by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Incumbent City Council member Kshama Sawant commanded the stage at the first candidate forum in the District 3 City Council race on May 12.
The new District 3 takes in Capitol Hill, the Central District, Leschi, Madrona, Madison Park, and Montlake neighborhoods.
Sawant is being challenged by former Equal Rights Washington executive director Rod Hearne, Urban League president Pamela Banks, Seattle Women's Commission member Morgan Beach, and retired reporter Leon Carter.
In her opening speech Sawant threw down the gauntlet for the evening, taking credit for Seattle's $15 per hour minimum wage, for voting down massive rent hikes at Seattle Housing Authority properties, and for a City Council resolution opposing Arctic oil drilling.
She then identified income inequality as the main problem facing Seattle, and promised to combat it with a program of rent control, maximum linkage fees for developers, and city funding for transit and mental health services.
Sawant's campaign clearly did the best job of turning out supporters to the forum, and every statement from her was greeted with enthusiastic applause - so much so that at one point she had to ask supporters to quiet down, so she'd have more time to speak.
In their opening remarks, her opponents chastised Sawant for her sometimes-contentious relationship with her City Council colleagues.
'The District 3 Council seat is only one vote,' openly Gay candidate Rod Hearne said in his opening remarks. 'I'd still need four more. You build allies by building trust,' he added, noting that he'd done so at Equal Rights Washington and Washington United for Marriage.
'It's not about beating your opponents,' he said. 'I'm focused on winning them over.'
'It's time to stop grandstanding and govern,' Morgan Beach warned.
'I'll see that all the residents of District 3 have an effective representative who can deliver results,' Pamela Banks promised.
While Sawant's opponents seemed to agree on the kind of Council member they didn't want - namely Sawant - they struggled to find their own voice on issues where Sawant had preempted the discussion.
All the candidates, for example, agreed that the cost of housing is pushing working class and even middle class people out of Seattle. Sawant alone was able to name concrete solutions - rent control, requiring six months notice for rent increases, and city financing for 'thousands of new units of affordable housing.'
While all her opponents reject rent control, they had no alternative to offer apart from increasing density in the urban core - in other words most of District 3 - and hoping that increasing supply could keep up with demand.
On the only specifically LGBT question of the night - How would you protect the city's Transgender community? - Sawant once again offered concrete solutions, promising to champion city funding for an LGBTQ Center.
Hearne advocated gender-neutral restrooms in public places, and a public education campaign to help cisgender people 'recognize that gender is not one thing or the other.'
Banks referred to the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative, and Beach promised to 'empower community groups.' Carter said he was proud to be on the stage with such nice people.
Sawant enjoys several advantages in the campaign: she's the incumbent, she's rolled up a number of important endorsements, including many labor unions, and she has a core of dedicated volunteers.
She also has amassed the biggest campaign treasury. According to Seattle Ethics and Election Commission numbers, Sawant has raised more than $81,000, compared with $48,000 for Banks, $47,000 for Hearne, and $10,000 for Beach. Carter has reported no fundraising.
Nevertheless, Sawant doesn't have the election locked down. A poll taken last year shows she is a polarizing figure, unlike most of her colleagues. While she has the highest name recognition of any incumbent City Council member and the highest approval ratings, she also has the highest disapproval ratings.
To take her down, however, one of her opponents has to find an issue that resonates with the District 3 voters that Sawant hasn't already preempted. Based on their performances at the May 12 candidate forum, it looks like that will be a struggle for them.
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