In November of 2015, then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (along with King County Executive Dow Constantine) held a press conference to declare a state of emergency. That year had seen a dramatic rise of the city’s homeless population to over 2,800, and almost fifty unhoused people had already died on the streets. Seattle officials unveiled a $5 million package to address the crisis.
Six years later, Seattle’s homeless population has roughly quadrupled while city spending to support the unhoused has soared from around $40 million to $150 million every year. Homelessness is perhaps the defining issue in Seattle politics right now, eclipsing even the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the problem that the 2021 mayoral candidates have to convince Seattleites that they have the answers to.
The top candidates have all offered homelessness action plans.
But plans come more easily than concrete progress. Candidates who have been involved in city politics for years already can be expected to ask: “Why has this problem been getting worse, not better, on your watch?”
One candidate who seems to be undaunted by the thorniness of this problem is Colleen Echohawk. She has spent decades working in the nonprofit sector, most prominently as the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, an organization dedicated to helping Seattle’s Native American homeless population.
While current Mayor Durkan and the City Council have struggled to devise effective policies that serve the unhoused, Echohawk has been in the trenches; her group cooks tens of thousands of meals, provides essential healthcare services, and builds dozens of affordable housing units every year.
While Echohawk’s best known rivals attempt to defend their records, Echohawk is pointing to a robust history of easing the crisis from outside of City Hall.
Echohawk’s lack of City Hall experience may give some voters pause.
In New York, voters are starting to shy away from mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, in large part due to his lack of knowledge about New York politics.
But Echohawk is a very different kind of candidate than Yang.
She brings experience to the table, along with plenty of political savvy; hers is just a different kind of experience than the other big names in the race.
Her leadership position among homelessness advocates has opened many doors for her: she sits on the All King County Coordinating Board for Homelessness, the Downtown Seattle Association’s board, the Community Policing Commission, the Seattle Foundation’s board, and the board of KUOW (Seattle’s local NPR station).
Alongside her impressive résumé, Echohawk can tout the recognition, awards, and medals showered on her and the Chief Seattle Club by local government, activist, and media organizations.
Echohawk’s substantial “civic footprint” (in the words of The South Seattle Emerald) is all the more impressive when taking Seattle’s racial history into consideration. In 1865, the city board of trustees passed an ordnance that called for all Native Americans to be forcibly removed from the city limits.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, segregation and redlining hurt Native people, along with other communities of color.
For Echohawk to have the influence she does (let alone for her to have a shot at becoming the city’s first Native mayor) is a credit not only to her talents, but to generations of Native organizers and leaders that came before her, fighting for the right to be included in Seattle, King County, and Washington State politics.
Her campaign has worked assiduously to elevate the role of Native tribes in the conversation. As noted by The Guardian, Echohawk decided to run for mayor only after consulting local Coast Salish tribal elders to ask for permission to run a campaign on their ancestral territory (as a member of the Pawnee Nation and Athabascan People, her roots are in the Great Plains and Alaska).
She has also pledged to create an elder leadership group that she would meet with as mayor, to maintain a dialogue with the Native community.
In a crowded mayoral race, Colleen Echohawk brings valuable experience, new ideas, and an uncommon background. For more on her plans for the future of Seattle, read my interview with her here.
Voting in the August 2021 Top Two election will begin in 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.