NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, June 14th, 2021

Meet the 2021 Seattle mayoral candidates: Nonprofit leader Colleen Echohawk

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.

Colleen Echohawk

May­oral can­di­date Colleen Echohawk (Pho­to cour­tesy of the campaign)

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.

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