Editor’s note: In advance of the Aug. 3 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling candidates for Seattle mayor.
When M. Lorena González thinks about her journey from the cherry orchards where she started work at age 8 to Seattle’s 2021 mayoral race, she recalls the day her mother dropped her off at Washington State University.
“Just the worry in her eyes … knowing she was sending me out into a world that was not built for me — a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants,” González said last month, speaking over the whir of an espresso machine at a West Seattle coffee shop near her home.
It was a telling moment for the 44-year-old from Yakima Valley, who now serves as Seattle’s City Council president. The driving idea behind González’s career as a civil rights attorney, her six years as a councilmember and her mayoral campaign is that the world should be rebuilt for kids like her.
For González, that means taxing the wealthy and big businesses, beefing up renter protections, assisting small businesses, moving dollars from policing to alternative strategies and adding subsidized housing in every neighborhood.
“You see her talking to the hotel workers, speaking in Spanish, and just the joy the workers have,” said U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, an early endorser. “They see her as somebody who’s going to fight for them.”
Most labor unions are backing González in the Aug. 3 primary election, and she can tout a list of City Hall accomplishments, plus an optimistic vision for growth with urbanist appeal. Those advantages make her a contender for mayor.
“It is time for there to be a voice and leader in the mayor’s office who is going to focus on solutions that lift up working-class families,” said González, whose council career has mostly coincided with economic boom times.
That tenure is a double-edged sword, however, because Seattle also has grappled with multiple crises since she was first elected in 2015. Soaring housing costs and development have led to displacement. Street encampments have persisted. Shootings are a concern and police-community relations are sour.
Along the way, González has clashed with downtown business leaders who once backed her and butted heads with Mayor Jenny Durkan, while at times disappointing social justice activists. Among her council colleagues who work alongside her, four have endorsed her; four have not.
“We know how Councilmember González feels about large employers. We think they’re great. She thinks otherwise,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, questioning the candidate’s care for businesses of all sizes in the city’s core.
There are more than enough like-minded voters to propel González through the top-two primary. But there also are opponents whose stances overlap with hers, so she needs to persuade her base that her experience matters.
She and others in the race have shared their positions on issues with The Seattle Times in a Meet the Candidates guide.
González warns there could be “a year of inaction” with a less-tested mayor, because “the learning curve is so steep” at City Hall. “I don’t think we have the luxury of that time,” said González, who’s balancing council duties and her campaign amid personal tragedy.
Her mother-in-law died from injuries from a fire that damaged González’s condo building in May, displacing her, her husband and their toddler. “It’s rough,” she said. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”
Over the mountains
When the candidate describes her politics, she usually mentions her parents, farmworkers who were undocumented when they initially arrived from Mexico and who raised six children.
“My mom and dad taught themselves how to read and write,” she said, comparing Seattle’s historic heat last month to the Central Washington weather she endured as a child while “picking cherries with no rest breaks, no water, no place to toilet myself, covered in pesticides.”
González went to high school in small-town Grandview, stayed for community college and then transferred to WSU, which seemed like “a completely foreign environment,” she recalled, with a cafeteria that, strangely, served tortillas only on “Taco Tuesdays.”
She graduated from Seattle University Law School in 2005 and practiced at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, specializing in civil rights cases, including a $150,000 settlement over allegations that a police officer had threatened to beat the “Mexican piss” out of a Latino man.
Jayapal met González in 2007, when then-Mayor Greg Nickels appointed both to a police-accountability review panel. She didn’t learn much about González’s background until years later, when they went out for dinner.
Running the immigrant rights nonprofit OneAmerica then, Jayapal remembers persuading the younger woman to start telling her story in public. González emceed a OneAmerica dinner and joined the nonprofit’s board, where she made political connections.
“I met her at a OneAmerica gala,” said Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer at UCFW 21, the supermarket workers union. “Our leadership at the time was like ‘Whoa, this person has a really strong future.'”
City Council record
Next came a job at City Hall, with Ed Murray hiring González to serve as legal counsel after he was elected mayor in 2013. She helped set up an office to oversee Seattle’s labor laws, including a higher minimum wage.
In 2015, before Murray became engulfed in a sexual abuse scandal, González launched a bid for a citywide council seat. Endorsed by unions and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, she won in a rout. Neither labor nor business knew exactly how González would deliver.
“We could have been wrong,” Mizrahi said. “But the way things turned out, she championed worker issues more than we ever could have hoped for.”
González advanced scheduling protections for retail and restaurant workers and backed workload restrictions for hotel workers, digging into the details to ensure the new standards had teeth, Mizrahi said.
She also directed funding to defend immigrants from deportations; co-wrote a gun-storage law; pushed to expand the city’s subsidized preschool program; supported zoning changes for larger buildings with affordable housing fees; and nudged the state Legislature to require paid family leave by preparing a Seattle law.
Maggie Humphreys, who lobbied for paid leave with Moms Rising, said González held listening sessions with parents, business owners and national experts, centering the conversation on real-life needs. “That was key to showing momentum,” Humphreys said.
González’s lawyerly approach shows up on the council dais, where she asks a lot of questions. Her relatives tease that she “always has to be right” and talks nonstop, she said. “I get razzed about that.”
Reelected in 2017, González established a more complicated record on policing and taxes. She sponsored historic police-accountability changes in 2017, only to agree with a police union contract that undermined those changes in 2018, siding with the region’s Labor Council over community groups.
González broke sharply with corporate leaders in 2018, leading the way as the council passed a per-employee tax on big businesses to raise money for affordable housing and homelessness services. González says she invited large employers to negotiate and was spurned; Scholes said González had already made up her mind to pursue a “head tax.”
Faced with a referendum campaign and bad polling, González quickly voted with most of her colleagues to repeal the tax, outraging Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant. But the battle lines hardened in 2019, as González endorsed Sawant and other council candidates under attack from Amazon.
The head tax was a “turning point,” with the council’s approach angering corporate leaders and the referendum alienating González, Scholes suggested. The candidate says such episodes have strengthened her conviction that Seattle politics have “for far too long centered the voices of those with the most institutional power.”
The past year has been a whirlwind for González, who became council president in 2020 after a speculative, short-lived bid for state attorney general in 2019.
When COVID-19 struck, the council responded with another attempt to tax Seattle’s tech titans, arguing the proceeds could provide relief. This time, a measure aimed at high salaries stuck. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda took the lead but González was involved; she says the “JumpStart” tax vindicates their 2018 effort.
During the pandemic, González has paid attention to restaurants, earmarking dollars and capping delivery-app charges. Her husband is a restaurant worker who collected unemployment after the virus hit.
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests presented another challenge. Previously the council’s public safety chair, González had repeatedly approved Police Department budget increases. Now protesters demanded that 50% of the department’s budget be shifted.
González apologized, backed the 50% demand, questioned her belief in reform and vowed to pursue layoffs, as the Labor Council expelled the police union.
“It’s my responsibility as an elected official to be responsive … not frozen in amber,” she said. “Standing with community in that moment was really important to me.”
The council went on to make cuts in the Police Department’s budget but also approved officer hiring. González recently acknowledged that layoffs won’t happen soon. Though she supports reallocating more dollars, pending an analysis of police duties, the word “defund” is absent from her campaign.
The Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime police-accountability advocate, said González gave way to bullying by the police union in 2018 and protesters in 2020.
“You want to be hard core [with defunding], but you should have been hard core with the [police union] contract,” said Walden, who’s endorsed Bruce Harrell and blames the council for police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation.
Jayapal, who González regularly calls to talk through tough decisions, praised the candidate for being willing to admit missteps.
“She doesn’t run away” from hot-button issues, Jayapal said, describing González as uniquely qualified to chart a new path on public safety.
During candidate forums, González hits her stride when making the case for dense, walkable neighborhoods, drawing on her own experience living in West Seattle Junction. She knows the policy levers at City Hall.
“I do think I’ve made my eyes bigger” in forums when listening to opponents propose solutions that “I literally did .. two or three years ago,” she said.
González wields somewhat less authority on homelessness, because so many people continue to lack shelter and because some of her opponents are strong on the issue. The city’s current strategies can work, but state barriers to progressive taxes and an uncooperative mayor have hampered the council in taking those solutions to scale, she contends.
González jumped on the Downtown Seattle Association last month, accusing the organization of privileging large corporations with a “downtown-only” approach to the city’s economic recovery.
Independent spending for the candidate is about to ramp up, meanwhile, with unions pouring money into a political action committee. González sponsored a law last year restricting donations to such committees by companies like Amazon.
In a recent interview, she seemed ready to dial up the pressure in the race.
“There are a lot of candidates … who have the luxury of saying what they would have done,” González said. “There was only one candidate [last year] who was dealing with protests regularly outside her house, while also breastfeeding an infant … during a global pandemic. These choices we make are much harder when we’re in the trenches.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said González had been endorsed by three City Council members. Her campaign said Friday that a fourth council member has endorsed her.