After a week of meetings and deliberation, the Seattle City Council on Friday appointed Kirsten Harris-Talley to fill an empty seat on itself until she is replaced by the winner of the general election in November.
A resident of the Hillman City neighborhood in the Rainier Valley, Harris-Talley moved to Seattle in 1999, according to her resume. A UW graduate, she works as a program director for Progress Alliance Washington and is a founding member of Surge: Reproductive Justice Collaborative. Harris-Talley was also one of many activists who last year pressured Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council to indefinitely delay construction of a new, unprecedentedly expensive north Seattle police precinct.
“Ms. Harris-Talley is a remarkable candidate,” said Councilmember M. Lorena González. “Budgeting and making complex decisions about how to prioritize resources is not something new to [her].”
It wasn’t clear until just before the vote who would win it. Councilmember Bruce Harrell, voting via telephone, nominated Harris-Tally. Councilmember Debora Juarez nominated Abel Pacheco, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2015. And Lisa Herbold nominated her old boss, former Councilmember Nick Licata. Licata had been an early favorite for the seat, but only ended up with one vote.
“Nick Licata, you are one of my heroes,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien before the vote. “Yet here I am with the opportunity” to select Harris-Talley, a woman of color with “deep roots in community” that will hold her “accountable” as a member of the Council.
Speaking in favor of Pacheco, Juarez said, “I’m so tired of making the case for people of color” in positions of power. “Abel looks like me,” and comes from the same communities, she said. “More important than professional qualification is who [the applicants] are as a person.”
Sawant noted that several of the councilmembers praising Harris-Talley were, or at least had been, in favor of the north Seattle police station against which #BlockTheBunker organized. She added that while it’s important to put people from marginalized communities into positions of power, “the identity of an individual” is not the most important criterion for “showing what side a person stands on.”
Ultimately, Herbold was the only vote in favor of Licata, while Juarez and Councilmember Rob Johnson voted in favor of Pacheco. The other five councilmembers—Harrell, González, Sally Bagshaw, Sawant, and O’Brien—together formed a majority bloc in favor of Harris-Talley. There was some talk in City Hall, unconfirmed, that councilmembers were intimidated by the idea of Herbold and Licata, two wonks from the same pod, teamed up together on council. There were also reports that the Chamber of Commerce lobbied against Licata and for Pacheco; Publicola reports that the Chamber of Commerce denies those rumors.
After the vote, Sawant offered Harris-Talley some advice. After she was first elected, Sawant said, “I was told I had to either get in line with the Establishment, or I would be rendered isolated and ineffective.” But Sawant said she found a “third way” by relying on the fury of Seattle’s populist left to “force the Establishment to take positions that we wanted,” like $15 per hour. If and when Harris-Talley faces the same pressure, Sawant said, “the movement and I will have your back.”
Harris-Talley took the oath of office in council chambers. She thanked Transparent Seattle coalition for pressuring city leaders to open up the appointment process, and praised city leaders for being responsive to public testimony.
Johnson said in a press release that Harris-Talley “has demonstrated a commitment to community and emphasized the importance of transparency in government. I am pleased with Council’s decision today and look forward to serving alongside Ms. Harris-Talley as a colleague.”
Speaking to reporters after being sworn in, Harris-Talley said she will “narrowly focus” on three policy areas: reproductive justice, police accountability, and sending funding directly to community groups instead of making them compete for city grants and the like.
Harris-Talley also spoke about her concerns about Seattle’s treatment of unhoused people. “Houslesness is a big priority for me,” she said. “I consider houseless people to have a home. It doesn’t look the same as my home, but the fact that we can go in and move their home at any whim, I don’t think it’s right…I have some deep concerns about the sweeps. I have some even deeper concerns about the frequency of sweeps that were happening in the city under Mayor Murray.”
Harris-Talley said that she’ll begin work this evening, and will be working with staff to create budget amendments next week.