It was November 8, 2008—election night—and she had been out canvassing for Barack Obama when Sara Nelson recalled signing a lease with her husband to start their own brewery.
She had been working as a legislative aide for Seattle council member Richard Conlin, and she said it was a scary, risky move for her and her husband, who worked in hospitality law for years before making the leap to open Fremont Brewing Co. Their business grew from its original two employees—themselves—to its current 50-plus workers and its large open spaces on the corner of Albion Place North and 34th Street.
Nelson worked for Conlin for most of his stint as a council member from 2002 to 2013 before Kshama Sawant unseated him. Though some criticize Conlin as being overly conservative, others say Conlin was well-respected for his leadership on environmental issues. In his office Nelson helped him develop policies on urban planning and sustainability, and she said she would continue that role if elected on the city council.
"The bottom line is that I am a policy wonk, and I miss public service. And I’ve used my business as a soapbox to affect positive change on the local, state, and federal levels,” Nelson said in an earlier interview. “Sooner or later I was going to get back into policy full-time. This was an opportunity.”
When asked about Conlin's popularity, Nelson criticized Sawant for making "grand statements"—specifically referring to when Sawant said taxes on businesses couldn't be regressive—and said the veteran council member always considered scenarios of potential unintended consequences before implementing legislation.
"What I learned from Richard Conlin was that details matter," Nelson said. "He never ruled by slogan. ...He talked to anybody who wanted to meet with him. That's what I will bring to the council."
She wants to incentivize businesses to develop green practices, something she said she's used her own business as a "soapbox" to promote; Fremont King County’s Small Business of the Year award in 2014, largely for its sustainability practices. An anthropology Ph.D. and women's studies major at the University of Washington, Nelson said she still considers herself an activist, one who met her husband at WTO protests in Seattle and originally planned to be a diplomat.
Though Nelson previously told PubliCola a one-size-fits-all model on wages, scheduling, or paid family leave doesn't work, she said she supports the $15 minimum wage. She said she supports the "spirit of the legislation" on secure scheduling but was concerned about how it would affect the flexibility of workers (it only applies to businesses with 500 employees or more, and so wouldn't affect Fremont Brewing). She criticized the "process" of those bills, that small businesses weren't at the table early enough when the city implemented those policies.
Backed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Nelson has raised the third-most in the race, a total of $130,000. Having joined the race late, Nelson chose not to participate in the Democracy Vouchers program—it would have limited donations to $250 from individual donors—unlike her other two biggest opponents in the race. (Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda have both raised more money.) But businesses have so far poured $121,000 worth of independent expenditures for Nelson. She's been endorsed by The Seattle Times, as well as former mayor Greg Nickels and former council member Richard Conlin.
“I’ve worked for the city council and I’ve worked with the city council,” Nickels said in a released statement when Nelson announced her run. “The council works best when there is balance. Sara, with her years of experience as a neighborhood small-business owner and her level-headed approach will make the council’s voice stronger for the all people in our community.”
A Sacramento native, Nelson was raised by a single mom and grew up "really poor" in California, an experience she said shaped her and her policies. Pieces of legislation she would push for right away, she said, is to allocate resources to the Office of Housing to outreach to seniors who don't use the include property tax exemptions they qualify for.
Though she supports growth and density, Nelson also said she would listen to neighborhood concerns. She's also voices concerns on bills' effects on small landlords and seniors—she said small landlords like to rent to someone they have a "connection" with who may not necessarily have the best credit score, and that it privileges younger people who know how to use a computer.
"I understand anxiety. It can all change in a moment. A shoe could drop," she said. "You just you do everything to prevent failure. You always worry it could happen. I don't take anything for granted."