The 15 People Who Should Really Run Seattle

Meet the new faces of Seattle leadership.

By Josh Feit With Casey Jaywork and Bernard Ellouk January 5, 2015 Published in the January 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Back row Felix Reyes, April Putney, Dongho Chang, Kshama Sawant, Rod Dembowski, Abdullahi Jama Middle row Grace Huang, Brian Surratt, Elise Worthy, Wier Harman, Brianna Thomas Front row Tom Fucoloro, Roger Valdez, Liv Finne Not pictured Nicole Vallestero Keenan

Last year was the year of the task force
. To solve every problem—be it finding a new police chief, figuring out the minimum wage, trying to work out a rideshare compromise, or tackling the affordable housing crisis—mayor Ed Murray assembled civic leaders to come up with a plan. Murray, however, often went with the usual suspects. 

Consider this group—our collection of 15 (mostly) behind-the-scenes policy wonks, activists, insightful voices, plus a few contrarians—as Seattle’s de facto task force at large. These are the game changers who will spend 2015 addressing the biggest challenges facing Seattle.

Felix Reyes
Seattle Police Officer

Felix Reyes calls himself “just a cog in a machine”—a badge-carrying functionary for whom policy decisions are “above my pay grade.” But big changes pivot on individuals, and Reyes, a downtown beat cop, personifies the transformative potential of King County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), a public health approach poised to reverse America’s ill-conceived War on Drugs: Cops team up with addiction counselors to funnel street criminals into recovery instead of prison. Early evaluation of the program suggests it may cut recidivism rates by as much as 25 percent. King County public defender Lisa Daugaard (a longtime police critic) calls Reyes “one of the biggest referrers” to LEAD. That’s probably because for Reyes, the work is personal. Raised by a single mother in Harlem, “I had three sisters,” he says, “all victims of drugs.” While Reyes isn’t ready to call off the war—“Not everyone deserves to go to jail, but sometimes they do”—he does think the program has a place in police strategy. People who before would have seen him as “a knuckle dragger to drag them to jail” can now approach Reyes for help. “Hardcore crack addicts, homeless—I’ve seen them change their lives.” 


April Putney
Legislative Relations Manager, King County Executive’s Office

Expanding mass transit via light rail is arguably the most important political imperative in 2015 for the future of the city and region. It may also be the most daunting. King County transit liberals must convince Republican power players in the state legislature to grant $15 billion for the project. That’s why King County executive and Sound Transit board chair Dow Constantine, who’s staking his political identity on remaking the region with light rail, hired April Putney as his lobbyist in December. A longtime activist at the environmental group Futurewise, Putney already has a ferocious win record in Olympia: She’s stopped bills designed to fast-track coal terminals and give developers carte blanche to build sprawl; she successfully advocated for a bill that forced local development plans to consider carbon footprints; she already helped secure money in Olympia with a transit fee bill that netted $26 million for transit projects; and, most impressively, last year she gathered an unprecedented coalition of immigrants rights groups, low-income advocates, and businesses for an ultimately successful bus-funding campaign. In other words: You’re in good hands, Dow. 


Dongho Chang
Seattle Department of Transportation Traffic Engineer

The “technocrat” (his proud term) behind a long list of recent urban upgrades that prove traffic planning isn’t just for cars anymore, Dongho Chang has found his dream job. “Traffic means vehicles, people, sidewalks, bikes, motorcycles,” he says, explaining the principle at work in his list of successes: building a protected bike lane on Second Ave, removing a lane of traffic on Northeast 75th to improve bus times and make the street safer for pedestrians (he’s replicating the project on 23rd), turning Bell Street into a pedestrian zone, and, perhaps the most famous achievement, following the lead of DIY activists who installed a guerrilla bike lane on Cherry Street by installing an official bike lane there. “Really good outcome to a nice gesture,” he says. Back when he was an engineer at WSDOT, Chang felt that simply “helping build highways wasn’t helping people live in sustainable communities.” But working for the City of Seattle, his hometown, Chang is building a multimodal infrastructure where people aren’t forced to drive. Because a city where everyone’s behind the wheel, well… “It’s not even feasible.”


Grace Huang
Public Policy Coordinator, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

There have been 1,971 reported domestic violence assaults in Seattle since 2011, accounting for 45 percent of all aggravated assaults in the city. Grace Huang, a former immigration law attorney, saw the toll the violence took on her female clients, many of whom were women trying to both navigate an already Byzantine immigration process and escape violent partners. At Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that does policy research and helps support domestic violence (DV) service agencies, where she’s been since 2001, Huang helped pass a Seattle law that provided paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. In Olympia she helped pass rental laws that protected DV victims and helped pass a law limiting access to firearms to DV offenders. Noting that DV is a cyclical problem—“our programs are [now] seeing the children of survivors that [we] served a decade ago”—Huang argues that the next focus needs to be prevention. The key, she says, is greater financial autonomy for women and children. “Victims stay in abusive relationships because they don’t have the means to leave.”


Elise Worthy
Cofounder, Ada Developers Academy

Maybe it’s because only four of the 24 students in the computer programming boot camp she attended in 2012 were women. (“And that was touted as a really high ratio.”) Or maybe it’s that when she landed her first programming job, the otherwise all-male development team thought it was a good idea to hold her welcome-aboard lunch at a restaurant where she had to walk through a strip club. Whatever the reason—the numbers in the software industry (75 percent men), or the culture (“engineers want to make you feel like you’re not smart”)—Elise Worthy’s rewriting the code now. In 2013, the Washington Department of Commerce awarded Worthy a $46,000 business grant. With it she started Ada Developers Academy, now the country’s only all-female, free programming boot camp. (It’s named after Ada Lovelace, who’s credited with writing the first computer code in the 1800s.) All 15 graduates in the inaugural 2014 class landed tech jobs. And Worthy, 30, now Ada’s CTO, has high hopes for the 24 students in the 2015 class. “In five years, these women are going to be leaders in tech,” Worthy says. “Think of what an impact that’s going to have.” 


Brian Surratt
Senior Policy Adviser, Mayor’s Office

Growing up biracial in “ultraconservative” 1980s Oklahoma, the mayor’s economic consigliere says he learned how to build compromise mainly by listening to people: where they’re coming from, how they see things, what they need. Nowadays, as a top staffer in Murray’s policy shop, Brian Surratt applies that strategy to building compromise out of conflict. Just look at last year’s contentious $15 minimum wage deliberations: “It was such a delicate compromise,” he says, “that if you pulled one piece, the whole thing would collapse because it would trigger a demand from somewhere else.” Council member Kshama Sawant denounced the compromise as a sellout to corporate interests—but then, shortly before it passed, she turned around and hugged Surratt. This year he’ll apply that same approach—as “honest broker between all the various parties”—to youth employment (a lynchpin in Mayor Murray’s plan to curb crime), which will involve streamlining the city’s programs and getting private employers on board. Not that Surratt has it all figured out. Not yet. Behind-the-scenes guys this adept at compromise rarely do. “I never had a master plan,” he says. “I still don’t.”


Tom Fucoloro
Founder, Seattle Bike Blog

Tom Fucoloro is not what you’d call risk averse. The St. Louis native got a bachelor’s in journalism in 2008 (“probably the worst time you could have graduated from college and wanted to get a journalism job”), dumped his car in Denver, landed in Seattle, and created a niche of his own: Seattle Bike Blog. With more than 100,000 hits per month, the blog has become Seattle’s go-to source for news on greenway policy, traffic fatalities, and naked mass bike rides. Seattle cycling has changed in the four years since he launched, largely thanks to his reporting. He demonstrated how bike lanes save lives within a fact-based forum. He called out car-driving road hogs who lawyer up to prevent community-approved bike lane development along the infamous Westlake corridor for having “no intention of acting in good faith” (the plaintiffs dropped the lawsuit a month later). His next target: funding the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. The levy that currently funds bike infrastructure is set to expire after 2015, and all the planning in the world doesn’t mean jack if there’s no political will to pay for it. And so Fucoloro will keep pressing, one blog post at a time, to “put pressure on the mayor and the council” to put their money where their mouths are.


Kshama Sawant
Seattle City Council Member

Unlike most of the people on this list, freshman city council member Kshama Sawant is hardly behind the scenes. Far from it. The self-described Socialist was handcuffed and arrested in front of Alaska Airlines HQ in November while protesting the company’s wage “robbery.” She upstaged Mayor Murray when she was sworn in last year, packing city hall with supporters and raising her fist to big cheers with her swear-in call of “Solidarity!” She later body slammed the mayor’s $15 minimum wage task force (of which she was a member) with the threat of a left-leaning initiative campaign at the ready. And so Sawant’s presence at city hall must now be factored into every political calculation by the mayor, council, and business-as-usual lobbyists. The year 2015 will find her needling the mayor’s housing affordability task force (she’s not on this one), which she says excludes “the fiercest advocates for affordable housing.” That’s not exactly true—a representative from low-income advocacy group Puget Sound Sage is on the task force—but Sawant’s talent for attracting the spotlight has reframed nearly every conversation of consequence in the city. 


Rod Dembowski
King County Council Member

Last April, Democrat Rod Dembowski was at the center of a conflict on whether to proceed with cuts to metro transit service. Republicans lined up on one side, scoffing at proposed taxes for bus funding. Democrats, including the charismatic county executive Dow Constantine, lined up behind their black-and-white solution: Fund metro or face cuts. Dembowski broke with his party and crafted a plan to mitigate cuts by looking for that magic GOP elixir: “efficiencies.” (Essentially it’s an audit to find ways to make metro run more leanly.) When its increased tax option went down in flames at the ballot in April, the Democratic Central Committee called on Dembowski to explain himself. Ultimately, with an uptick in revenue, thanks to a better-than-expected regional economy in 2014, transit hours did not need to be cut, and his fight—which Dembowski says was ultimately about earning the voters’ trust—was vindicated. Democrats on council remain “frustrated” with Dembowski for having sided with Republicans and taking on Constantine personally. Was it worth challenging his party to save transit hours? “There’s no doubt about it.”


Abdullahi Jama
Community Activist

Just over one in three Americans voted in the last election. For folks who take voting rights for granted it’s simple ennui, but immigrants often have a much better excuse. “They’re first-time voters,” says Abdullahi Jama, “and they don’t know how to cast their ballots.” Formerly a lawyer in Somalia, he crossed the ocean in the late 1990s and dabbled in community organizing during the 2000 elections, but it wasn’t until 2004 when, frustrated by what he saw as institutional apathy toward the robbery and shooting death of cab driver Hassan Farah near Boeing field, Jama resolved to mobilize immigrant voters. “He is an amazing negotiator,” says state senator Pramila Jayapal, who worked with Jama at One America, an immigrant advocacy group. “His real strength [is] his ability to navigate very complex tribal, ethnic divisions.” Jama recalls one man who didn’t want to vote in a presidential election for fear that he’d be held accountable on Judgment Day for anyone the president killed while in office. “It took me two and a half hours to convince him” to at least vote in local elections, Jama says, but “from that day until today, he voted in every election.” Jama’s also employed voting parties, which turn a private chore into a community event. Now he plans to tackle affordable housing. “We need more,” he says, perhaps through rent control or tax increases. “Otherwise, Seattle will become an unaffordable place to live.” 


Brianna Thomas
Field Director, Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund

Brianna Thomas has no patience for excuses. “You know the right thing when you see it, and you know the wrong thing,” she says of the 2,300 homeless people living on the streets of Seattle. “Stop being lazy about it.” After successfully running the ground campaign for the $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, Thomas became the field director for the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund in April, where she’s currently prepping to push state lawmakers to adequately fund affordable housing during the upcoming legislative session. Here in Seattle, Thomas suggests replacing the current incentive-zoning program (in which developers who want to build bigger have to either construct affordable housing or pay extra taxes) with linkage fees, which would similarly give developers a choice but would be based on square footage and apply to more projects over a greater area. Thomas calls linkage fees “a more equitable way to get everyone to pay into the pot” for affordable housing. She’s also a fan of long-term homeless encampments. “Creating any sort of stability for people experiencing homelessness is a good thing,” she says. Sure, encampments are a sorry excuse for housing, Thomas admits, but does anyone have a better idea? “Is there some resource we’re all just missing?”

Wier Harman
Executive Director, Town Hall Seattle 

Town Hall Seattle has been a cultural hub since Seattle Weekly founder David Brewster launched it in 1999—hosting author readings, concerts, and civic discussions. And while there have been hints of change over the last nine years as Brewster’s successor, Wier Harman, added a bar to the cathedral-like venue on First Hill, lately an even more vigorous populist sensibility has taken hold. Of the 422 events last year, it was the on-point, up-to-the-minute political ones that have made Town Hall germane. Take the community conversation about the changing nature of work in the economy; or Reclaiming Prosperity, a community discussion about minimum wage; or Latinos, Shaping American Politics, a round-table discussion about the role Latinos play. “We want to mirror the diversity, the dynamics of a city under one roof,” says Harman explaining the newer, expanded mind set. Doing so has meant being more proactive in engaging the community. “The intimacy of the stage is where you feel like you could be in the audience one night and on stage the next.”


Liv Finne
Director, Washington Policy Center’s Center for Education

The numbers are hardly flattering. Washington State ranks 42nd in the nation for graduation rates. Thirty-seven percent of incoming college freshmen must take high school–level remedial math or reading courses. Liv Finne, a former lawyer who came to education policy “pragmatically, through her kids,” is determined to set the Evergreen State on course, away from national laughingstock and toward top-notch education. Since she joining the Washington Policy Center in 2005, Finne has helped craft policy proposals that played a large part in the adoption of charter school legislation and provided a counter argument (that the data doesn’t show improved test scores) to last year’s smaller class size initiative. The biggest barrier is the Seattle Public School Board, she says, which she describes as “dysfunctional” and vested in maintaining a “monopoly on the schools and their budgets.” Her plan, “Eight Practical Ways to Improve Public Schools”—including posting teacher qualifications online, publicly rating schools based on test scores, and giving parents choice over schools—is a conservative challenge to education reform in a state where the dialogue has tended to be contained at one end of the political spectrum. 


Roger Valdez
Director, Smart Growth Seattle

Sixty-five percent of Seattle is zoned for single-family homes. But in advocating for microhousing and small-lot development, Roger Valdez has challenged this sacrosanct notion. With Smart Growth Seattle, his lobbying group for developers—Seattle’s traditional political bogeymen—he’s emerged as a leader in the conversation about city growth. And he isn’t afraid to call the discussion what it is—a battle. To Valdez, the obvious opponent is the Seattle City Council, whom he believes is “about to make a 100-year mistake.” The council’s emphasis on taxing and limiting new development, he says, will create a crisis as more and more people move here. He successfully lobbied to postpone legislation that would have reduced housing capacity in Capitol Hill and Ballard. And while he lost his fight for microhousing, including aPodments, his noisy testimony nearly convinced the mayor to veto the council’s restrictive bill. Just as important, but far more personal, Valdez aspires to change the antideveloper narrative. In five years he hopes “we can look back and say we finally got to a place where developers are not the target of abuse, ridicule, and derision, but are seen as the builders of the future that they are.” 


Nicole Vallestero Keenan
Policy Director, Puget Sound Sage

What do you do with a degree in econometrics and statistics? Triangulate IRS and raw census microdata to make the case for a $15 minimum wage. At least that’s what you do if you’re Nicole Vallestero Keenan, a policy analyst at nonprofit Puget Sound Sage, the low-income advocacy group that helped pass the city of SeaTac’s minimum wage initiative in 2013. And after that? Vallestero Keenan, who just turned 30, was appointed as the youngest person on Seattle mayor Ed Murray’s minimum wage task force, where she emerged as the go-to math brain of the operation. “The role I want to play,” she says, “is Spock.” And she did, setting the record straight, for example, on how much the average tipped worker really makes. (“Despite what people think, tipped workers don’t make bank.”) After the passage of Seattle’s own historic 2014 $15 minimum wage (without counting tips, thank you very much), Vallestero Keenan accepted a position as policy director at Sage, where she provides analysis for an environmental justice campaign focused on state and city environmental policies that address poor people and people of color.


This feature appeared in the January 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

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