at her six years on council, it seems like she's been pretty good on the issue, even when it comes to supporting policies opposed by unions that rely on fossil fuels.

She supported Seattle's Green New Deal ordinance, and when Durkan cut funding in last year's budget for the GND board positions as well as funding for "building energy benchmarking and tune-ups" for more efficient buildings, González questioned how those cuts would impact the city's climate change goals. She later added the money back into the final budget for those building tune-ups. She also co-sponsored the JumpStart Seattle tax, which adds $20 million toward implementing the GND.

Aside from GND policies, González, along with O'Brien, advocated for the Move All Seattle Sustainably Coalition's Transportation package, and she secured funding for the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in 2019.

She canvassed and recorded Spanish-language radio ad voiceovers for Initiative 1631, which would have put a price on carbon in Washington.

González also supported a ban on natural gas in new buildings, which many unions opposed. Members of Local 32, the plumbers and pipefitters union, even created a campaign called the "Affordable Energy Coalition" to "fight this ban and protect our community."

Labor (for the most part) is on board

"Some parts of labor oppose important policies and can be obstacles," said Vlad Gutman, who works with Climate Solutions and used to work with Washington State Labor Council, "but it would be wrong to consider the labor movement an opponent of action. Every major policy that has passed these last few years has passed with many labor partners being in strong support."

The MLK Labor Council, which ousted SPOG after the protests in 2020, has been supportive of the council's climate policies. Many unions within the council—and throughout Washington state—fought for some of the most progressive climate policies in Olympia, such as the aforementioned low carbon fuel standard.

The fact of the matter is that as Seattle and the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy, many jobs in the fossil fuel industry won't exist anymore. It's on elected leaders to ensure those workers have access to training, education, and support to adapt to their changing industry. Politicians shouldn't leave these workers behind, but they shouldn't cater to their needs so much that progress stalls. We don't have time for that. Not even for the teensiest-tiniest little bit.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a González endorser, attested to González's work on climate policy. She also told me that her colleague's "role as a friend to labor was really important to try to find some middle ground about ensuring the city’s commitments to a just transition." Herbold said González would be crucial to bringing labor "to the table" on these conversations.

I followed up with González about how labor could influence her position on climate policies.

"Climate change impacts us all," González said in a statement, "especially working people and people of color. As a migrant farmworker, I experienced firsthand the devastating impacts of climate change, harvesting fruit in grizzly 100+ degree heat with no clean water and intentional exposure to pesticides. Now, during a record heatwave in our state, I have family who harvested cherries in 118-degree temperatures. The status quo is unacceptable. We must address the climate crisis because of workers, not despite them."

She continued: "I know that many workers' livelihoods depend on unsustainable industries, including the fossil fuel industry. These workers fear being left behind as our community transitions to clean energy; acknowledging that concern cannot freeze us into inaction on climate change. Labor unions and their workers know that the cost of inaction is too high for us all to continue the status quo. As Mayor, I will prioritize transitioning us all to a green economy. I will do that by partnering with climate justice advocates, frontline communities, and unions to ensure that this is a just transition that will advance our climate goals."

Just this week, González signed a letter calling on Sen. Patty Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell to reject a federal infrastructure package that didn't have climate investments.

Does it even matter?

While Seattle policy feels like small potatoes in the grand scheme of our climate crisis, the policies the Emerald City enacts has broad implications for Washington state and for the nation, said Clifford Traisman, the state lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters.

"We haven’t really had recently a mayor who’s been able to galvanize the Seattle delegation in Olympia around climate leadership," Traisman said. "I do believe that the next mayor could use not only their own policies to help effectuate change in the Legislature in terms of leading by example, but also play an enlarged leadership role in getting our delegation to address the further need to prioritize tackling climate change."

Traisman said that the more climate leadership that comes from the county and city, the more positive pressure that puts on the Legislature, which will result in policy that other states can emulate.

Seattle Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who is part of that delegation of legislators, and who sponsored the low carbon fuel standard legislation, said that the most important thing the next mayor can do is fix the land-use policy.

"The most important climate policy is fighting against exclusionary zoning and different housing types," Fitzgibbon said. Fitzgibbon also thinks the mayor could prioritize more street space for transit, commit to getting existing and new buildings off natural gas, and adding more bike lanes and sidewalks," but what's paramount to him is that the next Seattle mayor will need to make sure people can "live here," he said.

"I see all of that in Lorena’s platform," Fitzgibbon said.

Depending on how the election shakes out, we'll have to wait and see whether González backs up that plan with action, but most labor coalitions won't be standing in her way.