Jessyn Farrell, a rising star among Democrats in Olympia, aborts lawmaking career for shot at Seattle mayor. Friends and foes say the transit wonk “disagrees without being disagreeable.”
When Jessyn Farrell was 18, she was named the best student at a Seattle-area Japanese-language camp. The prize was a trip to Tokyo, and it made an impression.
“The transit system was amazing. Space is at a premium there,” she said, recalling her stay with a host family. “We talked about how having a car was an enormous privilege. That opened my eyes to how much space we have in our city.”
The memory is decades old but says something about Farrell and her odds in the Aug. 1 primary election. The 43-year-old, who left a statehouse seat to concentrate on running for mayor, is a high achiever with local roots, wonkishness and big-city sensibilities.
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Though she lacks the name recognition and campaign cash of some other candidates, her political profile could play well in a city experiencing tremendous growth.
“I love Seattle, but the traffic is unbearable and only wealthy people can afford to live here,” voter Jim Wilder told her recently at the Wallingford Farmers Market.
To address those problems, Farrell wants denser housing everywhere and better connections to light rail, goals that reflect her work as a transit adviser and advocate.
Popular with urbanists, some of whom see the Democrat as their candidate, and known to Northeast Seattle residents, who elected her three times to represent the 46th Legislative District, a challenge is to win over some voters outside those bases.
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So Farrell is reaching out to fellow public-school parents, touting labor support, stumping in less-familiar areas, such as South Seattle, and spreading her message.
“I’m the progressive with the track record of delivering on the stuff we care about,” she said.
The Laurelhurst homeowner had no intention of running until Mayor Ed Murray left the race in May, she said. But now, “I really believe I have a path,” Farrell said, calling her decision to leave the Legislature a “calculated risk.”
Reared in Lake City and Lake Forest Park, Farrell’s childhood hero was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Voted most likely to become a politician at Shorecest High School, she earned degrees from the University of Washington and Boston College Law School.
Following school, Farrell began lobbying in Olympia with WashPIRG, then with Transportation Choices Coalition. She quickly became the organization’s executive director, pushing for what led to the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 ballot measure.
“Transit advocacy cuts across a lot of different issues — climate change, land-use, equity, workforce issues, economic development,” she said.
According to Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson, who worked for Farrell at the coalition, “She worked on setting big-picture goals, then left it to you,” he said.
Johnson took over for Farrell when she left in 2009 to work as a strategic adviser for Pierce Transit.
Johnson, the only council member to endorse Farrell, knows her better than most, including how she handles dissent — differently than the sometimes intimidating Murray.
“She has a way of disagreeing with people without being disagreeable,” Johnson said, mentioning he criticized Farrell’s vote this year to reduce car-tab funding for Sound Transit by changing the agency’s vehicle-value valuation formula.
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“The mayor is good at persuading you to reconsider, and so is Jessyn, but they go about it in different ways. She works on your allies to make you feel uncomfortable, like you’re by yourself. I’ve seen her vent, but I’ve never seen her yell at someone.”
Work in Olympia
In 2012, after returning to Seattle, Farrell won retiring Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney’s seat. By 2014, she was a vice chair of the House Transportation Committee.
“Her skills in listening and addressing concerns were nothing short of remarkable,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, a Vancouver-area Republican who teamed up with Farrell this session to move a bill that cracks down on the use of smartphones while driving.
Farrell spent hours lobbying lawmakers with doubts about the bill, Rivers added.
“She and I have very different political DNA,” Rivers said. “But people like Jessyn who value statesmanship are absolutely necessary.”
Sen. Michael Baumgartner gave Farrell a mixed review. Amusingly, the Spokane Republican first encountered her at the 1992 Apple Cup, where he and Cougar buddies tossed snowballs at Farrell and others in the Husky Marching Band.
“Jessyn is a very talented politician, with both positive and negative connotations,” he said. “She’s the kind of legislator who cares a lot about who gets the credit.”
In 2015, he and Farrell collaborated on a $16 billion transportation bill with money for both roads and transit. The bill included a so-called poison pill — language inserted by Republicans to block the enactment of low-carbon fuel standards.
“Jessyn was kind of in the middle of that,” Baumgartner recalled.
Some voters may resent her leaving the seat she was elected to.
“I took the decision very, very seriously,” Farrell said, arguing she can better serve her constituents as mayor. “I hope people see this as me putting skin in the game to get things done.”
Shaking hands and handing out rainbow campaign stickers at the Wallingford Farmers Market, Farrell heard voters repeatedly bring up Seattle’s growth.
Wilder enjoyed a scoop of chocolate ice cream as he asked the candidate about Murray’s housing plan, which includes upzones in urban village across the city along with new affordable-housing requirements for developers.
Farrell agrees with the plan, “But I don’t think we’re asking the development community to do enough. Having more people is putting more pressure on our public schools and parks, so we should have developers paying impact fees.”
The design-review process that allows neighbors to vet new buildings is flawed, yielding ugly structures that give density a bad name, she added, arguing for reform.
“The way we’ve been doing it doesn’t enhance our neighborhoods,” Farrell said.
Wilder, 63, liked what he heard. The retired engineer wants to see denser housing, and not only in urban villages such as Roosevelt, where he and his wife are long-timers.
“We expect to be bought out in the next five years, and I’m OK with that,” said Wilder, who owns a Craftsman home on a block upzoned for condos. “We’re going to be five blocks from a light-rail station … We’ll take the money and move 10 blocks away.”
Less impressed are upzone foes such as Susanna Lin, a Wallingford resident active with Seattle Fair Growth and her community council.
They call Murray’s plan a developer giveaway and oppose changes to areas zoned for single-family homes.
“She’s aligned with Rob Johnson and density, density, density,” Lin said of Farrell. “When they talk about streamlining design review, they mean getting rid of neighborhood-scale development.”
Though Lin has never dealt directly with Farrell, her mind is made up. “The first thing someone told me was that she was worse than Rob Johnson,” she said.
At the table
How to reassure skeptics while honoring her urbanist convictions? Every neighborhood must add density, but that need not look the same everywhere, Farrell said.
Montlake, for instance, has transit access but almost no apartment buildings. She would look at surplus University of Washington land, listen to residents and perhaps work to site mother-in-law units and backyard cottages, she said.
“There are a lot of ways to get affordability without making the statement that single-family zoning is sacrosanct or we need 8-story buildings right up to the Arboretum.”
Farrell believes Murray “has done a good job as mayor” but disagrees with his evictions of unauthorized homeless encampments.
On Sunday, reacting to new information reported by The Seattle Times about allegations that Murray sexually abused a foster son in the 1980s, Farrell said the mayor should resign. The information “severely undermines our confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of his office,” she said.
Farrell initially ran for office because “I was in Olympia lobbying a lot of great male allies in the Legislature but no women my age.” Representing working parents remains a motivation.
“It was extremely inconvenient to do it with, at that time, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. But it really matters who’s at the table making the decisions that affect our lives.”