Can Jessyn Farrell Save Seattle?

The Jewish mayoral candidate has big plans for homelessness, gun violence, and hate speech. Can she turn things around?

Earlier this week, my kids were in a car on I-90 shortly before seven vehicles on the same stretch were severely damaged by cement, rocks, and debris bring thrown from the overpass. Since then, Washington State Patrol has arrested a suspect and cleared an encampment, but already this year nearly 200 incidents of debris landing on interstates (and cars and people) have been logged.

What kind of city is this?

Two summers ago, around this time, a drive-by shooting occurred on a neighboring street in broad daylight while kids were playing in their yards. The reporting officers almost shrugged it off. The passengers were shooting at each other for fun. Sun’s out, guns out. It’s a game.

No one in Seattle thinks things are OK, no matter where they fall politically. So the upcoming mayoral primary seems especially important — or hopeless.

Jessyn Farrell is a working single mom and former state rep with credibility passing bills that help pregnant women, families, children, and workers, and she’s running on a platform that includes universal childcare and safe, expanded transit. But this election is a referendum on homelessness more than anything else, and her vision is clear. Still, she trails Bruce Harrell, Lorena Gonzalez, and Colleen Echohawk.

I’m not endorsing her or any mayoral candidate at this time. Whoever is ultimately elected will have their work cut out for them. We the people will be holding them accountable.


Scaling Up

Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell believes the systems for success are there, we just need to double down on implementing and scaling them.

Let's just start with the fact that you ran for mayor before. What makes this time around different for you?

I think the biggest thing is that the issues are so much more acute than they were in 2017. We were talking about homelessness in that race, and we were talking about public safety. Charleena Lyles had been killed by police in that campaign. So these were really big issues then, but they are all the more acute now. And I think that there's just been this real failure to make meaningful progress on either one of those issues. And that's why I'm running again. It is a very difficult political environment. I think the city has really suffered through the pandemic. That's all the more reason to get off the sidelines and  really be willing to jump in and provide vision and a path toward implementing solutions for our toughest problems.

Why do you think issues like homelessness and gun violence are so intractable?

I think the answers are somewhat different for each particular issue. I will say on the issue of gun violence in particular, I'll just say that we can get to zero gun violence in this community. And it is a priority for me if I'm elected mayor. I would argue that in the case of gun violence, it has been a failure of making it a priority. Gun violence is an epidemic in our community. It's a public health crisis, and yet we have not deployed the same massive resources to respond to this particular public health crisis as we did during COVID. COVID was a really great example of how this city has been able to come together with laser-like focus. We really were one of the best examples in the country of being able to contain. It was this all-hands-on-deck effort. And I want to see that. As a mayor, I will bring that to the issue of gun violence.

I know you have a very comprehensive plan, and two things come to mind. With the pandemic, we were facing an outside threat, and even though it did get politicized, there was a sense that we were all in it together. But guns are more politicized from the get-go. How do you get past that? And then, when we talk about gun violence, I think we often think of it as more like militias or domestic violence, but where I live in Rainier Valley, we hear gunshots all the time. In broad daylight on streets with kids playing. And nothing seems to change that. So how are you going to get through the deadlock, and if I vote for you, can I trust that this situation will start to resolve?

Interestingly, in this city, there is political consensus on curbing gun violence. And I think people have demonstrated willingness to throw their souls into reducing gun violence. What is really lacking, though, is that broad-based, multi-disciplinary, relentless focus every day on reducing gun violence. We have a COVID dashboard that gets updated every single day, and I am sure there are internal meetings every single day on what is the game plan for beating back COVID, right? We need to do that exact same thing on gun violence. We need to have a dashboard. We need to have a game plan every single day for what is it that we're doing to keep people safe.

The causes of gun violence are different depending on the issue. Youth gun violence can be different. All of those things have root causes and policy treatments that when they are deployed, actually reduce gun violence. In the case of gun violence among youth in the South End, as an example, one of the things we need to be doing is taking a really intersectional approach, obviously investing in community-based programs that matters, but all of those economic and social and cultural supports that make young people thrive are also part of our strategies to end gun violence.

And so, I commit to having that multi-disciplinary and intersectional approach and waking up every day and working with people across the city to have that game plan: What are doing each day to reduce gun violence in our community?

Great. Thank you. So going back over back to homelessness for a second, as far as the all-hands-on-deck approach, how long ago was it when Mayor Murray declared the current state of emergency? I got your mailer last week, and yours was the best — I’m not just saying that — because it opened up to have all this information about an actual plan. So talk to me about that action plan.

We are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and it is a tragedy that we have not been able to make significant progress on this issue. As you pointed out, we have been in a state of emergency now for years. And our political discussion on this issue is really one of the problems, because what I see and as I’ve been campaigning across the city, is there actually is a hunger to take a lot of clear action on this. And there is actually a lot of consensus on what it is we should do. And so I'll just start with that consensus on the policy proposals. We need to build a lot more interim housing, around 2,000 units. That's obviously what I'm committing to in my plan. And we've learned that places like hotels and tiny homes are really important, interim housing strategies, because it makes common sense, right? People want a place where they can go close the door, be able to leave their things, take a warm shower and feel safe. And that has been a really important way to help people find safe places inside. So we need a lot more interim housing.

We need to be bringing people the mental and behavioral health and just medical services that people who are living on the street are needing. Whether it is something like dialysis for diabetes, or mental and behavioral health treatments to support people who may have substance use disorder, for example. We need to really scale that up. And the good news is that we have really created this kind of street-facing public health infrastructure with COVID, and we should pivot that to be providing mental and medical and behavioral health support for people who are living on the street.

The third thing we know is we need a lot more housing. You know, I am committing to 70,000 units of housing. We need 3,500 units of permanent supportive housing. The homelessness crisis is absolutely exacerbated by our housing crisis. There are many reasons people become homeless, but it is absolutely exacerbated by the high cost of housing.

In Seattle where we've had pockets of success, we have used caseworkers and social workers, trusted community relationships with people who live outside, where each person is known by name and we have someone who is able to help connect them and help them work through all of the barriers of getting access to services and housing. We've done this in small pockets through the lead program, through the just cares program. And we need to really scale that up. So I'm committing to 350 caseworkers, and we need to take a neighborhood-based approach in the same way that you call the fire department. And there's a firetruck that comes from the firehouse in your neighborhood. We need to have that same kind of neighborhood-based social work support. So that if there is someone who needs help, there is someone who is able to build that relationship and connect them with the services.

So those are the four strategies. And again, there's a lot of consensus on this. As far as the politics go, I am supporting Compassion Seattle, which is the charter amendment that's on the ballot. And I'll just start by saying the politics on this, the dysfunction around this reminds me in some ways of all the dysfunction that we had around transportation 15 years ago. I don't know if you were here when we voted on the Monorail so many times, but there was just this sense of like, why can't we move forward on transportation? And in our community, we turned to the ballot as an expression of frustration. So the thing that I see as a benefit to this charter amendment is it charts out the consensus course of many of the things I talked about.

It's not perfect. There are gaps, but I have a lot of those elements. Number two, it does not mandate sweeps. I am opposed to sweeps because they are in humane and they're ineffective. And so in terms of implementation, that's really only going to be as good as the next mayor. But the most important thing I think is that if it passes, and it quite likely will pass, is it is going to create a consensus on what we need to do, and we can stop arguing about that and go do it, you know?

Yeah. I was going to ask you about the about the sweeps. It's such a tough issue, because nobody wants to sound like they don't care. I think everybody does care and everyone recognizes that these are people, these are humans who are living in an inhumane way, but I suspect that people are kind of tired of this idea that “oh, we just need to kind of get to the root causes and connect them with services, and then everything will get solved.” I do understand that you're laying out a more proactive approach, but how do you kind of get past that opposition of like, “we've tried this, and meanwhile my kids are walking to school, and there are people living in their parks and on their school grounds.”

I will just say that people are so frustrated, and they should be, because we have not made progress. I think we do need to say that in a big dense city like this, our parks and sidewalks need to be safe places to recreate. It's just part of the social contract. And that's why one of the reasons why I'm very specific about numbers, so that we can have some accountability measures. The great news though, is a program like the JustCare program, which used this caseworker approach, was able to move an entire encampment into housing and services.

So we actually are able to do this with a lot of success and urgency, and I think what people are actually frustrated about is the strategies we've been using are not the most effective. We have not taken a comprehensive and transparent and accountable approach so that we can kind of hold ourselves to our standard of, “well, did we actually built those 2,000 interim housing options?” I really see why people are frustrated, but the great news is that when you're able to bring those four strategies to bear, you can really get people into the safe and stable housing that we all want for people living in our community.

And then I will finally say, where there are instances of guns and knives, there is a role for police enforcement, but in instances around drug use, that just isn't an effective tactic. You can put somebody in jail for drug use, but they're going to come out and they're going to be in worse shape. And so again, part of what we just need to be really focused on is deploying the tactics and the services and the help that is most effective.

I think that the neighborhood-based approach is a really great idea. It's such a good point too, that we built this infrastructure on the fly and did so well with COVID. So how are you planning on paying for all this?

The first thing is I will say is there is more money in the system. Actually, let me just start out by saying a broad principle: I worked at the executive level at a government agency, Pierce Transit, at the height of the last recession, and during the great recession where we had to cut 30 percent of bus service in Pierce County, it was a really heartbreaking job. But what it taught me is that literally every single dollar has to be scrutinized and spent with the mindset of delivering service, because that thousand dollars is repainting the crosswalk, and that's really important, right?

So we have to bring that same mindset to the current money that we have being deployed around homelessness. And there's a lot of concern about a lack of accountability. And again, that's why I am so focused on numbers so that we can say at the end of one year, well, how far did we get on that? So I just want to start by kind of saying accountability and delivering really, really matters.

The good news is that there is more funding available in the system, the federal government, through the Biden Administration, which has stimulus has funding for local government. The budget that's being negotiated by Congress has more funding to address what is a really a national issue, right? Like, Seattle is certainly not the only community that is facing struggles with homelessness.

The state has put more money into mental and behavioral health. There is some funding that comes from the settlement of the opioid litigation, which attorney general Ferguson did. One of the things that the next mayor really has to do is put together a comprehensive approach that is able to work with our regional partners and the regional homelessness authority. We are going to need more funding for parts of that plan, for sure. Building 3,500 units of permanent supportive housing is really expensive and really necessary. Building and supporting 70,000 units of affordable housing across the city is definitely going to take a new taxpayer money. For example, in transportation, we've been so successful in being able to get voters to vote for more money and being able to stack up all the funding in part because we are able to plan and show that we're delivering.

Awesome. I want to ask you a Jewish question. Our community is really pretty aware and wary of antisemitism coming from the right, but we've been getting more alert to anti-Jewish rhetoric coming from the left. And so how would you address this if it comes up, for instance, city council members putting out initiatives to decrease support or relationships with Israel?

One of the most important things that the mayor can do is, across many of the ways that hate speech has been erupting across our community—it's not just anti-Semitism, although I really want to acknowledge the presence of that, I have borne the brunt of that myself, but there’s also anti-Asian hate anti-Black rhetoric, right? We are in this moment where there has been an escalation of many different forms of hate, not just speech, but also actions. The mayor has to use the bully pulpit to push hard back against that in all of its forms. With respect to anti-Semitism, I was on the board of the Northwest ADL, and I think there are a lot of really excellent community resources that an organization like that provides in the political context, both behind the scenes and working with law enforcement. I think making sure that the mayor's office and community-based organizations that are already doing a lot of that hard work — and I think just making sure that there's really strong lines of communication early and often, so that we can be being really proactive and thoughtful around how political leaders are engaging and when it's appropriate for the mayor to speak out. And again, use that bully pulpit when it is appropriate to use budget and policy.

It just seems sometimes though that it's sort of acceptable and it's not really considered hate. “Oh, it's really about Zionism. It's not about Jews.” And there is a very fuzzy line. There really is a nervousness around supporting progressive candidates, because I think people are like, “Look, you say all these things about standing up against hate, but when it comes to Jews, it doesn't really count unless it's coming from the right.” So I know that's kind of a hard question to answer.

I think it's a really important question, and I would just affirm that sense of nervousness. That is very real and it has escalated. There is data, it is not just a sense that people have.

My approach would be, number one, to be very clear around pushing back against anti-Semitic speech, that is just full stop. As I said, there are other kinds of hate speech as well, but being very clear about that and as a legislator and as a member of the Jewish caucus, this was something that would come up periodically as well. There [also] has to be work around building bridges among religious communities and among political communities. We are in a highly polarized moment. Part of our work as a community in Seattle is to be doing the hard work of education and bridge-building, and that means talking and being in dialogue.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

My daughter's bat mitzvah is July 31st. We're really excited about that. The wonderful thing about being a politician with kids is that life goes on, and I think that that's just really important to have perspective and to be able to focus on celebrating really important milestones in life.

You must not have time to sleep. Running a campaign and being a mother are two more than full-time jobs.

It's intense, but I will say that I do think that mothers in particular are just really good at prioritizing and being efficient.

I think there's a saying, if you want something done, give it to a busy mother.

Exactly.

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