Socialist city council member Kshama Sawant faced off with her challenger, Urban League leader Pamela Banks, on stage at Seattle University last night in a debate sponsored by Town Hall. The one-on-one showdown between the two District Three (Capitol Hill, Central Area, Madison Valley) candidates was packed. But here was the first big surprise of the night: It wasn’t just Sawant’s zealous, red t-shirted fans that filled the auditorium. Banks too had a formidable showing of enthusiastic supporters in the house—her troops were wearing purple and yellow “PB for D3” shirts. And their presence—booming applause and cheering for Banks’s every line—matched and even surpassed the Sawant contingent’s regular raucous showing.
The shocker (and local celeb Sawant, who’s used to owning crowds, looked a bit startled herself by Banks’s organized effort) came right away after Banks delivered her opening statement. “She only listens to people who think she’s great,” Banks said of Sawant, going on the attack from the very outset, accusing council member Sawant of ignoring Banks’s phone calls and entreaties early on in Sawant’s term to meet with Banks about the Urban League’s “Career Bridge” program, a jobs program for underemployed African American men. “You can’t represent the people, if you don’t talk to the people,” Banks said after hyping her own credentials as a 20-year resident and local community activist. (Later in the evening, Sawant praised the "successful" Career Bridge program, citing it as something she was funding to address racial and income inequality. Banks pounced saying she "finds it interesting that the council member supports it now, when I couldn't get a meeting. I'm glad she supports it." The energized Banks fans loved that one.)
Another big surprise was a big disagreement that emerged. Sawant, who typically lines up with the populist, lesser Seattle faction, actually bested Banks when it came to urbanist issues—though it was more that Banks herself took up the NIMBY flag. Banks sided with the Seattle Times suggestion in its recent anti-transportation levy editorial that the $930 million “Move Seattle” plan should go back to the districts to be “determined.” (Banks does support the levy, though.) Banks then proceeded to go on a bit of a lesser Seattle rant saying that people in District Three and District Two (Southeast Seattle) were “appalled” at road diets and the Seattle Department of Transportation was “talking to us, not for us.” Sawant, on the other hand, said emphatically that she supported the transportation levy ASAP and described her vision for a full expansion of Metro service with feeder lines to light rail hubs, 24-hour service, and free Orca cards for students and the disabled. (Of course, she called for a “millionaire’s tax” to pay for it—something she called for repeatedly throughout the night.)
Also on the urbanist tip, Sawant came out in favor of the recent Capitol Hill street closure project on Pike St. saying small businesses told her they loved the idea because it brought more foot traffic; she segued into an idyllic rap about “truly independent businesses and artists”… “who made Capitol Hill what it is [in the first place] along with the LGBTQ community.”
Again, Banks was skeptical of the city’s urbanist bent. She called the street closure idea an “interesting concept,” but wondered if it was actually hurting small business. “We have to reevaluate,” she said.
Pressed on LGBTQ issues—violence against trans and queer people and the homeless epidemic among gay youth—Sawant made another pitch for a millionaires tax saying it would fund health services and a community center for homeless youth. Banks, hitting her own campaign theme—“housing first”—said services were secondary to getting people in permanent housing. She cited the 1811 housing project on Denny for alcoholics, saying similar projects needed to be built for marginalized gay youth; she said the same should be done for vets and drug addicts and the mentally ill.
Both candidates were eloquent on the subject of policing. Asked about the mayor’s budget proposal to increase the police force, Sawant said public safety wasn’t as simple as just adding cops, arguing that issues of income inequality and racism (she noted disparate discipline rates for African American kids in schools) were at the “root.” And she got loud applause by concluding that society shouldn’t look at gang members and say “they did something wrong, but that we as a society have failed young people.” (She noted her lone city council vote against the new King County youth jail, saying if the County “had $200 million to build a new jail, they had $200 million to fund jobs.”)
Banks, who said “jobs and education stop crime and bullets” talked about a Boston program called “violence interrupters” that gets ex-gang members involved in outreach to youth, and she got off one of her sharpest jabs at Sawant of the night: “Long before it was a hashtag and a slogan…and council member Sawant jumped on to it…I've been working on Black Lives Matter all my life.” (This was another instance when her fans broke out in loud applause.) And Banks was also more definitive than Sawant about the cops budget item, saying simply that she would spend money on programs “before hiring more police.”
Moderator Erica C. Barnett asked Sawant what “besides rent control”—another solution at the top of Sawant’s agenda along with a millionaires tax—she would do to address the housing crisis. Sawant said she wanted to use $1 billion in bonding capacity to build affordable housing on city owned property, and she said she wanted “the most robust” developers fee on commercial and residential development. (Mayor Ed Murray’s big housing affordability proposal only calls for a commercial linkage fee—though it also mandates affordable housing production in all developments.) Sawant wound her way back to rent control, though, saying she wanted to strengthen tenants’ rights by, for example, making it illegal for landlords with active code violations to raise rents.
Banks’s answer about affordable housing meandered when compared to Sawant's specific agenda, though frankly, Banks displayed more on-the-ground District Three knowledge, decrying the fate of African American businesses in Promenade Twenty Three getting priced and bought out. (She noted that her longtime neighborhood dry cleaners had been priced out and was closing shop. For her part, Sawant can be a bit tone deaf about serving district three, saying she was shopping a municipal broadband pilot in either District Three or Queen Anne.)
Sawant never directly attacked Banks, but continually noted that candidates backed by big businesses (Banks has gotten support from the chamber and the Washington Restaurant Association and Vulcan execs) will not support the interests of working people. “We all know how big business” plays “a dirty game,” Sawant said in her closing statement. “They fund their candidate and expect a return on their investment. I do not accept corporate donations.”
Sawant’s dig set Banks up, though, for an explicit attack of her own. “I’m proud of all the people who support me,” she said, telling people to check out the campaign finance reports themselves. “45 percent of my money comes from the district, more than double my opponent. Only 18 percent [of her money] comes from in our district.” Banks went on to criticize Sawant’s attendance record at both the council level and on regional boards.
And getting another round of populist cheers usually reserved for Sawant, Banks closed by quoting Muhammad Ali: “Service to others,” she quoted, “is the rent you pay for your time here on earth.” The booming applause left Sawant’s contingent a little off guard, and after the cheers for Banks died down, they broke into a chorus of “We need rent control to make Seattle affordable.”