2021 Seattle mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk is the immediate past Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit focused on serving Seattle’s Native American homeless population. Although she has never served in elected office, her extensive advocacy has made her one of the most well-connected people in the city, as well as one of its most effective political operatives.
A member of the Kithehaki Band of the Pawnee Nation, Echohawk would be Seattle’s first ever Native American mayor. Echohawk joined me for an interview (via Zoom) on May 18th. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
RUAIRI VAUGHAN, EVERGREEN STATE ELECTORAL ANALYST (NPI): Let’s start with the basics. Why did you decide to run for mayor?
COLLEEN ECHOHAWK: I decided to run for mayor because I’m really frustrated about what’s going on. You know, I have been working on [tackling] homelessness alongside my friends and community who are experiencing homelessness, and have had a lot of success, and know that this is a problem that we can actually fix. It is not an unsolvable problem.
Bear in mind, we’re in the city that got the whole world to drink coffee, fly huge jet airplanes, we’re an incredibly innovative city and country, and yet for some reason, we have not had the leadership to actually solve this crisis.
That is the biggest factor in why I’m jumping into this.
I also grew up in a family where, if there’s a problem, and you have the skills and the energy to actually jump in there and work, you should.
I grew up learning that you serve your community.
So I have been working as a leader in the homelessness field for the past seven years, plus I’ve been on the police commission for four years, and I have been working on equitable recovery for the past nine months.
I just felt like, every day, I was getting: “Will you consider running for mayor, will you consider running for Mayor?” That can’t be the reason, right, just because [other] people think it would be a good idea! However, after a lot of reflection and thought, I thought that this is the time for me to step up and to help lead us forward. I believe it’s time, and I’m ready to go!
RV: This is your first time running for political office, and you’re running against two city council presidents, a three-term state representative, and a lot of other people. What are you bringing to the table that other, more politically experienced candidates can’t bring?
CE: I think I bring a fresh perspective. I am the only outsider, truly, in this race. I’ve never worked in city hall, I’ve never been a part of the system.
When I talk to people around this city, people are frustrated with our current leadership and are looking for someone who can actually make change.
My entire career has been about making change and doing the hard thing.
Nothing about the work I’ve done in the past seven years – successfully helping and supporting people through homelessness, building affordable housing – none of that has been easy! I think that there need to be proven change-makers in the office. I have sat on the other side of the policy making tables. I’ve been the one who’s had to try to implement the policies.
We’ve advocated and tried to influence the policies being made, but we were not the policymakers. I am ready to be on the other side of it. I have absolutely understood and experienced what it’s like to be a woman of color who is trying to say: “If we are really going to say we are a progressive and equitable city, then these policies that are coming out are not going to work for our communities.”
So, having that perspective is the right place for us as we move into an incredibly interesting time in our country, in our world, in our city.
We have the opportunity now to make a really generational change and shift, and I think I’m the right person for that.
I am definitely different from all the rest of the folks. We’re doing panels of everyone there, and I haven’t been a politician. I’m going to try to now… I’m going to try to represent my community, to represent it in a good way, in a way that lifts us all up, and that’s what I’ll bring to the office.
RV: Of course, you can’t do it all on your own as mayor — you’ve got to make relationship building with the City Council a high priority. How would you do that, given the current poor state of the relationship?
CE: This is the number one question people ask me. We’ve done almost twenty town halls now, and this is the question that gets asked every single time.
I answer it the same way every time, and that is that I’ve been blessed in my career and my life to be a really good partner and bridge builder. That’s why I have been in many places. I’ve been an advocate for our Native community, with our National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness. I’ve worked with the National Alliance on Ending Homelessness. I’ve worked with the Trump White House on homelessness through the inter-agency council on homelessness.
And then I’ve worked with the Downtown Seattle Association. I don’t fit in in that place, yet I’ve been able to build the relationships there, to bring together a different viewpoint. You can ask anyone who goes to those meetings. I will often have to raise my hands to say, “No, no, no, have you thought about this?”
But I do it in a way that brings and invites people into the story of justice and equity for our city. I want people to know that they belong in this story, that they have a right to share their perspectives and ideas, and together, we can move our city forward. That’s what I’d do with the Council as well and I have a really good track record of doing that.
I’ve worked with the coordinating board that was then moved to the Regional Homelessness Authority, and it was my job as co-chair to find ways for us to agree. We’re talking about my friend Nancy Backus [the Mayor of Auburn], the Mayor of Seattle, the Mayor of Bellevue, and Shoreline, and other elected officials, to find a way for us to actually get to agreement.
I was given some very nice accolades after that process.
I have experience doing that, bringing together different viewpoints from different places and honestly, I just think that’s a gift the Creator, or the Universe, or whatever you want to say, has given to me… to support and lift up and partner with everyone in our community, no matter where you’re coming from.
I’ll bring that same exact attitude to my friends on the City Council.
RV: That leads into my next question. You’re not just going to need to work with the City Council. There’s a lot of other relationships that are less understood. How do you see your role managing the City of Seattle’s relationship with the Port of Seattle and King County?
CE: This is absolutely important, especially the county when it comes to homelessness. We know that this humanitarian crisis we are facing on the streets of Seattle is a regional crisis, so I absolutely will work in partnership and collaboration with King County, with King County government, and with the Port of Seattle.
I think the Port of Seattle is so interesting right now. We saw in very recent news that the Coast Guard want to expand their presence on the waterfront and the Port. We know that the Port is going to be more and more important as Seattle is looked at as a gateway to the Arctic. There’s tremendous potential there.
It has to be with the lens of equity and racial justice.
There’s going to be job opportunities and all sorts of ways for our city to prosper, and I want to make sure that this city is a city that makes sure everyone can prosper in it – not just the very rich and powerful, but also those folks who have been left behind in our community. Those relationships with the port of Seattle, with King County, will be ones that I will want to strengthen.
I want the general public to know that, yes, I’ve been leading a nonprofit for years now, however, I have very good relationships with people at the Port, with the commissioners. I know all of the King County Councilmembers, I know Executive Constantine. I know Joe Nguyen [who is challenging Constantine for Executive this year], so those are not new relationships to me. I will be building on these relationships with the Port and with the County.
RV: Moving from relationships to action: as mayor, what would you do about the homelessness crisis that isn’t already being done?
CE: There is so much that has not been done! The immediate thing is that we have to treat this like the emergency that it is.
So, the first year and a half will be really filled with an emergency homelessness program. That means every one of those four to five thousand people who slept on the streets outside last night, we find an appropriate place for them that works for the specific needs that they have.
Having worked in our homeless community for many years now, one thing I can tell you assuredly is that not one single person out there wants to be in that situation. We have to find the right solution for them.
It will take individual case management, it’ll take dedication, it’ll take focus, and it’ll take money, but we can absolutely do it.
So the first year will have a pretty primary focus on getting that done.
I say primary because we also have to be focused on building the affordable housing that’s out there. I’ve been a builder of housing for the past four-ish years, and I can tell you that there are ways for us to move things forward in a much quicker way. Again, I have relationships with the Office of Housing. I know those folks, I know what the mechanisms are that need to be changed so we can get the housing built much more quickly than it’s being built right now.
We’ve got to do both, but I believe that those folks who are experiencing homelessness outside on our streets right now, in our parks and alongside our freeways, everywhere they’re outside, that is completely because of a lack of political will. This is why I’m jumping into this race.
We have to do better. Those folks deserve for us to do better.
Our larger community needs it as well. We have families and people who live in really dense areas who need those parks, they need to have space to be outside.
But right now, all we’re doing is an insane thing of moving people from one park to another — I have seen that with my own eyes! It is not effective. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and most importantly, human beings are suffering: babies, children, elders. We cannot allow this to happen and in an Echohawk administration, that will be a primary issue that we will solve.
RV: The issue isn’t monolithic, so how would you engage with district-level efforts to help the unhoused. I’ve asked about how you’ve worked at the regional and county level, but how do you plan to work with more local initiatives?
CE: I’m not exactly sure if that differs from what I was saying earlier.
Of course, the districts are going to be a big part of solving the issue; working with the council members, working with the neighborhoods.
There is chronic homelessness in every district of this city, and we will absolutely have to be working very hard to figure out how we do it. I can go into more detail, we will have a detailed outreach plan that talks about the different areas of the city that we think are more important to get to and deal with.
We also have the issue of the dollars; right now we are promising, I think, $125 million to the regional homeless authority, and that’s going to be a problem. We do need to support the regional approach, but we also have to deal immediately with the crisis here in our city, so that’s going to be a careful negotiation.
Again, I’ve worked very closely in the past with our new CEO of the Regional Homelessness Authority Marc Dones and look forward to working with them again. They are a brilliant person and I think that together we can do some pretty amazing things.
RV: In your career, you’ve had the opportunity to engage with the top levels of city law enforcement. What is your vision for the future of policing in Seattle?
CE: There’s three major things that I’ll share.
One, we have to hire a new chief of police, and this chief of police has to be truly accountable to the community and accountable to ensuring that there is policing that is going to be, well, accountable up and down the line.
I keep saying accountable because we absolutely need it.
Our chief of police is going to have to be bold about discipline.
We cannot be afraid of arbitration boards; what I will be hiring a chief of police on is that if an arbitration board comes back and says, “You know what, sorry, this person is still going to be working for Seattle Police Department,” that person will never be on the streets of Seattle and interacting with our public.
We will have zero tolerance for bad cops. I can tell you that I know some personally who have overpriced our homeless community, have shown incredible bias, have used excessive force, and they are out on the streets right now. That will not be tolerated in an Echohawk administration. So those are two things.
The third thing is the contract. We have a contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild [SPOG] that is not working for our community.
We have an opportunity to negotiate that.
I want to be very clear with everyone about the past police contract. I stood with the community police commission and did not vote for that contract. In fact, I went to the Mayor’s Office along with some of my colleagues on the community police commission and begged them not to take on that contract.
Meanwhile, some of my competitors in this race actually did vote yes on that contract. I think that really sets me apart from other folks in this race.
I will tell you that part of what has to happen right now is courageous leadership and – we mentioned this earlier – I’m not a politician.
I did not anticipate this [campaign]. I never had visions of being the mayor of Seattle, I’m stepping forward right now because our city needs it, our community needs it, our homeless community needs it.
So I don’t have any ties to the political world that would hold me back from being a fierce advocate for our community around police reform.
So that is something that is going to be a hallmark of our administration.
We know there is so much opportunity for us right now to change the system; I believe that Seattle should be a leader right now in police reform around the country, and I look forward to having the opportunity to help lead us forward.
RV: We’ve talked a lot about the immediate problems facing Seattle – obviously, there’s a lot! Zooming out a bit: Seattle has been a hub for so many industries… coffee, aerospace, fishing, and of course, tech. What’s the next boom industry that you envision for the city’s economy?
CE: My vision for the city’s economy is that we gave a more equitable prosperity in our region. The Seattle Times had an article – I think it was a year and a half ago – and I think there was like one CEO that was a woman out of the major corporations in Washington State. Unacceptable, in my view.
I also think this is an opportunity now for our Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities to really think about small business. Small businesses in neighborhoods are super interesting to me because I own a small business. I come from a small business background, I grew up in a small business family.
I think that really giving fierce attention to our small business owners in this region and in our city, finding them as many opportunities as we can to be successful – I would like us to look back ten years from now and say: “Wow, small business in Seattle is the driver of our economy.”
I also feel like this is an opportunity to invite our larger big businesses into the story of equity and justice that we are building together.
When you are a big company and you put a banner on your website that says Black Lives Matter, then you have to be held accountable to that!
That means that, if you believe Black Lives Matter, then you believe Black people deserve beautiful and abundant housing in our city.
If you believe Black Lives Matter, then you believe that we have to make huge changes around and then implement our climate policy, that we’ve been saying we’re going to implement for years and years now.
It was 2009 when Greg Nickels [Mayor of Seattle, 2002–2010] said we are going to be reducing our carbon emissions in the city, and every single year [since], they have gotten worse. I believe there is an abundance of climate policy change out there, but there hadn’t been the leadership that there has to be at the top level to make it happen. My whole career has been about making change, and that’s what I want to bring to the office.
Back to our big businesses: I think that this city should be the leader in truly understanding what it means to live out the principles of Black liberation, of Native liberation, and partner with everyone so we can truly see those kids who are in the South End right now, those Black kids, who have high rates of asthma because of all of the industrial by products that are impacting their lungs.
That is not okay in our city, and we [want to] work with everything that we have in us to change that. For those Native parents right now who are suffering because of infant mortality rates that are off the charts, that we change those mechanisms so that every single baby, every single child in the city can succeed.
I think we have a bigger story that we can be writing right now, that we can be the city that we say we are – a truly progressive city. I look forward to being there for it, and I believe I’m the right leader for this moment, and I want to serve this city. I truly come from a background of public service; my ego is not connected to this, but my love for my community is what’s driving this.
RV: Thank you so much for speaking with us!
Voting in the August 2021 Top Two election will begin in a little less than two months, with ballots due back by 8 PM on August 3rd, 2021. The top two vote getting candidates will advance to the November general election.