Conlin vs. Sawant: Seattle Central Community College Hosts City Council Debate

Josh Kelety

The closely followed battle for incumbent Richard Conlin’s city council seat was brought to Seattle Central by the College Activities Board in the form of a heated and well-attended debate. A sizeable crowd of students, faculty, and other onlookers gathered on Thursday October 17th in a first floor room of the Broadway Edison building to watch the contesters spar over issues ranging from affordable housing to Seattle’s notoriously violent police force. And spectators certainly weren’t disappointed with a dull event.

Sawant & Conlin debate the issues (Photo by Josh Kelety)
Sawant & Conlin debate the issues (Photo by Josh Kelety)

Conlin, the incumbent, stands in face of third party Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant. Both bring very different visions to the table of Seattle’s future as well as the process through which to achieve those goals.

Richard Conlin is literally an old school Seattle democrat, having first been elected to the city council in 1997. He claims to advocate for protecting the environment, mass transit, funding for social welfare programs, whilst simultaneously keeping Seattle attractive for business interests. He touts accomplishments such as his involvement in planning the extension of the Sound transit light rail system and initiation of Seattle’s Zero Waste Strategy. He’s what you would expect out of a city official that has managed to maintain his 16 year long rein by walking the political tight rope as a liberal moderate.

Richard Conlin (From Richard Conlin Campaign)
Richard Conlin (From Richard Conlin Campaign)

“I have a long track record of things that I’ve accomplished or things that I’m working on,” Conlin said in his opening statement before listing off various accomplishments he has made as a city council member.

Sawant on the other hand brings untamed and fiery humanistic rhetoric rarely heard in the usual monotony of city politics. A proud member of the Socialist Alternative and former Occupy Seattle organizer, Sawant isn’t afraid to point out the blatant and jarring discrepancies in Seattle’s skewed wealth distribution, or to clearly illustrate who’s getting the bigger slice of the pie. A millionaire’s income tax, a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage, and rent control are just a few parts of her platform enveloped in the broader intention of being an advocate on the council for ordinary people, and not for Seattle’s elite and business executives.

“The city government, exemplified by 16 year incumbent Richard Conlin, has overseen decades of displacement, gentrification, increased homelessness, deterioration in mass transit, and an increased loss in the existence of low income housing,” Sawant said.

Kshama Sawant (Photo from Kshama Sawant Campaign)

In contrast to Conlin, Sawant came out guns blazing, highlighting the current state of affairs for Seattle’s lower and middle class, all occurring underneath the leadership of Conlin and his peers.

Sawant has pointed to Conlin’s down voting of paid sick leave for workers, his opposition to mass transit funding, his attempts to penalize panhandlers, and his eagerness to get the downtown tunnel underway despite public disapproval as evidence of his misplaced interests.

“His paralysis in fighting for our interests is matched only by his eagerness to represent big business. Look how he pushed the tunnel. Things move fast because money talks,” said Sawant.

Conlin’s main case has been his personal record and experience on the city council in a primarily defensive fashion. He has occasionally used aggressive tactics by attacking Sawant for not being civically engaged due to her registering to vote a year after obtaining U.S. citizenship.

The debate highlighted the contrasting approaches the candidates have towards city governance, Conlin’s being a traditional ‘get-things-done-from-the-inside’ while Sawant advocates for a new kind of politics involving external pressure on politicians through grassroots social movements.

“I’m running to help empower working people, the youth, women, and people of color, to take on political leadership, and to represent the interests of the 99 percent,” said Sawant.

After Sawant’s opening statement Conlin went right to work trying to dismantle her platform, citing city legislative authority as a set back to reigning in housing costs.

“Rent control, whether it’s a good thing or not, was prohibited by the state legislature in 1982. We can’t do rent control as a city council. It’s a cruel illusion to tell you that rent control can control your rents,” said Conlin. “Similarly for a millionaire’s tax. We don’t have the authority to do anything like that,” he added.

“As far as these laws that exist, if a law is unjust, it is our duty to challenge it,” said Sawant. “Maybe you [Conlin] can’t but we can and we must,” she concluded to a flurry of applause and cheers.

Sawant makes her case (Photo by Josh Kelety)
Sawant makes her case (Photo by Josh Kelety)

When it came to the subject of keeping Seattle environmentally friendly, both candidates cited the impending threat of BNSF coal trains as the biggest threat to sustainability.

“I will be helping to work on the ways in which we can pull together local officials to challenge the coal trains in every legal and political means possible,” said Conlin in regards to his work with the Leadership Association Against Coal.

Sawant said mobilizing mass protests against coal trains in addition to fully funding mass transit were effective methods.

Reigning in Seattle’s notoriously violent and aggressive police department was one of the more hot button issues of the debate, evoking loud passionate responses from audience members. Conlin called the solution to the issue a change with management. Sawant called for a complete overhaul and thorough review of police policies such as having police officers carry shoulder mounted cameras and restricting lethal weapons from being present at protests and demonstrations.

“And you know what? I didn’t invent these ideas. They’re from the ACLU. These ideas have existed for years. What we are lacking is the political backbone in the city government to actually push for these ideas,” she said. The audience responded enthusiastically.

Towards the end of the event candidates were permitted to ask each other a question of their choosing. Conlin asked Sawant what she had done for the LGBT community. Sawant discussed how LGBT rights were a collective gain, while Conlin noted his endorsement by the Seattle Metropolitan Election Committee, an LGBT organization who rates candidates.

Sawant in turn, questioned Conlin about his stance on his stance on the 15-dollar an hour minimum wage hike, a political debate that Sawant helped spur forward in combination with the nation wide fast food workers movement. Conlin said he wanted to have a conversation on the issue and has always supported the wage increase, contrary to statements he has made in the past.

Sawant & Conlin conclude debate (Photo by Josh Kelety)
Sawant & Conlin conclude debate (Photo by Josh Kelety)

“We need to design a path that takes us toward a higher minimum wage. Ideally that path would be on the state or regional level if we can get them to act. They probably can’t,” said Conlin.

Sawant, holding back laughter, called Conlin on his flip-flopping, noting his dismissal of a 15-dollar an hour minimum wage increase during their first debate in September.

Though time for questions from the audience was planned, it was cut short due to Colin’s urgent need to leave. Sawant and her supporters mingled around afterwards, handing out fliers and volunteer sign up sheets.

Follow Josh Kelety on Twitter @Josh_Kelety 

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