November 13, 2015 ~ Seattle
A “People’s Budget Town Hall”
Late last month, one week ahead of city council elections, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted her second “People’s Budget Town Hall” event at City Hall. Cleverly disguised as a public forum and panel discussion, this meeting was essentially a pep rally for Sawant. The roster included speakers on housing, taxes, and a number of other of Sawant’s pet causes. Before the event a Sawant staffers named Ben walked around the room handing out summaries of his boss’s proposed 2106 budget amendments. Looking over the list, I noticed that it roughly corresponded with topics the panelists would be discussing. Sawant is trying to raise taxes on business and the wealthy, for example, and there was a corresponding “Progressive Taxation” item on the agenda. Sawant proposes to build a LGBTQ community center, and there was someone from a local LGBTQ group speaking to that, under the heading of “Racial Justice.” And so on. Needless to say, these are popular topics in Seattle right now. And particularly so with Ms. Sawant’s constituency.
Here’s the complete list of Ms. Sawant’s budget amendments (two pages):
Is it ethical for a councilmember to have a publicity event at City Hall just a week before the election? I asked the Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission about this, and they told me they’d already deliberated the matter a few months earlier, in response to a formal complaint about another Sawant rally. The Commission determined that there’s no rule that expressly forbids such use. Read the Ethics Commission’s summary here.
Most of Sawant’s panelists also had something to gain from her too, beyond just an opportunity to put their various causes in a good light. One speaker was an organizer for Sawant’s political action committee Socialist Alternative. Another worked for YouthCare, a Seattle-based non-profit that gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in Seattle taxpayer money yearly. There were 13 panelists all together, and the majority of them had some financial connection either to Sawant directly, or to the city.
Two panelists that I was particularly concerned about were Sharon Lee and Jarvis Capucion. Ms. Lee is CEO of a powerful non-profit corporation called the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI); Mr. Capucion is an employee of the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE). Between them, these two groups get over a million dollars in city contract money each year. And these contracts are funded by Ms. Sawant and her colleagues on the Council, through the budget process.
SHARE and LIHI are connected through a man named Scott Morrow. Morrow’s mother founded the SHARE organization and he currently runs it. He also co-founded LIHI in 1991 and still influences it through his association with Ms. Lee. In recent years, Lee and Morrow have collaborated on several projects. LIHI hosts fundraisers for SHARE, for example, and rents “emergency shelter” space to the group, also funded by Seattle taxpayers. Lee has also co-sponsored Morrow’s “Nickelsville” homeless camps, which are also funded partly at city expense. At first flush, Morrow would appear to be the junior partner here, since his SHARE group is tiny and has little property. Contrast this with Lee’s group, which has multi-million-dollar payrolls and controls hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate. Morrow is a rather unsavory character himself. Local media paint him in sinister tones, characterizing him as a kind of Godfather of the shelters and tent camps he runs. Bad as Morrow is, Ms. Lee stands ever ready to do his bidding. If Morrow needs a place to move one of his camps, Lee is right there with a piece of empty property. If Morrow needs a place to put a couple hundred people for the winter, Lee offers some warehouse space. All paid for by the taxpayers, of course. With the money going . . . somewhere. (Two years ago, when I asked Ms. Lee’s to show me where the money went, she didn’t respond.)
Now Ms. Sawant is stepping up to help Mr. Morrow, too. Curious.
There were several members of Morrow’s SHARE group in attendance at the event and there was a stack of fliers at the door supporting Sawant’s call for rent control and claiming that SHARE needs $250,000 in the next budget. [Click here to see the SHARE flier.]
Ms. Sawant’s relationship to Ms. Lee and Mr. Morrow is particularly troubling for anyone who has experience with Morrow’s Seattle homeless camps. In January of 2015, residents of the Nickelsville camp at South Dearborn Street tried to vote Morrow out for reasons that will probably never be known. [That story here.] Morrow told the residents that if they didn’t accept his control of the camp, they’d have to pay him for $12,000 worth of bills he’d incurred on their behalf (port-a-potty servicing, trash pick-up, etc.) If the campers didn’t pay up, Morrow told them, they’d have to go back to the streets. In the middle of winter.
Ms. Lee, who also claimed to be paying some of the camps bills, seconded Mr. Morrow’s ultimatum. That still wasn’t enough to intimidate the campers, but when the church that was nominally sponsoring the camp threatened to pull its support, the campers relented and voted Morrow back in. The troublemakers were then removed from the camp and a slander campaign was begun against them. [Read more here.]
I separately asked both Morrow and Lee (see below) to give me an accounting of what bills they’d paid for the camp. They did not respond. Later, as part of my efforts to persuade the Seattle Human Services Department to establish a grievance process for campers, I discovered that the City itself had paid for Nickelsville’s expenses, though they claimed that they did this AFTER Morrow made his threats against the Nickelsville camp. In any event, the homeless people at Nickelsville were never under any legal obligation to pay Mr. Morrow’s bills, and so Mr. Morrow and Ms. Lee should not have used that as a cudgel with which to force them to accept Morrow’s control.
On October 6, 2015, I e-mailed Ms. Sawant asking her to meet with me about the situation at Nickelsville. [Read my request to Sawant here.] She did not respond. Later, when I saw both Mr. Morrow and Ms. Lee represented at the People’s Budget Town Hall, I understood why I was getting nowhere with Sawant. Sawant has political and business relationships with these two people: they give her good press and speak at her meetings, and in return, she runs political interference for them and helps make sure the contract money keeps flowing. Given this symbiotic relationship, how likely is it that Sawant would listen to my criticism of Lee and Morrow, or the organizations they control?
To be fair, I should note that I contacted two other councilmembers and asked to discuss the problem of shielding homeless campers from retaliation. One councilmember, Bruce Harrell, didn’t respond to me. Another, Mike O’Brien, said he thinks everything is fine at the camp and campers don’t need any special protections. O’Brien is another one of Mr. Morrow’s helpers. He has quite a few of them on the Council, actually; Ms. Sawant is merely the latest addition to his stable.
Different rules for socialists?
Last year Ms. Sawant pointed the finger of shame at councilmembers for attending a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored retreat at taxpayer expense [story here]. She was right to do that. We don’t want groups that do business with the City to have pets on the Council. Yet for all her scolding of others, she seems quite content to be someone’s pet herself . . . as long as that someone has a progressive tinge and is willing to cheer on her socialist cause. Perhaps, in her view, anyone who claims to be helping the downtrodden is above suspicion. But in my experience it’s always the ones who are above suspicion that you’ve really got to watch.
Here is the full Seattle Channel video of the People’s Budget Town Hall:
For more info about the cozy relationship between Scott Morrow, SHARE, and City Hall, see the Lisa Herbold story here.
For another story about how Ms. Sawant influences politics in Seattle, see my Outrage on Demand story.