GeekWire interview: Seattle mayoral candidates on tech, expertise, taxes, startups, homelessness, and favourite apps

Seattle mayoral candidates Bruce Harrell (left) and Lorena Gonzalez spoke to GeekWire in virtual interviews last week.

The next Seattle mayor will take over a city going through historic transitions — from a pandemic shutdown to the oscillating reopening; from working at work to working from home; and from a city awash in new residents with money to a city left with a massive homelessness crisis.

GeekWire sat down — virtually — with each of the two finalists for Seattle mayor: current city council president Lorena Gonzalez and former council president Bruce Harrell. We asked them the same set of questions about the pressing issues the city is facing — and a few fun personal inquiries about their tech habits.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity and does not include all questions asked. Watch the videos below to see the full interviews.

GeekWire: Let’s get right to the questions. What will your administration do to retain Seattle’s competitive edge as a startup tech and business hub?

Gonzalez: I see that as two really important things. The first one is talent. We have a lot of rich talent here in our city that feeds into the tech sector. As the candidate in this race who has the strongest, largest labor support, it’s really important for me to support workers and the future workforce who want to enter into this really important field that pays well and and is a good job and career opportunity. That’s really important.

And then the second is making sure that we have a vibrant city. Amazon has 12,500 jobs posted right here in Seattle. So it’s important for us to make sure that we’re building a city that relies on good public transit, that has nice parks, that has good affordable housing. These are the things that attract many of the workers in the tech sector to come here. I’m focusing a lot on the workers because I really do believe that workers are the backbone of the tech sector. It’s who makes it work.

Harrell: First of all, we have to look at what attracts talent — having a clean city, a certain quality of life, certain public safety expectations. People migrate to destination locations — talent does — and in order to keep, attract, and even build a talent from within, we have to have a certain quality of life. And that’s why I’m a strong proponent of effective public safety. I didn’t subscribe to the “defund model” because I wanted everyone to know we’re heading in the right direction to optimize public safety. So I’ll start with that.

Second, I think that the city has to facilitate partnership with industry leaders. I’m not just talking about Amazon, but I’m talking about the large tech companies in the region. And even those companies who heavily rely on tech. You wouldn’t think of Starbucks or Boeing as a technology company, per se. But as we well know, their use of technology can give them a competitive edge.

So I think the partnerships that the city has to keep to make sure we retain large employers here, and the ancillary, smaller employers here — we need to facilitate those relationships to make sure that industry leaders are here. We’ve done an average job of that, and not so much a great job recently.

GeekWire: Now that many employees have a choice on where to live and where to work, make a case for why they should stay in Seattle.

Harrell: This is the most wonderful place on Earth because we have it all here, whether it’s a stream system, lakes, saltwater. If you want to water ski or snow ski, you want to scuba dive, you want to hike, you want to fish — whatever you want from an outdoors standpoint is here.

We have great educational institutions. We have great industry leaders here. We have a compassionate, a more liberal-minded set of residents here. We are a well-read city. We’re well-educated. We find a way to enjoy the elements here in all seasons.

I’d also suggest that we’re the leaders in climate change. People, even those who are skeptics, are understanding the war against global warming. And so here if you are vested in not only people but in our Earth, in our air, and our water as well, this is the go-to place to have these discussions on how we can save our planet.

And then last, I would say that all of the answers that we struggle with in the city, whether it’s race and social justice, climate change, police reform, that here we have — we were, as you may recall, a maritime city, a port city and we built upon that layers of innovation in high tech and in global science and in healthcare — all of the components to figure out our most critical questions and answers here in Seattle. I think we can truly change the narrative in this country. And quite candidly, that’s why I’m running for mayor. I think we have an unprecedented opportunity to help many of the things that our country is struggling with. That’s why you want to be here in Seattle. And that’s why you want to stay here in Seattle.

Gonzalez: This is probably the easiest case I’ll ever have to make. It is a beautiful city. We’re surrounded by water. We have some of the best business districts — local-economy-based business districts — in the city. And I think that’s supported by the fact that we still, even in the period of the pandemic, have thousands of people moving to the city of Seattle every month.

Seattle continues to be a place where people want to live, both because of our progressive democratic values, but also because of our nature and our beauty in the region, including here in Seattle. But I’ll tell you, it’d be a lot easier for folks to live here and move here if we had actual workforce housing and affordable housing and different kinds of housing choices for tech workers who want to feel like they are living in a major urban core as opposed to feeling like they might be living in the suburbs.

So I think that’s the city I want to be able to build, that 15-minute city, that really feels like an urban city. And I think the next mayor will have an opportunity to put us on the path to be just that.

GeekWire: What should the tech and business community be prepared to shoulder financially and civically to help pay for the challenges faced by Seattle? 

Gonzalez: The reality is that we all know the tech sector is largely unregulated, including by taxation systems. In the good words of President Joe Biden, I agree that it’s time for our largest wealthiest corporations, whether you’re in the tech sector or not, to pay your fair share of taxes so that we can address these really critically important issues around building a vibrant city, which includes housing infrastructure, which includes transit infrastructure, which includes investments in sustainability and better greener practices to not further pollute our community.

That’s what I’m going to be asking our wealthiest corporations to do: to pay their fair share and local taxes to allow for us to build the housing workers need, to build the housing that we need to house our currently unhoused folks, and to help us invest in our own resilience as we continue to experience the realities of climate impact.

Harrell: I am never shy to say ‘yes, particularly large companies need to pay their fair share of taxes.’ And I think that we’re going to have discussions in the state legislature about what that looks like. I don’t think there’s ever really been a dispute there. We also have to be mindful with any taxing policy that cities are competing for jobs and employers. So to a large extent, we do not want to lose many of our employers — they are the strongest tax base. So we start off with, number one, making sure that our tax system is not nearly as regressive as it is.

I will also make sure when elected that the corporate social responsibility goals of the employer community are aligned with many of the problems that have been caused by our enormous growth. Housing affordability is an example. Cost of daycare and the cost of transportation is an example. Employers can do many things to assist employees with their daycare needs, or their ORCA card needs. So we’re going to have those discussions to make sure that again, we are piping in the profits and the philanthropic and corporate social responsibility goals back into the communities that matter, which are ordinary working people still trying to stay and live and optimize their life in Seattle.

Amazon’s Spheres, with the Space Needle in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GeekWire: The Compassion Seattle charter amendment. Even though it is not on the ballot, the issues behind it remain. What do you think of the broad concept to mandate housing and services, but also mandate the clearing of campsites in public spaces?

Harrell: I did support it, and I didn’t support it with a huge amount of reservations. I thought it required 12% of the general (budget) to be used for homelessness. I thought it required a published plan — sort of in a dashboard format as well — with cost per unit, cost per person. I thought it still required judicial diversion from the criminal process to make sure that we were not criminalizing poverty. It required the construction of 2,000 units — 1,000 for the first six months and 1,000 for the second six months. I thought it required a level of accountability that we need to see in City Hall. Measurable goals. I did not see it as a dog whistle for unauthorized encampments, for criminalizing poverty.

Many good people who oppose it were looking at it being sort of a inhuman approach to treating homelessness. For those critics, particularly if the criticisms are aimed at me or my strategy, how dare you say that? My wife and I have been in this space for decades, trying to help the homeless community. My wife and I together — she used to be the CEO and president of United Way — we spend time in the philanthropic community, in the nonprofit worlds, doing everything we can to help people who are poor, and who do not have the opportunity. I would never condone a policy that criminalizes poverty — that doesn’t, at the core, help people who have fallen through the cracks.

So I thought it was something we should get behind. My opponent opposed it. I respect everyone’s opinion, but the status quo is completely unacceptable to me. And I have no shame in saying that, at the same time we help people, that we need to reclaim our parks and our open spaces. And it’s inhumane to have someone sleep on a sidewalk.

Gonzalez: I’m sure for folks who are watching this who are in the tech sector, they are all too familiar with the correlation of the tech boom and growing income inequality and the wealth gaps in the cities where those tech companies are located. Seattle has not been immune from that effect. So I share the urgency and the desire to want to rapidly address the needs of those who are unhoused. And I think that the corporate-backed proposal (Compassion Seattle) that is Charter Amendment 29 was the wrong approach.

The city currently funds homelessness at 11%. So literally, the proposal was only adding an additional 1% and trying to sell to the people that that was somehow going to be the solution to the suffering that we see on our streets and it’s simply not true.

The people in this city are very compassionate people. They also are desperate for real solutions and meaningful impact as it relates to addressing homelessness. And so that was fundamentally why I oppose this charter amendment. It was premised on sweeping people across the city, on forcibly removing people, even though we couldn’t offer them — we can’t offer them — shelter or housing because it’s not available. And I think that that is not a solution. That is an inhumane practice. It’s cruel, it’s traumatizing, and just as importantly, it doesn’t work. We’re just spreading the issue across the city and dispersing unhoused people deeper and deeper into neighborhoods and deeper into unsafe situations. We have a responsibility to meet their needs. I have a commitment to do that.

GeekWire: OK, now for a fun lightning round. Mac or PC? 

Gonzalez: Mac

Harrell: PC

GeekWire: Apple or Android? 

Gonzalez: Apple

Harrell: Apple. But the funny answer is that I was the last to stop using a Microsoft Phone. I couldn’t get the apps.

GeekWire: Amazon Prime Member? 

Gonzalez: Yes

Harrell: Yes

GeekWire: Favorite app? 

Gonzalez: Transit app. It tells me when I can get the bus.

Harrell: Kindle. For me, to access books while I walk and jog, is a game-changer in my life.

GeekWire: TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or Netflix?

Gonzalez: YouTube

Harrell: Netflix

GeekWire: What habits, good or bad, did you pick up or shed during the pandemic?

Gonzalez: I learned how to breastfeed during the pandemic, because I had a pandemic baby.

Harrell: Stationary bicycle riding. I was not big on that at all, but now I’m all in.

GeekWire: The best show to stream while cooped up at home? 

Gonzalez: The Great British Baking Show.

Harrell: I’m a Throner. Game of Thrones, you watch it a second time around, you pick up on stuff you missed.

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