It was a homecoming of sorts for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant on Thursday afternoon (Oct. 15).
The former economics teacher at Seattle Central College (1700 Broadway) was back on campus to face off with challenger Pamela Banks in a back-and-forth District 3 debate at the Broadway Performance Hall (1625 Broadway) that predominantly centered on issues facing students.
Throughout the hour-long session in front of approximately 100 people, the incumbent council member returned time and again to the need for progressive revenue streams, from higher excise and business-and-occupation taxes, to demanding the state close corporate loopholes to fund education.
“This is a major crisis facing our young people,” Sawant said of the cuts to higher education and ensuing tuition hikes.
While she said there have been major gains on housing justice and that grassroots efforts in Seattle that have led to the $15 minimum wage and the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day have taken hold nationally, there is still more change needed.
“We need a world-class mass transit system, we need affordable housing and we need justice in education,” Sawant said.
A first-generation college graduate, Banks said her real focus in the work she’s done as a public servant has been on education.
“I know that education is the key out of poverty,” Banks said.
Regarding how they would work to make a community college education free for all students, Sawant said the City Council needs to push at every opportunity for progressive revenue and urged those in attendance to join the “Million Student March” movement against student debt.
Banks quipped that if the government shifted money out of the prison industrial complex, it would have no issues paying for it.
Regarding what bars most students from attending institutions of higher education and what they would do to remove those barriers, Sawant said there needs to be political leadership that has the backbone to fight for progressive revenues.
Banks said cost is obviously a major barrier and emphasized the importance of offering paths to employment that don’t necessarily require a degree, like apprenticeships.
On the issue of transgender equality, Banks said she would help push for any legislation locally and in the legislative agenda on the state level. She said she doesn’t claim to be an expert on LGBTQ issues but wants to learn as much as possible.
Sawant stressed the need for building a movement at the city and state levels for single-payer health care, citing how that structure spread through Canada out of a single province. She said activists have told her that there needs to be multi-faceted service from the city, with health care as a main pillar, alongside safe housing options and rent control.
The two found common ground in their opposition of the King County Children and Family Justice Center project, with Sawant calling the idea “abhorrent” and Banks saying that when the county came to the Urban League seeking its support, it refused.
But as in earlier debates, the two traded barbs when it came to how their campaigns are funded. Sawant emphasized that her campaign does not take corporate donations and blasted her opponent for doing so.
“It is our job as citizens in a democracy to look behind the superficial speech,” Sawant said, noting that Banks had taken the maximum donation from Wright Runstad & Co., a developer Sawant said would stand to benefit from the construction of the proposed detention center.
Banks again defended the source of her donations, saying in her closing statement that 45 percent of her contributions are from within the district, more than double that of Sawant.
“Don’t get it twisted,” Banks said. “I am not beholden to any corporation.”
On the influence of big business in city government, Sawant said there’s no shortage of good ideas to limit their impact, but the political leadership to fight for it has been missing.
“For too long, City Hall, the corridors of government, have been the stronghold of big developers and big business,” Sawant said.
For Banks, supporting small business works in tandem with advocating for vibrant neighborhoods.
“If you don’t have better support, loans, forgivable loans or grants to support these small businesses, our neighborhoods will not be strong,” she said.
The two also addressed the issues they see in the Seattle Police Department.
Sawant said there needs to be a democratically elected civilian oversight body that has full power over the police, and she called the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild the biggest obstacle to real change.
Banks said the Office of Professional Accountability has not done a good job of reaching out to the community and that the City Council’s approval to allow Chief Kathleen O’Toole to bring in upper-level staffers from outside the department is only the beginning of enacting change.
“Our police officers don’t live in the city,” Banks said, noting that residents need to build relationships with the police department on a community level. “They don’t know us.”
In closing, Sawant said she was the candidate for those who want to see more change and that those who want someone to “rubber-stamp” corporate policies and business as usual should look elsewhere.
The District 3 debate capped a set of four hour-long City Council candidate discussions hosted by Seattle Central. Earlier in the day, the citywide candidates for Positions 8 and 9, and District 2 challenger Tammy Morales also spoke to students.
After the debate, Banks said that her campaign has been working to register young people to vote and has engaged them as volunteers as well.
“For me, it’s more about educating the young people,” she said, “and then they’ll know collectively we can make change.”
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