2021 Seattle mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell is a transit advocate and senior Vice President at the nonprofit group Civic Ventures. From 2013 to 2017, she represented the 46th Legislative District in the Washington State House. She previously ran for mayor in 2017, coming fourth in the Top Two election. She joined me for an interview on June 11th. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ruairi Vaughan, Evergreen State Electoral Analyst (NPI): All the people running for Mayor of Seattle are pretty unique individuals, but there’s something that sets you apart from the crowd: you ran for the job four years ago. Out of over twenty candidates in the 2017 election, you’re the only one who came back for another shot. So my question is, what made you come back to the campaign trail, and why are you the only person who did it?
Jessyn Farrell: There are glib answers that I can certainly give, but I won’t. You know, I think mostly it’s that I’m so frustrated; so many of the issues that were big issues in the 2017 campaign around policing, homelessness, climate change, and gun violence are still big issues and they’re only gotten worse. I am running because we need someone who has the chops to move the ball forward.
I think I’m that person.
RV: Why do you think you’re that person?
JF: That’s the inevitable next question! First of all, I would just say that this is a change election. People are extraordinarily frustrated with city government and with the folks who’ve been in government – and there are people in this race who have been in government, in city government in particular.
We need a fresh start and a fresh perspective on a lot of these challenges, but I really do believe that experience matters. This is not a learn on the job kind of position, being the mayor in this kind of moment.
I have worked as a legislator, passing big bills with Republicans, and I have been in the executive level of an agency, so I have that administrative experience.
Also, we need someone who’s fundamentally receptive to concerns of the public and I’ve been an advocate and I’ve helped do big things from that side as well, and I think that those kinds of experiences are what we need right now.
RV: You mentioned your time at the Legislature. What would you say your most important achievements in your time as a state representative were?
JF: Well it’s both being able to focus on problem solving and finding that place where there is values alignment and you can move the ball forward.
I think about the oil by rail safety bill that we passed; it’s the strongest set of regulations in North America, and we did that with Republicans.
Negotiating paid family leave, creating accommodations for pregnant workers. You know, it was actually legal to fire someone for being pregnant before 2017, when [State Senator] Karen Keiser and I passed a bill to change that.
So, it is absolutely around finding that creative space where we’re focusing on finding problems, but it’s also about drawing lines, taking stands, and creating pathways for actually delivering on our values.
I think about the showdown that I created in the legislature in 2015 when the governor, the Democrats, and the Republicans had agreed to some really bad compromises on the transportation package [Connecting Washington].
I very much wanted to get that passed – it was about authorizing Sound Transit 3, there were a lot of really great things in it for my district and across the state around bike and pedestrian investment – it was a really good package, but not at any cost. One of the things I was just not going to live with was this swiping of $500 million of Sound Transit money to basically plug holes in the state budget.
So I basically threatened to put the entire package to a referendum unless we kept that $500 million in the Puget Sound region and put it towards support for vulnerable youth. I drew the line in the sand, shut down the legislature for a day and at the end there was a pathway to get to yes, and people got there.
That’s all to say that creative problem solving matters and also drawing lines and standing up for our values really matters, ad we need both in our mayor.
RV: One of the city’s biggest problems, and one of the most controversial value-based issues, is obviously homelessness. How does your plan to deal with homelessness — well, firstly, what’s in it? And how does it define you from the rest of the field?
JF: You know, there is actually a lot of consensus around what the solutions are and I bet, if you look at most of the candidates, we’re saying the same thing: “Build more housing! A lot more housing!” Including 3,500 units of permanent supportive housing and a couple thousand units of interim housing.
There is a lot of consensus around that.
There is a lot of consensus around delivering better services to people who are living outside, around drug treatment, around health care, around sanitation.
So, the solution set is not that controversial, and I think it’s time to stop debating what the solutions are. And I will finally say, let’s stop the sweeps, because we know it is inhumane and ineffective.
What’s really missing, though, is accountability to those metrics.
I would love for the public to hold me accountable at the end of four years and say, did we actually build that 3,500 units of permanent supportive housing?
Did we actually deliver 2,000 units of tiny homes and hotels? — which, we’ve learned in COVID, is a really effective way to get people inside.
Did we partner with the state and the opioid crisis response plan and actually get people things like suboxone, which sometimes requires daily administration by public health professionals? Did we create enough case workers and trusted community partners to get to know every single chronically homeless person by name? — so that we can actually build the trust and get them the services and the housing that they need. So, to me, it’s really less about the consensus solutions and more about the relentless drive around implementation, and that’s where my background in transportation – and, really, focusing on doing what we say we’re gonna do – really matters.
And I guess, related to that though, solutions scale to the size of the problem. We pat ourselves on the back for incrementalism all the time in this city. You know, we praise ourselves for doing eighty units of permanent supportive housing when we literally need to be delivering thousands of units. And I’m the only candidate in this race that has delivered big-scaled solutions on our biggest issues.
RV: What do you think is standing in the way of creating those big-scale solutions with the current administration?
JF: Well, I think there is a real issue around turf battles and credit.
And there is just a basic inability to work with the council, hire great people within the administration, and then empower them to go do the work.
The mayor has to be both a great administrator and be able to work with the council to deliver them both. And then finally, having trust with the public.
I think all of the hiding the ball around the decision making with respect to public safety is a huge problem. This is a moment when trust in our city government is really low, and the next mayor has to be really focused on rebuilding trust with people, and part of that is just transparency around decision making.
RV: You mentioned the relationship with the City Council. Where do you think Mayor Durkan has gone wrong in how she’s dealt with the City Council, and what would you do instead? How would you approach that relationship?
JF: I just think the proof is in the pudding, both on the side of the council and the Mayor. Where are the big scale solutions? Why haven’t we moved forward?
So in terms of going wrong, I think some of the basic skill sets around creating alignment around a vision of what it is we’re trying to do, leveraging the resources of city departments to be able to deliver on that, working with the Council members in their districts to meet the needs of particular neighborhoods and communities, (because we obviously have a very diverse set of interests and needs across the city). Those are just some very basic skills that the executive should be able to deploy with the council, and that executives and legislative branches do together all the time when there is a good working relationship.
I’ll just add a very particular example of that: I worked at Pierce Transit in the last Recession, when we had to very significantly restructure our service and had to cut almost 30% of our bus service because of the decline in sales tax revenue.
There was a really strong initial desire to just do a peanut butter approach, where you cut service in suburban Pierce County as much as you cut service in urban Pierce County; which of course was completely inequitable and racially unjust, because those urban communities had much higher reliance on transit, marginalized communities, and lower incomes.
So we took a values-based approach where we really learned what the public values about transit, did a lot of working with the public to figure out how to implement that. And it meant that we were able to have that board – which had both suburban council members and urban elected [officials] – get to agreement on preserving service in the urban part of the county and taking deeper cuts in the suburban part of the county.
Now, we don’t want to cut transit service at all, but that’s an example of how using values and really focusing deeply on implementation helps get people into more of a problem solving mindset and find alignment and make hard decisions at the end of the day.
RV: You mentioned that you don’t want to cut transit at all – what do you want to do with transit and how are you going to bring your experience with Pierce County to bear in Seattle?
JF: So we are going to go big on transit.
I am committed to getting to net zero carbon emissions by 2030; it is time for actions, not words. I have three young kids who are really worried about climate change, and I know that a lot of us know that we are in a crisis and transit is a really important strategy in helping people get out of their cars.
I would say there are three things that are really important to focus on: one, delivering a hundred miles of transit-only lanes so that transit is even more frequent, reliable, and equitable across the city; two, implementing free fares, because that is another way to make delivery of transit more equitable and safe for people, particularly black and brown members of our community who fear being over-policed because of fare enforcement; and number three, keeping Sound Transit  on track. This discussion around realignment and pushing out delivery of Sound Transit  is something I don’t support.
We are going to have to figure out where to find the funding and make sure we are delivering the stations across the city and the regions when we said we were going to deliver them. So those are three of my transit priorities.
RV: So you want to get to net zero by 2030. Apart from transit, what else can you do as mayor to get to that goal?
JF: Seattle is at its best when we are being a leader and a laboratory to show the country and the world how to do things, and we can absolutely show the country how to do this. That means taking a really comprehensive approach.
I will hire a deputy mayor who is chief climate officer, who is empowered to work across departments and with the community to implement our climate policy – we have a very comprehensive plan on our website.
But in addition to transit, it means building a lot more affordable housing – 70,000 units across the city – because it is inherently more carbon efficient when people are able to live close to their jobs, their shopping, and other activities.
It means converting our current building stock and our new building stock from natural gas. That can be a pretty thorny political problem for sure, but we all know that’s what has to be done and I’m not scared of thorny political problems. It’s mostly an issue of finding the resources to do it.
And it means a just transition, making sure that every single person has access to the opportunities of the green economy, and really getting in front of the interlocking inequity that has come from systemic racism and trickle-down economics. To me that means in particular, redefining what the green economy means; caregiving jobs like childcare, elder care, and healthcare should be considered green jobs because they are inherently low carbon.
They should have access to the full set of policies that create economic stability.
RV: You mentioned that Seattle is a leader and a laboratory economically and in terms of policy. What would you do to bring the jobs of the future – whatever Seattle’s next big industry is going to be – how will you bring those jobs to our city as Mayor?
JF: Well one thing that I’m really focused on is this idea of universal zero to five childcare. It is obviously good for our youngest people in our community, the science is very clear on that, but it is also a really important economic issue and competitive edge issue. As we emerge from COVID, a lot of people are not going to go to work in the same way they did before.
We are in some ways competing with not just San Francisco and Austin, but also places like Boise and other smaller communities around the country.
But no matter where workers are, you’re going to have kids who are going to need childcare, so it is a competitive edge for us to really go big on what affordable, accessible childcare means. So that’s why we are going to be introducing a program to scale up to universal free zero to five childcare.
RV: That sounds like a great plan!
JF: As a new parent, that’s a good one, isn’t it?
RV: Moving onto the issue of policing, you mentioned how you want more case workers and community partners engaging with different populations in the city. As Mayor, you’ll have the responsibility of picking the new Chief of SPD – what is going to be on your hiring checklist?
JF: I’m going to start by articulating what my North Star is on public safety, because one of the things that has been so lacking from the current Mayor and the Council is the vision: what is it that we’re trying to achieve for public safety?
For me it is that every single person in our community should feel safe.
And for particularly our black and brown community members and family friends. too often there is harm. Think about Charleena Lyles who was killed in 2017 during the last mayoral campaign when she called for help on 911 and was killed by the police. So that is a fundamental value; every person should feel safe as they go about their day to day lives.
Public safety has to mean so much more than just a traditional policing response, it has to mean economic, cultural, and social support that creates truly thriving communities. And so, the next police chief has to be a partner in achieving that vision, and in particular have a skill set around organizational change, because SPD is going to have to transform the functions that the organization is in charge of, the relationship to accountability and transparency.
We’ve seen a lot of disappointing actions by both the Mayor’s Office and the top – I’m thinking around textgate. We’re really going to need a skill set around transformation and I will be looking for someone who has done that in the past and is able to bring those experiences to bear here in Seattle.
RV: You said that SPD is going to have to reform; are you going to support the City Council’s effort to cut the SPD’s budget?
JF: So I said ‘transform’ very deliberately, because while reforms are important, there are functions that fundamentally need to be changed around crisis response, for example, around transportation enforcement.
We can get to a place where we’re using fewer cops on the street to still achieve safety using other mechanisms. So I’m very focused on transforming.
As far as cuts go, one of my critiques of what happened this summer is that it was not values-based, and it was not directed in the service of a vision of what public safety can be in our community.
So there were things that were cut, like personnel in the regional domestic violence unit who are tasked with implementing our extreme risk order protection law, which helps us to remove guns from dangerous people like abusers.
That is a function that is really important to continue and invest in, but there are other functions, as I mentioned, that we really need to fundamentally be transforming and be using other mechanisms of service delivery that create better safety and have better, less harmful, outcomes for folks.
RV: Jessyn, thanks for your time!
Voting in the August 2021 Top Two election will begin in under 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.