Editor’s note: In advance of the Aug. 3 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling candidates for Seattle mayor.
As she stands near the mosaic at Gas Works Park, Jessyn Farrell rattles off a slew of proposals to improve Seattle, from plans for homelessness, housing, child care and climate change, to policing reform and public safety.
It’s been four years since Farrell stepped down from the Legislature to make her first run for Seattle mayor. She placed fourth in that 2017 top-two primary election, capturing 12.5% of the vote. Afterward, she joined Civic Ventures, the public-policy incubator started by Nick Hanauer, as a senior vice president.
Now, Farrell is making another bid for the office and hoping voters will give her deep policy expertise another look as city leaders grapple with a host of dire problems.
“We’re in a moment where our institutions are not working, whether it is combating climate change, or on policing, as well as they could,” said Farrell as cyclists and pedestrians paused to snap photos of the city skyline on a cloudless day. “And the mayor needs to be able to be one of the conduits for that kind of institutional change.”
Farrell, 47, brings a host of experience to the race. Starting in 2012, North Seattle’s 46th District voters elected her three times to the state House. She has been credited with among other things, brokering a last-minute deal in transportation negotiations that wound up bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to King County for education funding.
Before that, Farrell served as executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, where she helped push the $18 billion ballot measure for Sound Transit 2. She also worked for a time as a strategic adviser for Pierce Transit.
A resident of the Laurelhurst neighborhood, Farrell — who has three children — graduated from Shorecrest High School. She went on to get degrees from the University of Washington and Boston College Law School.
Ask Farrell’s supporters about her, and they’ll all point to her deep experience in politics and coalition-building, and a track record of negotiating difficult deals.
“She’s the only candidate with the political skills to get things done,” said Rep. David Hackney, a Democrat whose district includes part of south Seattle and who has endorsed Farrell.
Her opponents include Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González and former council president Bruce Harrell, as well as architect Andrew Grant Houston and Colleen Echohawk, formerly of the Chief Seattle Club, among others who have presented their positions on issues in The Seattle Times’ Meet the Candidates guide.
With just weeks before the primary, Farrell is touting her political experience while pointing out that she hasn’t been in office making decisions these past few years.
In a recent campaign ad, she describes Seattle’s situation as “flipping bad” while she appears to be upside down. The video view then rotates to right side up.
“Years of infighting have worsened the homelessness crisis,” she says, characterizing herself as a progressive “who will deliver results.” She goes on to tout her work in Olympia and her appointment last year by Gov. Jay Inslee to a COVID-19 economic recovery work group.
Farrell has also sought to draw contrasts with Harrell and González, who became council president in January 2020. Farrell took aim at their council votes in 2018 to approve a new Seattle police union contract, despite outcry that it could undermine accountability provisions passed by the council a year earlier.
“Particularly with that 2018 contract, there was some backsliding on accountability that was really hard-won,” said Farrell. “And both the mayor and the council at the time were complicit in that backsliding.”
And Farrell contends that city leaders missed a moment of opportunity to reimagine policing after a nationwide demand for change since the killings by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, and other people of color.
“Part of it is because no one in a leadership position in Seattle laid out a broad vision of what public safety should be,” said Farrell.
“If the mayor wasn’t going to lay out that vision, certainly the council president could have,” Farrell added later. “And instead, quite frankly, we had a lot of chaos and a lot of lost opportunity.”
In an email, a campaign spokesperson for González pushed back on that critique.
“The next Mayor needs a better working relationship with City Council if they truly want to solve Seattle’s most pressing problems like homelessness, a growing housing shortage, and wage inequality,” wrote Heather Weiner.
“Attacking councilmembers … seems counterproductive for Farrell or anyone who wants to be mayor,” she added.
“You need the plan“
On policing, Farrell says she wants to reopen union contract talks as a way to focus on accountability measures. But she believes that defunding law enforcement is also not the answer, and called for “scaling up” of some policing programs, such as for combating domestic violence and property crimes.
On housing, Farrell says the city could start immediately surveying where tens of thousands of needed new housing units could go.
“We can do that planning work across every single neighborhood in the city, and create the plan,” said Farrell. “Because … you need the plan to be able to stack up all the fund sources” to get the units built.
She also supports the charter amendment known as “Compassion Seattle,” a measure proposed by business groups with some input from labor leaders and homelessness service providers.
If approved by voters in November, that amendment would require the creation of 2,000 additional shelter or housing spaces inside a year, while walling off a chunk of the city’s general fund for human services and homelessness.
It would direct Seattle to make shelter available for people living outside “so that the city may take actions to ensure” that public spaces like sidewalks and parks are kept clear.
The initiative has exposed a rift, with mayoral candidates and housing advocates split over it. Critics call it an unfunded mandate and worry it would enshrine encampment sweeps in the charter. They note it’s being pushed by business leaders who’ve opposed corporate tax hikes for shelter and housing.
“I support it in part because it is a consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” said Farrell. “Interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing, that is what we need to do.”
Farrell said she does not support removals of encampments, and the amendment gives the mayor latitude on that policy.
In another realm of equity and affordability issues, Farrell is also proposing the creation of universal child care from birth to 5 years old, a policy Farrell said could be funded by some type of tax on the wealthiest people.
And to help child care providers, Farrell said she would seek to establish portable benefits for such workers, and provide subsidies to help with rent costs so facilities can be located throughout the city.
After Farrell’s first run for mayor, Hanauer “worked aggressively” to recruit her to work at Civic Ventures, his policy incubator.
Hanauer, a wealthy businessman who has spoken out loudly against inequality, has used his platform and Civic Ventures to help advance successful campaigns that boosted Washington state’s minimum wage and expanded background-check requirements for gun buyers.
In an interview, Hanauer described Farrell as “an extraordinarily bright, capable and effective person” who among other things has led the organization’s work on housing affordability and homelessness.
“We’re obviously in a very divisive time, both in the country and in the city and … I think Jessyn Farrell might be the least divisive person I have ever met,” said Hanauer, who is supporting her campaign.
“And I say that as a highly divisive person myself,” he added with a laugh.
Farrell also has endorsements from state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss and her former seatmate at the Legislature, Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet.
“Jessyn, I think, is the best hope we have for someone who bridges idealism with actually being able to deliver on issues like homelessness,” said Pollet.
But Farrell has seen at least some support bleed away since 2017’s mayoral run. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which endorsed her that year, is backing González this year.
Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer of the union, said members still like Farrell and have a long relationship with her, “But we’ve worked so much with Lorena that’s it just a whole different level.”
And, “we have a diverse membership,” he added. “So obviously representation matters.”
Farrell has raised more than $136,000 for her campaign as of July 5, according to city records. But in the race for campaign dollars, she lags behind Echohawk, González, Harrell and Houston.
As a seaplane roared off the water nearby at Gas Works Park, Farrell said she hopes her ideas will get through to voters.
“We have been deeply divided,” she said. “And people are hungry for problem solving.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.