Seattle’s August Primary is around the corner, which will narrow down the two finalists for Seattle Mayor.
One leading candidate is M. Lorena González, current President of the Seattle City Council. She’s a Seattle progressive with a very compelling life story. Raised in Central Washington in a migrant farming community, she worked her way through community college and WSU. She then earned a law degree with honors and became a civil rights attorney. She won election to the Seattle City Council in 2015, and has been serving as Council President since 2019.
She’s won endorsements from some of the Seattle-area’s leading progressives: Representative Pramilla Jayapal, MLK Labor, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and several other labor and civil rights organizations. [Update July 17: The Stranger also endorses her.]
But despite my enormous respect for her personal journey, I’m not voting for her, based on her results and approach as Councilmember.
Here are ten reasons I’m not voting for Lorena González:
- She’s President and two-term member of the very dysfunctional Seattle City Council.
- She’s been utterly rudderless on public safety.
- She is more performative than effective.
- She is supposed to represent the entire city, yet expresses contempt for reasonable needs of a large number of her constituents.
- She was instrumental in Police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation.
- She has an antipathy to downtown employers, and downtown needs revitalization.
- For her entire time on the council, she’s not done anything to create a conduit of accessibility, measurement or accountability to neighborhoods.
- She’s far too aligned with a narrow group of activists, not the needs of 724,000+ Seattleites.
- For five years, she has misdiagnosed the roots of the homelessness crisis.
- She has consistently voted for policies without establishing metrics of success.
Perhaps all of this could be simplified by asking yourself “Is Seattle better than it was in 2015?
But if you want some specifics, read on.
1. She’s been a long-time part of, and for two years president of, a very dysfunctional Seattle City Council.
Is six years enough time to get the measure of a public official? I think so. Lorena González has been a citywide City Councilmember since 2015, and has served as City Council President since 2019.
What can we cite as her results during that time? Do you like the City Council and its direction? Do you think it’s a well-functioning political body? She’s President.
The Seattle City Council is the 9-member legislative body of the city. It creates city laws (ordinances.) It makes multimillion dollar resource allocations in its ongoing work. It makes policy choices: spending in one area means that spending in another area often isn’t possible. So it’s a good way to get a sense of a leader’s priorities.
Further, it’s a great way to get a sense of how they manage, since much of the city’s vast network of third-party service providers are vetted, hired, and renewed, and ostensibly at least, supervised by City Council. Is there an organized process here? Time and again, the city falls short of good management practice when it comes to selecting vendors, vetting them, setting objectives, and followthrough. This is incredibly wasteful.
It’s not just spending, it’s also revenue: the City Council is also in charge of levying new taxes and excise fees, zoning, city ordinances and more.
How’s it been going since 2015? Do you think Seattle’s moved in the right direction? During her time in office:
- Crime is up (Seattle homicides increased 68% — from 31 in 2019 to 52 in 2020, a 26-year high.)
- Homelessness stays intractibly high, despite massively increased spending, and we still don’t know which programs work and by how much
- Overdose deaths soared to record highs
- Taxes are up for both individuals and for employers
- Four blocks of our city were taken over and a police precinct was abandoned; González support at the time was only for the protestors who did so
- The County Courthouse in Seattle had to close entrances due to public safety concerns
- King County on track to set another record in gun violence
- Encampment fires are up
- Third party service provider accountability scandals
- Police response times are significantly up, and the police force has shrunk to levels not seen in two decades
- A Chief of Police has resigned, citing lack of support from City Council
- More than 200 businesses have permanently closed downtown, citing in part shoplifting and an unfriendly environment for their workers
- A general sense of municipal partnership with our city’s largest employers is down, as the city’s largest employer invests instead in Bellevue
- A major bridge had to be suddenly closed because it wasn’t maintained
- The Seattle Public School system remained closed for in-person K-12 learning longer than any other public school system in the nation except San Francisco… To be fair, Seattle’s City Council is not in charge of the public school system! But my criticism is that a prominent municipal leader, particularly one who focuses her messaging so much on equity and families, should have been, and should continue to be — extremely outspoken about this! It was safe to reopen, as many school districts demonstrated. Seattle didn’t, and it harms and is harming the socioeconomically disadvantaged most of all.
- Frequent offenders revolve through the justice system — the February 2019 “System Failure Report” chronicled how just 100 offenders commit 3,500+ bookings, and not a single hearing is held to find ways to address it. Nine months later, 87 of these 100 were booked again, representing 220 bookings. Again, not a single hearing to address this issue.
Are these problems due to funding cutbacks? I don’t think so.
Seattle’s abundant revenue is the envy of just about every other city in the nation. We’re home to Amazon, Starbucks, Zillow, Expedia, Nordstrom, major satellite locations for companies like Facebook, Google and Adobe, a vibrant health sciences sector, and many other sectors as well. Seattle’s budget continues to outpace per-capita inflation by a considerable margin:
Further, Seattle’s budget far outpaces the per-capita budget of comparable mid-size cities, such as Boston MA and Austin TX, which seem much better run.
What specifics has President and City Councilmember González done to improve your life? Meanwhile, the City Council spends time passing legislation calling for cooperation with Cuba on COVID, addressing the farm and citizenship policy for the nation of India, passing bills that cause grocery stores to close, and far more.
Listen to King County Executive Dow Constantine, who calls the current City Council an “impediment” to progress:
I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed by State Senators, State Representatives, and the Mayor about this same City Council. And she’s been president of the Council. What would this suggest about her supervision of an entire City Executive Branch?
[Side note: her Chief of Staff, Brianna Thomas, is also running for City Council.]
2. She’s been utterly rudderless on public safety.
Perhaps more than any other area, Lorena González has worked awfully hard to change our approach to public safety in the city of Seattle. But she takes reckless votes to cut funding 50% without even a plan for the newly “reimagined” public safety.
She led the Public Safety Committee in her first council term, and served as president of the City Council in the second, so she has had ample opportunity to be proactive.
To her credit, at the start of her term in City Council, she championed and passed the 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance, a thoughtful piece of legislation I largely do support, which made some significant and needed improvements to the police accountability system. But that was nearly five years ago. I wish she continued along the “reform” lines and didn’t so quickly hop on the “defund” train when it was fashionable.
Her list of positive (or even debatably positive) accomplishments in my view largely stops there, and there’s a great deal of results on the other side of the ledger which greatly trouble me with respect to her desire to see public safety improvements for the citizens of Seattle.
- She capriciously joined activist demands in June and July 2020 to commit to defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50%, without any actionable plan as to how to do so. She later had to backpedal entirely on that commitment.
- Seattle’s Police Department is very notably under a federal consent decree, after a Department of Justice investigation found numerous reasons for better oversight and reforms.
That’s very important — it says the feds have much greater say on policy and machinations as to how SPD ought to be run. The process for overseeing those reforms legally lies in the hands of a Federal Judge, Judge Robart, who just a few months ago shared very harsh words for the City Council in their capricious takes on what should happen with SPD.
An attorney should know that if a police force is under a federal consent decree, a local city council cannot just go passing ordinances which run afoul of that consent decree. That is Constitutional Law 101 level stuff.
Related post: “Seattle Plows Ahead with 50% Cut To Police Budget“
- What has she done to improve Seattle neighborhood safety coordination and accountability in a practical way in all her time in office?
Just a year ago, she took to Twitter to apologize for funding the police:
Does she know that 81% of Black Americans would like to see the same or greater police presence in their own neighborhoods, as Gallup measured in August 2020? Or is she only listening to a small, non-representative cadre of “Defund” and “Decriminalize” activists? There are 724,000+ Seattleites.
On the ground, the level of coordination with neighborhood community safety groups has greatly suffered. A couple specific neighborhoods in Seattle used to have “public safety coordinators” funded by the city (for instance, Sonny Nguyen in the Central and International District, who works in a different position now.)
But due to Gonzalez’s defunding actions, especially now with the sudden demise of Community Police Team and lack of scaling up of Community Service Officers or any other resourcing, there is no way for neighborhoods, businesses, etc, to tap into a point person or local accountability for the myriad programs, service providers.
There are and have been so many programs that have “community” in the title (CPC, CSO, CPT) but ask yourself whether you or anyone you know has any idea of whom to contact at the local level about general public safety questions, follow-up, coordination, or feedback … during an era when public safety reform is supposed to be such a top priority.
What practical leadership has she demonstrated in the past decade to help citywide progress, outside of police reform politics?
3. She is more performative than effective.
First, the grandstanding vote in the early summer of 2020 to defund police by 50% without a plan is a prime example of González’s “fire, ready, aim” leadership style. Her ear is consistently to vocal but small activist groups whose membership totals perhaps several thousand at most, while ignoring the reasonable needs of the other 724,000+ residents who live in the city.
Second, she voted for the boondoggle $3 million “Black Brilliance Project.” How did (or will) spending that $3,000,000 tangibly help Seattleites? What do we now know that was either not known nor possible to know through existing public comment channels? Can you be specific?
Then there was the costly mistake three years ago, when Councilmember Lorena González cast a symbolic vote which cost the city $12 million in federal funding in 2018.
“I voted no on this, in part thinking that this was not going to be very controversial,” Councilmember Lorena González said. “I want to apologize to the chair. I had communicated to Chair Bagshaw that I intended to vote in this manner as a courtesy, with the understanding that there would likely be support for the underlying bill.”
Recently she pressured the Seattle Police Department to rescind an invitation to a law enforcement appreciation dinner. She decided to weigh in with support race-based discriminatory fees at a Seattle Public Park as part of Pride Month. Such discrimination is expressly prohibited by federal civil rights legislation:
She seems to prefer taking the performative route vs. working with stakeholders effectively to broker better outcomes.
Time and again, she signals that her underlying model is that of a zero-sum, activists win, non-activists lose model. Effective governance should be about truly inviting all stakeholders in and forging compromise, and there’s far too little of it demonstrated in her terms in office.
I don’t think that’s a great recipe for citywide leadership.
4. She is supposed to represent the entire city, yet expresses contempt for a large number of her constituents.
During the first fight over the Head Tax, she wrote in private texts that “It breaks my heart that more homeless people will die before the privileged voter is ready to act,” González texted. “It’s nauseating actually.”
Yes, homeless people are dying, but they’re not dying because the initial Head Tax legislation didn’t pass.
The Seattle region spends more than $1 billion annually on homelessness. Even the consultant that Seattle hired six years ago concluded that coordination, measurement and effective solutions were more important than raising new funds.
Now, six years in, we have a new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which suggests some slow glacial progress might be possible on a single solution (though it’s current form and leadership leaves me skeptical.) But why did centralization take so long, and where are the key metrics for success and measures, what transparency do voters have, what audits have taken place of existing homelessness providers, what best practices from other cities are we adopting, and most important — what are the results thus far? Can we please measure the outcomes, not the inputs?
In calling a large number of voters “nauseating”, González didn’t ever stop to ponder the possibility that her totally misguided and scrapped initial legislation would have heavily penalized low-margin but high revenue outlets like grocery stores, warehouses and retail establishments, causing them to reduce staff and relocate out of the city, and in so doing it would have been very regressive to the communities it ostensibly attempted to help.
These same “nauseating” voters found a subsequent attempt passing a much larger employer payroll tax hike much more amenable, and without major grassroots resistance, in part because it was instead focused the targeted excise threshold on a businesses’ income, not on revenue, and thus didn’t as egregiously penalize workers at low margin or even temporarily unprofitable retail/wholesale/service.
Had González realized this from the beginning, been open to hearing objections from the family which runs the Uwajimaya grocery store and many others, and not consistently viewed policy from such a zero-sum standpoint, perhaps the entire costly and embarrassing exercise of passing a Head Tax then repealing it then passing an entirely different one could have been avoided, along with the contempt she expressed about those opposed to the scrapped version 1.0.
In another incident, González’s team relayed that she believed Third Avenue public safety concerns (numerous assualts and open-air drug dealing) “hyperbolic”:
Does characterizing public safety concerns as “hyperbolic” meet with your view of what’s happening downtown?
These concerns about downtown safety are so “hyperbolic” that more than one hundred businesses downtown have closed up shop (citing not just the pandemic but also things shoplifting and public safety), the King County Courthouse has closed public entrances, retailers are limiting hours of operation, and many residents will no longer go downtown as often.
5. She was instrumental in Police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation.
González joined the majority of the City Council and voted to cut spending for the Seattle Police Department, including Police Chief Carmen Best’s salary by 40%. Yet she refused to involve the Seattle Police Department in the process of reallocation of funds.
González likes to play the identity politics game, so it’s especially tone-deaf that she didn’t even involve Chief Best, who was the city’s first Black, Female Police Chief in its history in any plans to defund the police.
Seattle’s KING5 reports here, how the City Council’s lack of even having a conversation with Best and her department before plowing ahead with its defunding in August 2020, which led directly to Carmen Best’s resigation:
6. She has an antipathy to downtown employers.
Council president Lorena González would like to be your mayor, but thinks downtown Seattle is only about big corporations, and refused to answer Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) in their mayoral candidate questionnaire the very reasonable question as to what might be done to get all the restaurants, retailers, repair shops, cafes, theatres, dry cleaners and more back on their feet.
Seattle has the seventh highest small business rates per capita in the nation. Wouldn’t you expect a City Councilmember to know that, even celebrate it?
Precisely no one is saying that millions of recovery dollars ought to be given to Amazon, but maybe we could do something for the smaller employers, like improving safety downtown, or loan guarantees or tax forgiveness, listening and responding to their top concerns?
What’s the role of a mayor with respect to the economic engine of a city? Should their posture be continually hostile to it, or engage with it, listen to ideas, and find ways to partner? If you believe the latter, as I do, she’s not the right fit. Because that’s now how she’s governed so far, nor how she’s signaling.
7. For her entire time on the council, she’s not done anything to create a conduit of accessibility, measurement or accountability.
Ask your local neighborhood public safety representative how responsive Lorena González’s office has been to inquiries. I did. They use words like:
8. She’s too aligned with activist groups, at the expense of 724,000+ Seattleites who want things like improved public safety, accountability, and a long-overdue effective approach to homelessness crisis which acknowledges that addiction and mental health are at the center of the crisis.
It’s admirable that González claims to be the champion, throughout her career, of the marginalized.
But there’s a recurring theme. Small but highly vocal activist groups have her ear, she then jumps in with both feet on policy ideas, and then, when the reality hits, often has to backtrack.
Homelessness response and public safety policy are big issues that affect us all. They should not be driven exclusively by a narrow group of activists at the expense of a thoughtful, sensible plan that takes input from all stakeholders.
Too often during her two terms, her quick alliance with activists and clear lack of willingness to engage with all stakeholders leads one to wonder on occasion who is truly marginalized and underrepresented. It seems more important to her sometimes to demonstrate that she’s not interested in outcomes that might benefit all.
Time and again, from her knee-jerk “Defund the Police 50%” vote, to her rhetorical affordability, not addiction-treatment-centered approach to homelessness, to safe injection sites to the Head Tax 1.0 debacle, she has sided with a small but loud activist groups over the broad needs of a community. And more than once, she’s had to backtrack from that initial response, getting way out over her skis.
Trivia: There is not a single retail or manufacturing business owner/operator/employer on the City Council today, of nine members. Is it important for the City Council — and our next mayor — to have a basic understanding of what the needs of employers are in revitalizing downtown? Or at least shouldn’t she care? Does it matter to have a vital downtown corridor in which small business, medium and (gasp!) even large businesses can thrive and find attractive for growth? Is tourism important to Seattle? Livability?
9. For five years, she has misdiagnosed the roots of the homelessness crisis.
Council President González has for years now characterized Seattle’s homelessness crisis as an “affordability crisis”, and has downplayed and ignored the chronic substance abuse and mental health crisis which is driving it. Where is the discussion about treatment options? What do we do about those who are encamped in key public spaces and do not wish to move?
Lorena González voted to eliminate the City’s Navigation Team, a former group of service providers plus law enforcement that would make contact with those encamped in some places that pose particular public safety risks (e.g., in parks adjacent to elementary schools.) The Navigation Team used to make contact with campers, provide shelter options and a deadline to move, but staying encamped at the given location was not an option. (Some shorthand this as “sweeps.”)
At issue: what do you do when an encampment poses a hazard to public safety, but residents refuse to move? It’s a difficult and sensitive conundrum; sweeps have been loudly characterized by detractors as uncompassionate. But they don’t really offer any solution for, say, the elementary school which has tents and yes, also addiction and public safety risks adjacent to the schoolyard. Nor do they have much of an answer for the rash of 100+ debris-throwing incidents thus far in 2021 onto Seattle’s I-5 and I-90 overpasses. It’s only a matter of time before multiple innocent people are killed because of the city’s inability to act. Having no “middle ground” Navigation Team deprives policymakers of any formalized, supervised, measurable, alternative which presents options from third party service providers and says “no, you cannot stay encamped outside an elementary school.” Yet here again, González sides with activists and has no near-term solution other than to hope it doesn’t result in yet more avoidable tragedy.
The only mention on “addiction” Twitter of addiction on González Twitter timeline focuses on her desire to see so-called “safe” injection sites established in the city. These would spin up to offer free, supervised injection of opiates to anyone who demands it. Can we maybe address treatment at some point? We are six years in to the city declaring a homelessness emergency, a term which has included pretty much all of González’s time in office.
What measurable progress has been made, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent?
10. She has consistently voted for new programs without insisting upon outcome-based budgeting.
Seattle is progressive, and that’s terrific. I support taking fresh looks at policy, adopting innovative new programs, measuring what works, and doubling-down. That’s great.
But for the past decade or more, Seattle’s municipal feedback loop has been utterly broken:
- Metrics are either never named which constitute successful outcomes, or else they’re not reported upon if they are.
- Entrenched service providers are not independently audited and monitored
- Entrenched service providers and their programs do NOT regularly have their funding tied to whether or not they deliver on those promised outcomes
Let’s look at the LEAD Program as just one example. LEAD stands for “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.” This innovative, progressive program, in a nutshell, is a collaborative community safety program that offers offenders (and the legal/judicial system) an alternative to incarceration under select conditions.
Someone might be arrested for meth possession or petty theft and, rather than being booked into jail, be offered “diversion.” Like a lot of citizens, I think to myself, “OK, this could be terrific. I’m compassionate, common sense suggests that jail might not always be the most effective approach for offenders or their victims in the community. Perhaps diverting into counseling, services and other options are smart investments which will reduce the likelihood of offenders to repeat again. Let’s try it, and measure recidivism.”
The problem, like a lot of other programs the City Council has doubled-down on during González’s leadership, is that we do not know the most important community-centric outcomes.
We as taxpayers have been paying for various forms of this program since 2015. Seattleites feel the impacts of repeated theft, harassment and assault by some of these offenders. Wouldn’t you want, as a city councilmember authorizing funding of LEAD, to know how well it’s doing in recidivism, year by year?
Yet no one asks. And if you’re a concerned citizen, try as you might, you cannot get the recidivism numbers, year-by-year, for members in the LEAD program. Does recidivism go up or down? Do people arrested for assault and diverted into the program tend to get well? How much does crime go up or down in the areas that such diversion programs are rolled out? These are fundamental questions, and González and other City Council members don’t ask them, and don’t hold progressive programs to any kind of ongoing scrutiny. They just re-up funds, expand programs, and nod at a few Powerpoints on check-in.
For more information on diversion programs and the City’s utter failure to measure them properly, read the excellent rundown on SCC Insight: Lewis touts new report on JustCARE program… but maybe he shouldn’t. (UPDATED) (sccinsight.com)
But it goes well beyond just diversion programs. Apply this “thinking” and activist-capture driven resource allocation and opacity/unwillingness to monitoring actual outcomes for the greater community at large to the homelessness crisis. Or “reimagining” public safety. Or transportation and transit investments. And you will see that we have a fundamentally broken process.
As you can tell, I’m looking elsewhere for my vote for Seattle’s next mayor.
Look. I fully realize I’m a terrible messenger for this on whatever “identity” front you wish to argue. Far too many in politics today jump immediately to the attacking the messenger rather than responding to what is said. So let me stipulate: I’m a white male. I’m incredibly privileged. I am the beneficiary of all kinds of luck and fortune, both that which I’ve made for myself but also very much that which fell into my lap by being fortunate enough to be born at the right place at the right time with an interest in computing, being born into a stable two-parent household, and much, much more. I don’t mind paying high taxes, and I do. I’m not running for any political office. I do want a more effective city.
I have not been in contact with any political campaign of any kind regarding writing this post; these thoughts are my own, and this is simply my personal blog. I write about things I’m interested in, and I’m interested in a better Seattle.
This is also a critique of her policies and results. It is not personal. I have a ton of respect for Lorena González’s life journey, which, as she frequently reminds, began in a migrant farming community in Eastern Washington. She’s had to surmount discrimination, abuse, and socioeconomic disadvantage, tragedy and more. It’s a deeply impressive accomplishment to rise through hard work and alliance-building to become one of the most viable candidates for mayor in perhaps the best city in America.
So given our wide disparity of backgrounds, it’s easy for me to sound cavalier and dismissive when I’m assessing outcomes. So by all means, assess your own; your mileage may vary. If things are much better for you in Seattle than 2015 as you walk around downtown, SODO, Ballard, the U-District, Central District, Seward Park and more, great. But I’d argue that above all else, outcomes matter… for all. For 724,000+ Seattleites, the results of a policymaker should matter far more than the identity of the policymaker. How’s public safety going? How’s homelessness? How’s addiction? How’s Seattle, compared to seven years ago? How well is the City Council functioning to meet your needs?
It’s not at all clear the outcomes for even the marginalized are all that better since 2015, if measured in terms of safety, addiction, homelessness, affordability, mental health, livability and more.
I want Seattle to be better for all. And all 724,000 of us have a stake. It’s not zero-sum — we can all benefit with better policies and better leadership. I want addiction rates lowered, homelessness lowered, a more affordable city, and greater unity of purpose in this fantastic city. We’ve seen her record and her approach, over six years now as a key municipal leader.
I really would like us get to the point where we approach municipal governance with more care and focus on outcomes. If you look at her messaging, it’s very focused on identity and inputs, and appeal to activism, which of course are important, but more important, I think, is whether Seattle is moving in the right direction in terms of outcomes that matter. How’s public safety going? How’s addiction trending? How about homelessness?
Let’s find leaders that know how to manage toward better outcomes.
Let’s honestly discuss the root causes of problems like Seattle’s intertwined homelessness, mental health, judicial process and addiction crises. Let’s define the metrics that represent success, and measure the programs against those goals in an ongoing, public way. Let’s track what we’re doing. Let’s invest in programs that measurably get us toward our goals, and reduce programs which don’t, even if they negatively impact a long-entrenched municipal service provider’s revenue.
Outcome-focused leadership is the least the public is entitled to. And Lorena González doesn’t approach problems that way. After more than five years in municipal leadership, noticing its absence at every turn, I can only conclude that she doesn’t seem to care about measured outcomes, that they’re great if they suddenly arise, but she hasn’t demonstrated how she leads toward them.
When major outcome indicators are all moving in the wrong direction, and the process which generates these outcomes remains utterly broken for years, and even political allies describe the body one leads as dysfunctional, one should not get a promotion to an even higher position of responsibility.
Update: Not surprisingly, she’s just won the endorsement of The Stranger. But here’s why that should be yet another negative indicator to anyone following the past decade of city politics in Seattle: The Stranger’s Political Endorsements Have Been Disastrous for Seattle
Bonus: If you agree with me that this City Council President’s time in office has not been an effective one, and oftentimes dismissive and counterproductive, note that her Chief of Staff, Brianna Thomas, is also currently running for City Council.
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s American-Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created voter-candidate matchmaker Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University in Symbolic and Heuristic Computation, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, where he graduated a George F. Baker Scholar. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle.