Power Lines

Lorena González Has an Agenda of Her Own

Both the left and right want to claim the new city council member as their own. Boy, are they in for a surprise.

By Josh Feit March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Seattle City Council member Lorena González photographed at city hall on January 20, 2016.

Image: Mike Kane

As activists and low-wage workers crowded city council chambers in mid-December for a vote on precedent-setting progressive legislation that would give the largely immigrant contract workers on the receiving end of your Uber app the right to unionize, brand new council member Lorena González took the microphone. It would be González’s first big vote. And Seattle’s new left, an increasingly influential voice in local politics made up of race and class-conscious voters who’d been rallying around socialist council member Kshama Sawant for the past year, were eager, waving their “Cap Corporate Greed” placards, to hear González lay it down. 

The recent November election not only gave their hero, freshman incumbent Sawant, another four years, it resulted in a batch of candidates, including González, who changed the status quo: more color, more women, more people under 40. Elected in one of the two citywide seats, with a 78 percent mandate, González was the only one of the young Turks who could check all three boxes—she’s Latina, she’s female, and she’s 38.

And she also passed the left-wing litmus test: González had been the board president of the state’s leading civil and immigrants rights group, OneAmerica. And as an active member of the trial lawyers association, she helped overturn the discriminatory voting system in Yakima. Most notably, as a civil rights attorney at one of the country’s all-star labor rights firms, Schroeter, Goldmark, and Bender, González sued the Seattle Police Department over police brutality in the infamous “I’m gonna kick the Mexican piss out of you” case. Unlike most attorneys who bring lawsuits against cops nationwide, she won.

Prior to the Uber vote, mayor Ed Murray, staking out the conservative position, had sent a letter to the council saying the legislation was half baked and wouldn’t stand up in court. González’s vote—and speech—didn’t disappoint the sign-waving activists and gig economy workers. Defying the mayor, and to booming cheers, González, decrying “massive corporations who seek to make their money off of literally your family’s back” spun the legal uncertainty into a heroic victory: “I ask all of us today, Do we want to use this law as a shield or use the law as a sword? I say use it as a sword.”

It’s an activist philosophy that González’s former fellow OneAmerica board member and current OneAmerica Votes board president, Sudha Nandagopal, says defines González’s progressive POV. “Rather than seeing the law as a set of lines that only lets you go so far, she sees it as an outline for finding solutions.” 

As a result, Seattle’s activist community sees González as one of their own, and they’ve got great expectations. Calling González an “unapologetic advocate and defender of underrepresented workers,” Rebecca Saldaña, executive director of Seattle’s leading social justice group, Puget Sound Sage, says, “She showed no fear taking on the Seattle Police Department, and I don’t expect any less of her in her new role as Seattle City Council member.”

But just as Seattle’s left justifiably sees González as a powerful new ally on the council, so does Murray and the so-called establishment. Not only did González serve as Murray’s legal counsel for 11 months before running (Murray enthusiastically endorsed her), but her list of donors included bogeyman such as the chamber of commerce, Vulcan, and Amazon. 

Another major fan? The leader of the moderate bloc on the council that often dickers with Sawant, Tim Burgess, who was reelected to the other at-large seat. In fact, Burgess and González did a joint downtown fundraiser where, Burgess tells me, González was enthusiastically received. “She is a rational thinker who knows that governing is about getting things done,” he says. “I believe she will be a natural leader on the council—pragmatic, thoughtful, focused.” 

And just like the left, Burgess too has reason to be encouraged. While González hasn’t yet cast many big-deal votes beyond the Uber vote, she appears to be in sync with the business bloc on the big issues. Exhibit A: The council is about to take up landmark affordable housing legislation. While Sawant has demanded legislation to extract the highest possible fees from developers, González is clearly not on board with the revolution. Supporting the mayor’s proposal for a grand bargain that accommodates developers rather than fighting them, González told me: “I think charging the highest fee possible…is a solution to bop developers over the head, but it is not the policy solution to increase the affordable housing stock
in our city. I’ve seen the math. I’ve seen the numbers.... There is a balance between creating an incentive to build housing and a disincentive to build housing. I am not willing to sacrifice creating hundreds of affordable housing units for the sole purpose of punishing a capitalistic developer.”

As both sides—the Sawant left and the Burgess establishment—try to claim González as one of theirs, it’s clear she has an agenda of her own. The daughter of Mexican immigrants who started laboring alongside her parents as an eight-year-old picking fruit in the Yakima Valley, González eventually worked her way through law school at Seattle University. And after graduating in 2005, she emerged as a powerhouse. 

In 2009 the Hispanic National Bar Association named her one of seven top attorneys in the country under 40. This was three years before she won the “Mexican piss” case with a $150,000 payment to her client Martin Monetti Jr., who’d been kicked and beaten by the SPD. When newly elected Mayor Murray stumbled on police accountability issues early in his term, he decided he needed an in-house legal council of his own to advise him on police reform.

“We gave them a couple of names,” lobbyist Larry Shannon remembers. Murray’s team had approached him for recommendations. “But one of them was a clear standout.” Indeed, Shannon, head lobbyist for the liberal trial lawyers advocacy group, the Washington State Association for Justice, says González had emerged as “a superstar” for his organization. “Our loss, the public’s win,” Shannon thought when he sent González the mayor’s way.

Murray and González bonded over their working class backgrounds, and the mayor was impressed with her smarts, but the understanding was clear: González would just be passing through. She was ambitious, and the mayor’s office was her gateway to public office. 

And sure enough, and with the mayor’s blessing, after an 11-month stint helping him set parameters for police contract bargaining talks and after coauthoring legislation to upgrade the community police commission, González left to run for city council.

Her main issue on the campaign trail was police accountability. After she won, new council president Bruce Harrell, formerly the head of the public safety committee, made González the new chair. González, whose main council priority, she told me, is to change the system so that cops don’t have multiple routes to appeal discipline, promptly changed the name to the “Safe Communities Committee.” 

“It seems as though in the past public safety has been pretty hyperfocused on police officers rather than impacted communities,” she told me. “The police are folks who help us keep folks safe, but I really want us to focus on how we create communities that are safe rather than on what is or is not working within the systems that are supposed to be keeping us safe.”

If her agenda seems antagonistic to the cops, it’s worth noting that—just like the competing right and left factions on the council are claiming González as their own—the SPD is claiming her too. The police union itself maxed out in donations to González and endorsed her during last year’s campaign.

That’s right: The woman who sued the SPD also netted the police union’s endorsement.

Ron Smith, president of the Seattle police union, sat down with González at the Columbia Tower Starbucks to interview her during last year’s city council campaign. “One of the first things she says to me is, ‘You know I sued the city, right?’ ” Smith recalls. He told her of course he knew, but he also understood she had a professional duty to defend her client. “We endorsed her,” he explains, “because we’re looking for people who understand public safety. Someone [who will] hear our perspective and at least understand it.” 

The council member agrees that the cops “took comfort in the fact” that she gets “the systems they have to operate within.” But just as González is going to challenge the left and right, she’s put the SPD on notice too. “Make no mistake, I don’t think they’re under any illusion I’m going to agree with them 100 percent of the time.”

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