Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and challenger Egan Orion clashed Thursday over corporate taxes, rent control and whether Sawant’s combative political style amounts to counterproductive grandstanding or a grit necessary to win progress for working people in the city.
In the District 3 council debate before hundreds at Town Hall, Sawant, a Socialist Alternative member seeking election to a third term, returned again and again to demands for higher taxes for wealthy corporations such as Amazon to pay for services including public housing.
Sawant called Orion the “poster child” for big business, citing corporate-backed PAC expenditures on his behalf. “They are trying to flip City Hall and reverse our victories,” she said.
Orion, a first-time candidate, cited his work as an LGBTQ and neighborhood business leader, including as an organizer of PrideFest Capitol Hill, saying he’d bring a “collaborative style of leadership” to the council that is “desperately needed right now.”
Orion cited Sawant’s recently released proposal for citywide rent control as a stunt typical of her tenure in office.
“Not only is it illegal under state law, it is not a solution for the issues we have at hand,” he said. The Legislature banned cities from enacting their own rent-control ordinances in 1981. If such a plan were to pass, Orion predicted small landlords would sell before it took effect and rentals’ availability would plummet. Orion said he favors alternatives, including “anti-gouging” provisions and an emergency fund to help renters facing financial crises.
Sawant did not back away, holding up a copy of what she said was an identical bill proposed by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She pointed to rent-control measures enacted in other states, including Oregon. “We now have momentum,” she said.
Asked about a recently proposed regional agency announced by Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and other leaders to coordinate homelessness response, Orion said he backs the idea, which would require other cities to “have skin in the game” for a crisis that has been largely borne by Seattle.
Sawant said a group composed of politicians with ties to big business “is not going to work for ordinary people.” She said that voters in every jurisdiction should elect more progressive and socialist candidates and that Seattle should halt sweeps of homeless encampments.
The debate was punctuated by cheers and occasional outbursts from the crowd, ignoring moderators’ admonitions. Sawant supporters at times snapped their fingers in approval of her remarks and booed loudly after moderators thanked Amazon repeatedly for being a debate sponsor.
Sawant’s council attendance also was a point of contention after moderators, citing public records, asked her about repeated cancellations of meetings of the human-services committee she chairs.
Sawant disputed the figures, saying that calculations by “corporate media” were inaccurate and that she’d held many meetings in the community. Orion pounced, saying Sawant either “doesn’t believe we have a homelessness crisis” or wasn’t telling the truth about her leadership.
The two disagreed on the city’s controversial “head tax,” a $275 per employee annual levy on larger businesses that the council passed and then abruptly repealed last year after a backlash by businesses, including Amazon and other critics. Sawant was one of two council members to oppose repealing the tax, which would have raised millions for housing and services for homeless people.
“I would proudly push for it again,” Sawant said, pointing to income inequality and Amazon “bullying” the city over the tax despite its massive profits.
Orion said he didn’t want to “go back and keep fighting the old fights,” noting polling that showed city residents didn’t trust the council to effectively spend money raised by the tax. He said he’d work to rebuild trust in the council and push policies, including permanent supportive housing for homeless persons.
“It’s not enough to be progressive, you also have to have a plan and a coalition so you can get something done,” Orion said. “We need someone who builds bridges, not burns them.”
Sawant said working people in Seattle must continue their movement that has brought wins like a $15 minimum wage, and decried “empty promises” from corporate-backed politicians.
“As you know I do not play games. Whether you like what I am saying or not you will get 100% truth,” she said.
District 3 runs from Capitol Hill through the Central District and from Montlake and Madison Park to First Hill.
The event was the fourth in a series of City Council debates before the Nov. 5 election hosted by Seattle CityClub, with The Seattle Times, Seattle Channel, KUOW, KCTS/Crosscut, KING-TV and KOMO-TV as media partners.