Attorney Phillip Tavel, challenging incumbent Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold in the Nov. 5 election, has painted himself as a newcomer whose experience in business ownership, rather than politics, would make him a better representative of West Seattle residents.
But at a District 1 debate Thursday night, Herbold, who has served on the council for nearly four years and spent many years as a council aide, argued that Tavel has perhaps too much business experience.
“Phil, you’re the business-backed candidate with the downtown chamber spending more than $167,000 to support you,” she said, citing a figure that includes spending from other business-related political-action committees. “You yourself started 15 businesses since 2001 and the state stepped in to dissolve 12 of them … How can District 1 voters trust you with our tax dollars? How can they trust your judgment when facing the city’s most urgent problems?”
Tavel responded with some confusion, at first questioning if the information she had was about him. He later called the accusation a “desperate attack” and a departure from a “civilized and a clean campaign,” saying he would provide further information about his business history.
While state business records show Herbold was right about the fate of a dozen businesses associated with Tavel, they also show Herbold had a business dissolve for the same reason: failure to file an annual report with the state.
The rest of the debate at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center was mild by comparison, with the candidates disagreeing on the city’s approach to homelessness, while finding common ground on taxing wealthy residents’ income, building a light-rail tunnel to West Seattle and even limiting corporations’ spending in elections.
“The fact is, I asked for their endorsement, I did not ask for their money,” Tavel said of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political-action committee, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE). “We should remove that money from the political process.”
Tavel has raised around $141,000, about the same amount CASE has spent in support of him. Tavel has also been endorsed by The Seattle Times editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Herbold has raised about $174,000 and has been endorsed by the Martin Luther King County Labor Council and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
All seven of the council’s district seats are on the ballot this year. Herbold and Tavel, both longtime Seattle residents, advanced to the general election with 51% and 32% of August primary votes respectively. Tavel did not make it out of the primary in a 2015 District 1 run.
Thursday’s debate was the last in a series hosted by Seattle CityClub, with The Seattle Times, Seattle Channel, KUOW, KCTS/Crosscut, KING-TV and KOMO-TV as media partners.
On the issues
Asked about the mayor’s decision to increase removal of homeless encampments without prior notice and focus on people living in RVs, Tavel said he’s glad the city is taking action but disagrees with sweeps without notice. Herbold said the city has a responsibility to maintain public property and thinks the Navigation Team has improved in connecting people to resources.
Tavel was asked about a statement he made that homelessness shouldn’t be defined as an issue of housing. In response, he said city hasn’t been addressing the root causes. Herbold defended the city’s “housing-first” strategy as effective, although both agreed they would consider FEMA shelters as a step in getting people sheltered.
When candidates were given the chance to ask each other a question, Tavel went straight to the head tax that was crushed last year by the big businesses that would have been affected. Herbold said she had no plans to reintroduce the tax businesses would have had to pay based on their number of employees (although, she said, discussing it wouldn’t be unreasonable) and that she was excited about the potential for an income tax on the wealthy that is still in the courts, which Tavel said he also would support.
Tavel criticized the City Council as unsupportive of the police department, but both candidates said they favored expanding the department as well as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.
The two agreed on prioritizing light-rail tunnel expansion to West Seattle over the First Avenue Streetcar project, which was called a “shopping shuttle” by Herbold. She said she was the only one talking about how to fund the tunnel, forecast to be much more expensive than an elevated option. Other than using streetcar funding, Herbold didn’t provide other funding sources for the project.
The candidates’ business histories
When Tavel’s business record came up, he first denied Herbold’s claims. He looked at the printed list of businesses Herbold brought with her and acknowledged that he or a former business partner were associated with some of them and that some were ventures connected to his law firm he ended up not pursuing.
Half an hour after the debate, Herbold sent out an email blast recounting what she called Tavel’s “financial mismanagement” and asking for donations. She said she struggled with whether and how to share the information, but wanted voters to be informed.
Not mentioned in the email or debate is why the businesses were dissolved.
In Washington, businesses have to fill out a report and pay a small renewal fee each year to continue operating. The dozen businesses, of which Tavel was named the registered agent or owner, were dissolved because of a failure to do so, according to records from the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. It’s the most common reason businesses are dissolved.
Herbold registered a business called Highland Park Hooch LLC in 2013 that dissolved a little more than a year later for that reason, according to state records. Herbold said Friday morning that she and her husband had been looking into opening a hobby distillery but didn’t pursue it.
In her email, Herbold mentioned a warrant issued against one of his businesses in 2011 for $4,500 in unpaid taxes and additional penalties. It was paid off four months after the warrant was issued, according to court records.
A debate moderator also asked Tavel about the approximately $1,000 in fines he owes the city for traffic-related infractions, which he said he hasn’t yet paid but is trying to take out of collections.