At a debate packed with polite, young college students at Seattle Central Community College this afternoon, city council incumbent Richard Conlin's socialist challenger, Kshama Sawant, strongly criticized the incumbent, accusing him of everything from opposing a higher minimum wage, to "representing big business interests," to supporting an elitist light rail system that only serves three percent of Seattle commuters.
Sawant's supporters wore red T-shirts saying, "Fight for a $15/hr minimum wage"—Sawant's signature issue.
Sawant, an instructor at SCCC, focused primarily on issues outside the purview of city government, including the state's regressive, sales-tax-based tax system, "corporations [that] are making record profits," rent control, traffic congestion, and a new tax on millionaires.
Sawant also held up San Francisco, which has some of the highest rents in the nation, as a paragon of affordable housing because it has much higher incentive-zoning requirements than Seattle, called for an elected board that could hire and fire Seattle Police Department officers at will, and said Conlin was not committed to sustainability because "people are being pushed two and three bus transfers away" by the lack of affordable housing in Seattle.
"Of course we need to build more housing," Sawant said, "but if you look at what's being built ... very few of the units are accessible to most people because the prices are set at a level that most people can't afford."
In response, Conlin called Sawant's rent control proposal "a cruel illusion. We can't do rent control as a city council. ... If you want to get really cheap rent there are lots of cities in this country where you can get really cheap rent because they’re not doing well," Conlin said, citing Detroit as a city where it's affordable to live (the average one-bedroom rents for just over $600), but not a place you'd necessarily want to live.
As for the $15 minimum wage, Conlin denied Sawant's claim that he opposed it, but said he wanted to "design a path that's going to get us there," and cited his endorsement by the Service Employees International Union 775, the home health care workers' union that's leading the charge for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac.
Sawant won a surprising 32 percent of the vote against Conlin in the primary. Conlin, who cast controversial votes in favor of council colleague Tim Burgess' anti-panhandling ordinance and against legislation mandating paid sick leave, has been on the council for 16 years where he's been well ahead of the curve on sustainability and environmentalism. Conlin recently introduced emergency legislation to require minimum density at new developments in urban centers, urban villages, and station areas, in response to an auto-oriented Walgreen's proposal in Wallingford.