Lorena González is the president of Seattle City Council and one of the leading candidates in the 2021 mayoral election. González grew up in the Yakima Valley as a child of undocumented farm laborers, before earning a law degree and working as a civil rights attorney. She was initially elected to the City Council in 2015. If elected mayor, González would be Seattle’s first ever Latina chief executive.
I spoke with González on July 1st to discuss her campaign.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ruairi Vaughan, Evergreen State Electoral Analyst (NPI): Councilmember González, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with NPI.
Lorena González: Absolutely!
RV: Jumping right in, as President of the City Council, you’re one of the natural frontrunners in this mayoral election. However, no city council member has managed to make the jump from the council to the mayor’s office in over thirty years. Why do you think that is?
LG: I think that the City Council has evolved with district elections, and that evolution has allowed for younger people, more diverse people, racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically. It’s given us an opportunity to run for City Council.
City Council used to be elected positions where people usually saw it as the last stop in their career, and I think that has been fundamentally changed with district elections. Now people who are serving on the city council, for most of us this is our first elected position, and for most of us it is not intended to be the last.
RV: How would you characterize your most important achievements in your time on the City Council?
LG: You know, I think there’s a lot of really important work that the City Council gets to do, and the work that I have been the most proud of is really around continuing to fight for working families in the city – and I have done that a couple different ways. One is through labor standards – national, trend-setting standards that protect workers in the workplace.
I was the prime sponsor of secure scheduling, a law that gives scheduling predictability to thousands and thousands of retail and restaurant workers and employers. I was also one of the prime sponsors for a suite of bills that gave hotel workers – who are primarily immigrant women – sexual assault protections in the workplace, as well as protection from excessive, harmful workloads, and access to affordable healthcare through their employer. I can cite a whole host of other labor standards laws that I have been proud to champion.
The second thing that I’ve done to really support working families in the city is my work in the education space, which I don’t get an opportunity to talk about often!
I was was one of the prime sponsors of the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise Levy, which doubled the number of quality pre‑K slots available across the city for three and four year old. We increased investments in pre-natal care, and we created restored funding in the K‑12 system which really does focus on BIPOC kids who are furthest away from educational justice, and we were able to create a first-of-its-kind in the state free program for community college for students who graduate from our public schools.
RV: You mentioned childcare there. As well as stepping into the role of Council President last year, you also became a mother for the first time. Firstly, congratulations!
LG: Thank you!
RV: Secondly, as a parent myself, I have to ask… how on earth do you balance parenting a one year old with running an election campaign?
LG: It takes a village, you know! I came from a strong immigrant background; my parents immigrated to this country from Michoacán, Mexico, and I grew up in a household where we always had aunties, uncles, grandparents, and brothers, sisters, and cousins running around. I’m not lucky enough to have my mom and my siblings living in Seattle, so I had to surround myself with chosen family, and that family has really stepped in to come over and watch Nadia for a couple of hours when I’m doing a candidate forum. My husband – who is a restaurant worker and works at night – is the primary caretaker of our daughter during the day.
I’m also lucky to be surrounded by really amazing, competent staff, both on the campaign side and on the official side, who have really stepped up to make sure that I stay focused on official and campaign business, and that I continue to recognize that as a first time mom with a toddler, running for office, that it’s important that I continue to be present for my daughter during this really important time of her development.
RV: So many parents are in situations like yours, trying to make that difficult balance. You’ve already laid out what you’ve done on the Council – as Mayor, what are your plans to help working parents?
LG: I think the biggest issue is affordability in our city.
Our working class families are being displaced and gentrified at disproportionate rates. So one of the reasons I am running for mayor is to tackle head on the affordability issues in our city by addressing the rising costs of housing and by addressing income inequality, which is something that working families all deeply understand. There are so many families that are working full-time jobs, two working parents who are still finding it way too hard to live in Seattle.
And so, when I think about how to address those issues, I think about the fact that, while we have really strong investment in affordable housing right now, we need to be looking at a bolder plan that – at a minimum – triples our housing inventory, that is affordable for extremely low income families throughout our city, so that we can begin to build those vibrant neighborhoods in every neighborhood across the city to make sure that working families have a place to live that is also close to where they work. So that’s one of my primary focuses in terms of supporting and lifting up working families in our city.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t also talk about childcare.
The lack of access to affordable childcare, particularly for children between the ages of zero and three, is shameful in our city.
I have been laying the foundation as a council member, that I would build upon if elected mayor, to radically increase the supply of childcare that is available throughout our city – both home-based and daycare-based childcare centers, particularly for the ages of zero through three.
It must be affordable and accessible to all of our working families, who right now are struggling with the decision of going back to work and the realities of there not being enough childcare. Our childcare has worsened since pre-pandemic times because so many childcare providers just couldn’t make it through.
RV: You mentioned earlier that you promoted strong housing policies on the Council, but since you joined the Council in 2015 (when the city declared a state of emergency) the number of unhoused people in Seattle has roughly quadrupled. As mayor, how are you going to turn this trend around?
LG: We turn this trend around by adequately funding the affordable housing that we know we need for those who have extremely low incomes.
There’s a report that came out earlier this year that talks specifically about what it will take to rise to the challenge of housing affordability in our city and our county.
The reality is that the need is about $1 billion worth of social housing for extremely low income households; we’re talking about individuals who are experiencing homelessness now across the region.
It’s going to take a mayor who is serious about pulling together a coalition to have that kind of investment to once and for all build the infrastructure that is needed to house those on the extremely low income end of the spectrum of folks living in the city. We also need to radically increase all forms of non-congregate shelters.
I’m talking tiny home villages; I’m talking brick-and-mortar non-congregate shelters; I’m talking about strategic acquisitions of hotel rooms and motels to give us an opportunity to rapidly rehouse those 4,000 individuals who are currently sleeping outside, in our parks, on our sidewalks, and under bridges in the City of Seattle.
We know from talking to those with lived experience of homelessness that we can’t just invest in tiny home villages.
That’s one of the things that people want, but we have to invest in the full spectrum of shelter options that are non-congregate, in order to really give people experiencing homelessness an option that suits their needs.
I think that the need is really great there, and what we need to be doing is building a system where we are going to be able to offer all 4,000 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given night a real option for them to come inside, that meets their specific needs.
RV: You mentioned the need for a mayor who can put together a coalition. The relationship between the current Mayor and the City Council is fairly poor, as everyone knows. As someone who had to deal with that reality on a daily basis, what do you think Mayor Durkan could have done different in approaching the city’s legislators?
LG: I think she could have established more meaningful relationships. It takes constant communication with the legislators to really understand what their priorities are, to understand what their value sets are, and to understand why they are working on the issues they are working on, and how they are working on those issues.
As Council President, that’s what I’ve been doing, and as a council member that’s what I’ve been doing with this Council, really taking a deep dive with understanding exactly their priorities, their value set, why they want to work on issues.
That’s the kind of deep relationship that the next mayor has to have with the Council in order to get us focused on policy and not politics around these really critical, critical issues facing the city. Currently, most of my opponents are running on an anti-council platform, and I don’t think that bodes very well for claiming that you are going to be able to work very well with the City Council, who are currently paying attention to anti-Council sentiments coming out of these opponents.
RV: There is that old saying, “it takes two to tango.” Do you think that the Council could have approached the Mayor differently?
LG: You know, I think there’s always room for improvement across the spectrum, but this Council worked really hard to create consensus, and unfortunately in our negotiations with the Mayor, oftentimes it felt like we were being given an ultimatum rather than meaningful negotiation.
RV: Part of the tensions that arose between the Council and the Mayor last year surrounded that summer’s protests against police brutality. You joined the majority of the Council’s call to defund the Seattle by as much as fifty percent. As mayor, would you stand by that number?
LG: I don’t think that the fifty percent number, based on what I know now, is feasible. The reason it’s not feasible, the reality is that in order to achieve a fifty percent reduction at the police department, it would effectively mean firing every single officer. Because that’s the cost! SPD’s primary expense — the overwhelming majority of their budget — is personnel.
I am not an abolitionist. I believe that we need to continue having a police department. I just believe we need to have a police department that respects the civil rights and civil liberties of people, and is not going to regularly engage in police violence against our Black, brown, and indigenous community members.
I think that the answer is to reform and transform how we do our public safety, by taking away functions that the police shouldn’t be doing, and by investing and re-allocating dollars from the police department, where we can find those savings, to community-based safety initiatives is something that will continue to be a priority for me as mayor. But we are in a situation where in order to achieve a fifty percent reduction in the police department’s budget, it would require effectively firing every single police officer.
RV: So where do you plan to make these savings?
LG: We continue to look at things like harbor patrol, for example.
We have horse-mounted police officers.
We have additional work to evaluate around the type of equipment they have purchased, and find out whether we can prevent the ongoing purchase of that, or sell some of that militarized equipment to demilitarize the police department and to reduce the expenditure. I think that overtime continues to be a concern, and that is where we see that the police department’s budget tends to bloat.
So managing overtime is critically important for the next mayor to work on together with the new police chief to ensure that budget accountability.
RV: You mentioned the new police chief. One of your roles if you are elected will be to select a new police chief. What will be your criteria, and what boxes will that person have to tick?
LG: I think that choosing the next police chief is really important, and I also think it’s going to be very challenging.
It’s going to be challenging because the universe of individuals who can serve as a chief of police of a major city like Seattle is very limited.
These individuals know each other, they have come up through the ranks together, and they tend to have the same mode of thinking in terms of the role of law enforcement and how far they are willing to go to challenge the status quo of the role of law enforcement in our communities. So I am looking for a candidate who is willing to challenge the status quo from within, someone who is not afraid to say, no, we’re not going to do that body of work.
For example, the Office of the Inspector General just released a report saying Seattle Police Department shouldn’t be doing any traffic enforcement at all.
The reason she recommended that is because traffic stops are one of the primary ways that officers interact with people of color, particularly Black men, that then lead to excessive force, biased policing, or deadly force.
And so her recommendation is, no traffic enforcement by SPD.
No traffic enforcement by folks who carry firearms and tasers and can harm our community members, for a simple traffic violation.
What I need is a chief who sees that report and says, I will find a way to say yes, because the equity goals that will be achieved as a result of adopting these recommendations will be transformative to our community and that is what I want to do. I need a chief of police who runs towards those recommendations that will create transformation, not away from them.
RV: Speaking of communities of color, I’d like to move to the heatwave we’re currently experiencing, because a recent meteorological study shows that Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color in Seattle have been the hardest hit by the soaring temperatures, as well as by other long-term environmental health issues. What will you do as mayor to help those communities specifically to survive the climate crisis?
LG: This is one that is really personal to me, because I grew up as a migrant farmworker in central Washington state.
Oftentimes in Seattle when we talk about climate change, we talk from the perspective of preservation. We talk about it through the lens of wanting to preserve our nature for enjoyment. And there’s nothing wrong with that – unless you are a worker who doesn’t have the luxury of traveling to an office for the day, unless you are a worker who toils outside in the heat, in the hundred and eighteen degree weather that doesn’t afford you an opportunity to go to a cooling center.
That was my lived experience growing up. I started working in the fields in central Washington at the age of eight years old. When it was a hundred and three degrees I didn’t get a cooling center, I didn’t get water, I didn’t get a toilet. I didn’t get a place I could just rest and not work, and it was in oppressive heat.
And there are thousands of workers in our city who work outside every single day or who work in environments that don’t have air conditioning. We as a society have said, we expect you to work and we are going to be fine with that.
I think climate change is also a workers’ rights issue, because those are the individuals who are disproportionately represented by BIPOC community members.
Our low-income workforce, that is being compelled to work in this oppressive heat are the ones who need to be focused on protecting from climate change and creating resiliency.
So as mayor, I want to focus on making sure our workplace standards across the city when there are heatwaves like the one we just experienced are reflective of the protections needed for those who don’t have the privilege of working in an air conditioned space.
Now I can look at a lot of different forms, but the goal is, how do we protect workers outside during these heat episodes so that, one, they aren’t dying on our streets as a result of heat exposure and exhaustion, and two, they aren’t being asked to forego wages because their bosses decided to close their place of work because of the heat.
They deserve compensation even though that resulted from climate change.
The second thing I think is important is that to support BIPOC community members we have to invest in their resiliency. We have an equitable environment initiative at the city that is focused on communities around the Duwamish, which is one of the most polluted areas here in Seattle.
People in South Park live on average eight years less than people in Laurelhurst!
There’s an opportunity for us to increase the investments we’re currently making in the equitable environment initiative to scale up those investments in those communities around the Duwamish Valley, to do things like increase the tree canopy and decarbonize transit that is going through that area and, yes, hold accountable the industrial and maritime polluters who continue to pollute the air and the water in those communities.
And the last thing I would say is that we need to look at that equitable environment initiative and look at how we can scale up in other low income neighborhoods where we know there is poor air quality and the risk of having lower quality water.
Those are areas like the Chinatown International District, which was destroyed decades ago by having I‑5 going right through it, and that has created a really serious air quality condition, and we have a responsibility to tackle that air quality issue by doing simple things like tree canopy and green buildings, and green stormwater infrastructure.
These are the things that a mayor can directly control, that are targeted in those communities we know are experiencing lower air quality and water quality, and increase those targeted investments to really begin producing resiliency in those communities.
RV: You mentioned a big problem from the climate crisis is closing places of work. Obviously, the biggest thing that has closed places of work is the COVID crisis. As we hopefully move out of COVID, the economic dynamics of the whole world, and especially Seattle, are going to shift significantly. What are your top priorities when it comes to Seattle’s recovery?
LG: I have a four page plan called Progress for All, it’s a very detailed plan for producing equitable recovery across the city as we are coming out of COVID.
RV: Thank you for your time, Lorena.
LG: Thank you so much!
Voting in the August 2021 Top Two election will begin in a few days, with ballots due back by 8 PM on August 3rd, 2021. The top two vote getting candidates will advance to the November general election.