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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

Two Indigenous candidates making historic bids to be the next mayor of Seattle were trailing late Tuesday in the city’s primary election.

With returns still being counted, Colleen Echohawk, Pawnee, and Casey Sixkiller, Cherokee, had not broken into the top two spots needed to advance to the Nov. 2 general election.

Former City Council member Bruce Harrell, who once served as acting mayor, was leading the field of 15 candidates with 38.2 percent of the vote. Current council president Lorena Gonzalez was second with 28.6 percent, as of 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, which serves Seattle’s Native homeless population, was third with 8.3 percent and Sixkiller, the city’s deputy mayor, was sixth with 3.6 percent of the vote.

(PREVIOUS: An Indigenous person could be Seattle’s next mayor)

The top two vote-getters in the primary election will face off in November.

Election results are scheduled to be updated at 4 p.m. Wednesday as mailed ballots are received — they must have been postmarked by Election Day, Aug. 3. The results will be certified Aug. 17.

There are 493,467 registered voters in Seattle, according to the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. There were 89,414 ballots counted on Tuesday, the King County Auditor Elections Office reported.

And in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Katherine Festa, Haida, was behind in her bid to advance to the Nov. 2 general election for City Council. Daniel Miller, a business manager, was leading with 39.3 percent of the vote. Hoang Tran, who is seeking reelection to the council, was second with 36.3 percent. Festa, housing coordinator for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, was third with 23.9 percent. Federal Way has 53,448 registered voters; 6,672 ballots were counted Tuesday.

Historic candidacies

The Indigenous community was excited by the prospect of an Indigenous person being elected mayor of Seattle for the first time. Some political observers said Echohawk and Sixkiller were the best hope for change in a city where homelessness is growing, housing costs are skyrocketing, gun violence is on the rise, and community cries for police reform were answered by the City Council with budget cuts and a reduction in the number of officers on the force.

In her seven years as executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, Echohawk guided the building of $180 million in affordable housing, moved homeless residents from encampments and into hotel rooms, and started an urban farm where homeless Natives could grow traditional foods that are served at Chief Seattle Club.

She also served on the Seattle Community Police Commission, which is addressing systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Sixkiller, a Dartmouth College graduate who worked on two congressional legislative staffs, served as chief operating officer of King County before joining incumbent Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff as deputy mayor. In that position, Sixkiller has worked to create permanent and temporary housing, expand access to parks and green spaces, and secure funds to restore habitat, replace failing bridges and invest in mass transit.

“The city doesn’t need more status quo,” said civil rights lawyer Gabe Galanda, Nomlaki/Concow, of Seattle-based law firm Galanda Broadman. “Anyone who has already served on the City Council is only going to further the status quo. They have had a chance to resolve public safety issues, they have had a chance to resolve homelessness or at least improve those issues. If anything, on their watch, things have gotten horribly worse. So, in my estimation, it is time for current or prior City Council members to step aside and let a new generation steer our city in a new direction.”

Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala, chairwoman of the Urban Native Education Alliance and member of Seattle Urban Native Nonprofits, or SUNN, said in an earlier interview that she viewed theelection as “high stakes for the urban Indian community.”

SUNN hosted a mayoral candidates forum on June 23. The forum “effectively elevated our collective voice and demonstrated to all candidates that our voting power can influence the election process,” Sense-Wilson said, “and that we want a mayor who will share power and decision making with our community.”

Louie Gong, Nooksack, of Seattle — founder and CEO of the Indigenous art company Eighth Generation — said in an earlier interview, “Having Indigenous people in positions of power is going to have a huge impact on [non-Native] perceptions of Indigenous people, and that will affect information from other people that Indigenous people internalize about themselves,”

No matter the eventual outcomes for Echohawk or Sixkiller, their candidacies were historic. They made real the prospect of an Indigenous person becoming mayor of a city that once banned Native people from living within the city limits. And they are first-time candidates for public office in a city that is the largest in Washington and 28th largest in the U.S. with a population of 769,000 population. 

Both were confident as Election Day approached.

“Our message is resonating,” Echohawk said prior to Election Day. “We are polling in the Top 3. Bruce Harrell is polling at 20 percent. Lorena Gonzalez is polling at 12 percent. I’m at 10 percent with a 4.5 percent margin of error. We are right in there and we are pushing really hard. We’re also the top fundraiser. We’ve raised the most money in the campaign and feel really good about our chances to get to the [general election]. It’s an honor to get to do this.”

Sixkiller was buoyed by the fact that 30 percent of voters were undecided a week before the election.

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“(That) Colleen and I running to become mayor of the 18th-largest city in the United States is a pretty amazing thing,” he said. “Two Indigenous people who have deep roots in our city, who are known nationally for things we’ve worked on. You know, I’m humbled by that.”

Plans for change

Harrell, son of an African-American father and Japanese-American mother, earned political science and law degrees at the University of Washington, worked as a corporate attorney, and served on the City Council from 2008-2020. He served as acting mayor in September 2017 after then-Mayor Ed Murray resigned.

Harrell’s priorities as mayor would be to help small and minority-owned businesses. invest in neighborhoods. create a center for training and employment. revitalize arts and culture. reform the police department. expand access to health care. support replacement of natural gas with solar in new and existing buildings. improve infrastructure and explore use of high-speed rail, and enact policies to reduce gun violence.

Gonzalez, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico, worked three jobs en route to earning a degree in business from Washington State University. She then earned a law degree at Seattle University and became a civil rights attorney. She was elected to the City Council in 2015.

Gonzalez’s priorities as mayor would be to improve the city’s crisis response system, improve behavioral health services and substance use disorder treatment, convert unused buildings and hotel space to house those who are homeless, reinvigorate the city’s Office of Economic Development, modernize industrial infrastructure, and lay the foundation for green technology and a green economy.

Echohawk and Sixkiller laid out detailed plans for the changes they wanted to implement.

As mayor, Echohawk said she would have zero tolerance for “bad cops,” would hire a new police chief she could work with to change the culture in the department, give the community police commission some accountability oversight, establish crisis response teams to respond to mental health-related calls for service, and create an Office of Crime Prevention to build a neighborhood-based strategy to reduce crime.

On homelessness and affordable housing, she proposed activating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate response to homelessness issues, establishing a capital campaign to fund construction of 4,000 tiny homes and modular homes for temporary housing, identifying surplus city property and hotels that could be used for emergency housing, and reforming zoning laws and permitting rules to speed housing development, particularly middle-income housing in every neighborhood.

She proposed establishing an Office of Indigenous Affairs. Tribal nations with ties to the city include the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, Suquamish and Tulalip Tribes. She also proposed working with the City Council to establish a municipal broadband utility with access to all residents regardless of income, expanding universal pre-K to all of Seattle, and expanding the use of solar power.

Sixkiller proposed some “rising tide lifts all boats” policies: providing supplemental income payments ⁠— similar to COVID-19 relief payments ⁠— to low-income families to ensure a guaranteed basic income that enables them to stay in Seattle; bolstering commerce with small-business stabilization grants and elimination of the local business and occupations tax; expanding the number of city-funded childcare centers and limiting co-pays to 7 percent of household income; and establishing incentives for conversion from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Regarding homelessness and affordable housing, Sixkiller proposed expanding the number of tiny home villages, using hotels for temporary shelter, building 3,000 permanent places “for individuals to call home,” and organizing a regional response to homelessness “so other cities and communities are part of the solution.”

Regarding policing, he proposed adequately staffing the police department to reduce 911 crisis response times, getting officers out of their cars and “back to building relationships in the communities they serve,” reforming hiring practices to increase racial and cultural diversity, and providing ongoing training in the use of non-lethal tools and crisis response. He proposed doubling the city’s unarmed civilian Community Service Officers program and providing support to nonprofit community safety programs.

He said he would work with Seattle Public Schools to make schools “a safe haven” for LGBTQ students, and ensure homeless LGBTQ youth have access to housing, health care and other resources.

Other Native politicians

Indigenous politicians already serve in elective office in Seattle and its suburbs.

Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, the first Native person elected to the Seattle City Council, is serving her second term, which expires in 2023. Chandra Hampson, Winnebago, is serving her first term on the Seattle School Board; her term expires in 2023.

Zachary DeWolf, Chippewa Cree, is completing his first term on the Seattle School Board and is not seeking reelection.

In Seattle’s neighboring communities:

  • Chris Roberts, Choctaw, is unopposed for reelection to the City Council in Shoreline, population 53,007.
  • Meghan Jernigan, Choctaw, is serving her first term on the Shoreline School Board. Her term expires in 2023.
  • Chris Stearns, Navajo, is serving his first term on the City Council in Auburn, population 70,180. His term expires in 2023.
  • Cindy Webster-Martinson, Suquamish, is serving a third term on the North Kitsap School Board. Her term expires in 2023. She is the first Native person elected to non-tribal office in Kitsap County.
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