Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray met with Asian and Pacific Islander community leaders over lunch at New Hong Kong Restaurant in the International District today, Monday, December 30. The luncheon was organized by the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Following lunch, Murray answered questions from community leaders about API concerns and neighborhood issues. His responses were attuned to his message that the city needs to embrace and utilize the full potential of its diversity. Murray also acknowledged that API voices needed more representation in government and decision-making.
On the topic of education, Murray said it was time to go back to the drawing board.
Alan Sugiyama, executive director of the Executive Development Institute, asked Murray how he would improve the city’s public education system.
“Our school district does some great things, but our graduation rates are not what they should be, particularly among minority groups, particularly among immigrants and among the poor,” Murray said. “The graduation rates are as low as 50 percent in some of those communities. To me that’s unacceptable and I don’t believe the city government can just stand aside and say that’s the school district’s responsibility.”
Murray said he will engage with the school district, the university system, and the community college system in discussions to “reinvent” the city’s school system.
“Seattle should be a model of urban education,” Murray said. “Our school district should be supplying the jobs that Amazon is creating by the thousands downtown. But we’re not.”
Cultural preservation and transportation
Maiko Winkler Chen, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown/International Preservation and Development Authority, asked Murray how the city will maintain the cultural heritage of the International District neighborhood as it promotes development.
“One of the things I think that’s happened under the last two administrations is there’s been less control by the neighborhoods in determining the character of the neighborhoods as growth happens,” Murray said.
Neighborhoods need to have a greater level of control over the changes that are made, Murray explained. He also said the city needs to look into its zoning codes and correct what hasn’t been working for Seattle’s neighborhoods.
Ron Chew, executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation, asked Murray if he supported any investments in rebuilding the International District’s infrastructure, as highlighted by the neighborhood’s recent fire. Chew also asked the mayor-elect if he had any plans to address the effects of the First Hill Streetcar construction.
“I think the city has an interest right now [in preserving the neighborhood's historic buildings], granted they’re in private hands and there are issues about how you can use public money,” Murray said. “But I think we have to develop a way to utilize public money to assist the landowners in preserving the historic nature of those buildings, to deal with some of the seismic work, some of the issues around water damage.”
Murray called for the city to partner with state officials to develop capital budget funds for historic preservation.
“Chinatown/International District is one of the reasons people visit Seattle. It’s part of our economy,” Murray said.
He said that the problems caused by the First Hill Streetcar construction are a symptom of bad planning. Seattle needs to plan transportation in a way that integrates its effects on a neighborhood level, Murray explained.
“We have to develop a transportation plan that is integrated in the plan of the neighborhood that works with the pedestrian character or retail character of the neighborhoods,” Murray said. “I think that’s one of the things you’ll see as we look for a new transportation director of the city of Seattle.”
Diane Narasaki, executive director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, asked: “As mayor, will you support public transportation prioritization and allocations with an eye to race and social equity and support solutions like the proposed route change to [route] 106. Will you ensure that the needs of our community’s most vulnerable are addressed not just through expensive light rail and trolley car solutions but also through bus transportation?”
“You touch on a very complicated issue,” Murray responded. “Folks often don’t think about transportation as a social justice issue, so I’m glad you framed it that way.”
Murray said transportation planners in the past have been fixated on just the mode of transportation. He said that planners need to ask the question, “What is the most efficient way to move people through a corridor so that people can get to work, or to their job, or to a medical appointment.”
Murray said he will be working with the legislature to identify more transportation money.
“The buses can’t go away simply because we’re getting light rail,” Murray said. “We need to look at the most efficient way and not necessarily the flavor of the moment.”
Elaine Ikoma Ko, executive director of the North American Post Foundation, asked Murray if there were opportunities to improve relations between the API community and the Seattle Police Department.
Murray said his first priority is to complete the nationwide search for a new police chief. On a recent trip to Washington D.C., Murray said he asked President Barack Obama to have the U.S. Department of Justice work closely with Seattle to address things like bias policing and use of force.
The federal government entered into a comprehensive, cooperative agreement with the city of Seattle to implement reforms within the Seattle Police Department in 2012 after an investigation found that the department engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force.
“Reforming our police department along the lines of what the justice department has required is key to getting us to where we need to be,” Murray said. “That means a different approach to policing. That means police more on the beat and out of their cars. It means police who have the training to deal with use of force that they currently don’t have. It means changing how we recruit our police officers. … We need to do more to encourage people in this city to become police officers.”
Murray suggested bringing back a cadet program to encourage young people to joining the police force.
“We can do all sorts of community processes, but the only way to improve relationships between any community and the police force is to have that police force look like and come from those communities,” Murray said.
Sudha Nandagopal, a board member with One America Votes, told Murray that people of color are often left out of the conversation when it comes to climate change and the environment.
“As you know, Seattle has been a leader on climate change policy and really setting the tone nationally around what cities can do about climate change,” Nandagopal said. “But despite the fact that communities of color and API communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, we have largely been left out of the conversations here in Seattle about policy solutions as well as adaptation.”
Nandagopal asked Murray how he would engage the API community.
Murray acknowledged that environmental organizations and their leaders are predominantly white. Murray said he will be leading an initiative through the Office of Sustainability and the Environment to develop talent on environmental issues within Seattle’s communities so that there will be more opportunities to include people of color.
“One of the commitments that I have gotten from the environmental community is that we are going to change the face of the environmental community in Seattle and it is going to look like the city of Seattle and not just part of the city of Seattle,” Murray said.
Tomio Moriguchi, chairman of the board of Uwajimaya, Inc., spoke to Murray about concerns over raising the minimum wage to $15.
“This is a subject that requires a lot of coordination and a lot of thinking through,” Moriguchi said.
While he is in support of employers providing good wages, Moriguchi said he is concerned about the impact that a $15 minimum wage would have on nursing homes, which have employees who earn just under $15. Despite the small difference, he said a change in the wage could have a nursing home paying much more per year on wages. The result might be a loss of jobs and poorer quality health care.
“I think we can agree that the disparity between the wealthy and those at the bottom end has grown larger than any time in our history,” Murray said. “And that is not a good thing for our middle class because if people are not making a livable middle class wage, then they are not going to Uwajimaya, they are not buying a microwave or a TV set and the economy doesn’t grow.”
However, Murray agreed that there were a lot of details to work out, such as whether a minimum wage change would take place over a period of time or all at once, and whether small businesses should be exempt.
“Simply going to a certain number could wreak havoc on the economy,” Murray said.
The road to addressing Seattle’s minimum wage is a tricky one, Murray explained, as one wrong turn could set up a costly war between businesses and labor activists.
“This is what is going to happen if my process fails, someone’s going to put it on the ballot and labor and business are going to spend a massive amount of money to either pass it or defeat it,” Murray said. “It will divide us as a city. And business should spend their money on creating jobs and labor should spend their money on helping workers. So that’s why I put this process together to hopefully prevent a battle in November.”
The road to mayor
Murray campaigned on creating a “middle out” economy for Seattle that grows from a strong middle class. A key component for that effort, Murray said, would be in leading dialogue over raising the city’s minimum wage to $15.
In December, Murray created the Income Inequality Advisory Committee charged with “delivering an actionable set of recommendations for increasing minimum wage in the city of Seattle.” The committee is comprised of leaders in business and labor, members of the City Council, and other community stakeholders.
Recently elected Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who corner-stoned her campaign on the $15 minimum wage is also on the advisory committee. She has agreed to hold off on putting a measure on the ballot, temporarily averting the wage war. President Obama recently announced that raising the federal minimum wage will be part of his agenda.
Murray also campaigned on bringing a stronger focus on services for immigrant communities.
Earlier this month, Murray named Hyeok Kim, who was in attendance at the luncheon, as his deputy mayor for external affairs. Kim is outgoing executive director of Interim Community Development Association in the Chinatown/International District. Her role will be to communicate with Seattle communities on behalf of the mayor.
In the 2013 elections, International District and southeast Seattle voters supported outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn over Murray, according to a Seattle Times analysis of precinct vote returns.
Prior to being elected mayor of Seattle, Murray served 11 years in the Washington State House of Representatives and seven years in the State Senate. He has also been a key figure in the fight for marriage equality in Washington State. Murray married his long-time partner Michael Shiosaki earlier this year. Shiosaki, the Seattle Parks Director of Planning, also attended the luncheon.