Bob Hasegawa, a state senator and former union activist, argues that city decisions have been “rigged” by elite power brokers, and says he’d give more power to neighborhoods if elected Seattle mayor.

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In the 1990s, Bob Hasegawa helped lead a Teamsters reform movement to give truck drivers more control of a union whose top leaders had been mired in corruption scandals.

Hasegawa and other dissidents fought for direct elections of national union leaders, clashing with the union’s old guard and attending tense national conventions under FBI protection.

As he campaigns for mayor of Seattle, Hasegawa, a Democratic state senator from Beacon Hill, sees parallels between his union activist days and what he’d bring to City Hall.

2017 Seattle mayoral race

While Seattle mayors have not faced racketeering indictments like some former Teamsters leaders, Hasegawa argues city decisions nevertheless have been “rigged” by elite power brokers.

The same goes for the Democratic Party, says Hasegawa, who was a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer.

“It’s not Democrats versus Republicans any more. It’s corporatists versus populists,” Hasegawa said during an interview in his longtime Beacon Hill home, between puffs from a vape pipe he credits for helping him quit his old habit of smoking Swisher Sweets.

“The corporatists have gotten control of our party and our party is supposed to be the voice of working families and regular folk. I am fighting to get it back,” he said.

Editor's note

Before the Aug. 1 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling leading candidates for Seattle mayor, selected based on civic involvement, endorsements, campaign activity and money raised.  Learn more about all 21 candidates in our interactive online voter's guide.

What would a noncorporate Hasegawa agenda look like if he’s elected? Hasegawa says he’d give more power to neighborhoods. He’d work to revive neighborhood councils that Mayor Ed Murray cut city ties with — and even give them authority over city spending.

“I am not suggesting we build our entire city budget from the bottom up, but I am suggesting we give neighborhoods much more control over a significant piece of the resources,” he said.

Hasegawa criticizes “arrogant” City Hall decisions he says have been made without enough neighborhood input, pointing to the siting of a Navigation Center for homeless services in the Little Saigon neighborhood, which opened this week.

A centerpiece of his campaign is creation of a municipal bank where the city could deposit tax revenues. To hear Hasegawa tell it, that could solve multiple problems by allowing Seattle to reinvest its own money into city services without Wall Street banks taking a cut.

Union rise

Hasegawa, 64, was born in Seattle to Japanese-American parents who were sent to internment camps during World War II. After graduating from Cleveland High School, Hasegawa attended the University of Washington and studied physics while working part-time for United Parcel Service (UPS). He dropped out of the UW after a couple years, figuring he could make good money as a UPS driver.

At UPS, Hasegawa got involved in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a progressive reform movement that went up against the powerful Teamsters hierarchy led by Jimmy Hoffa Jr., son of the famously mob-linked Jimmy Hoffa, who vanished in 1975. The reformers were aided by federal observers who monitored the union’s elections following a 1989 consent decree.

In 1991, Hasegawa was elected secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 174, the biggest trucking industry union in the Pacific Northwest.

He points to that role when asked about his management experience, noting he led an organization with more than 7,000 members, while negotiating nearly a thousand labor contracts.

In 1994, Hasegawa led his Local 174 in joining a strike against UPS, which had doubled the weight limit on packages. The strike came in defiance of a court order and divided the Teamsters, with many locals refusing to participate. But after just a day of disruption, UPS backed off the new weight limits.

“It took a lot of guts, and he took a lot of crap for that,” said Michael Laslett, a union activist who worked with Hasegawa at the Teamsters local. “For me, it was an example of his courage.”

In 2000, Hasegawa narrowly lost his Teamsters leadership post in an election he claimed was stolen by pro-Hoffa forces. His constant denunciations stirred bad blood with some rival union leaders, one of whom likened him in a newsletter to Chicken Little.

“There are only a few things that are guaranteed these days, like death, taxes and protests from Bob Hasegawa,” the union official wrote, according to a 2002 Seattle Weekly article.

During 13 years in the state Legislature, Hasegawa has been known as a hard-core progressive, more likely to cast protest votes than broker major spending deals.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, describes Hasegawa as “very far left” — even for Seattle. “He’s more personable than Kshama Sawant,” he said, referring to the Socialist Alternative City Council member. “But politically I’m not sure there is a lot of distance between them.”

In 2013, Hasegawa was one of only two state senators to vote against the record-setting, bipartisan tax-break deal passed to help land Boeing’s 777X jet-production work for Everett.

“I think I was right. I think I made the right decision and people are recognizing that,” Hasegawa said, pointing to Boeing’s continued pattern of layoffs and shifting jobs to other states.

Hasegawa sometimes takes lonely “no” votes even on minor bills.

For example, Pedersen pointed to a “very vanilla bill” he sponsored this year changing laws related to notaries public, who witness signings of mortgage and other legal documents.

Senate Bill 5081 passed in the Senate 48 to 1, with Hasegawa the “no” vote. Pedersen later asked Hasegawa about it. He said Hasegawa didn’t remember his reasoning right away, but consulted notes he’d kept and later explained his thinking.

“Bob is very diligent. He reads the bill reports himself, and a lot of the bills, and makes up his own mind … There are very few members of our caucus who are as engaged in details,” Pedersen said.

Much like his pledge for a city-owned bank, Hasegawa has crusaded in the Legislature for a Washington state bank. Several states created those institutions in the 1800s, but only North Dakota still has one. Hasegawa’s legislation has not passed, but this year he did get a state budget appropriation of $75,000 for a task force to study the concept.

Asked to name his favorite successful bill, Hasegawa pointed to a law approved in 2014 that lets public employees and students, with parental permission, take two days off a year for reasons of faith or conscience, including religious holidays not otherwise recognized by the state.

The measure was prompted by a request from Muslim leaders, but wound up being supported by Christian, Jewish and other faith groups as well.

Money disadvantage

The oldest of the six top contenders on the Aug. 1 mayoral primary ballot, Hasegawa has a built-in political base, having been repeatedly re-elected by voters in the 11th Legislative District, which includes parts of South Seattle, Tukwila, Renton and Kent. He was first elected to the state House in 2004, and to the state Senate in 2012.

But Hasegawa also is laboring under a disadvantage. As long as the Legislature remains in overtime session, he’s legally barred from raising any money for his campaign.

He has put more than $11,000 of his own money into his campaign, but that’s dwarfed by his top rivals, such as former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who has raised more than $350,000. Hasegawa and his supporters say volunteer efforts and enthusiasm can trump the cash deficit.

At a recent Hasegawa “Jammin For Justice” event at China Harbor restaurant on Lake Union, more than 500 people showed up to show their support. The enthusiastic crowd included many of the city’s Asian-American community, a reminder that Hasegawa would be the first Asian-American mayor of Seattle if elected.

The crowd cheered for speeches urging them to overcome the big-money campaigns by turning out neighbors to vote. Later, the evening turned to karaoke, and Hasegawa sang a popular Mandarin song, “The Moon Represents My Heart.”

Watching Hasegawa at the event, Bettie Luke, 75, said she admires his record of listening to community concerns. She hopes he’ll slow down City Hall’s habit of continually raising property and sales taxes — which Hasegawa says he’d avoid while seeking to tax corporations and the wealthy.

“I think people are too quick to approve taxes,” Luke said. “I’m on Social Security. I don’t get a raise.”