September 22, 2016
It was supposed to be a good week for Councilmember Debora Juarez.
She’d spent the weekend writing a resolution in support of the Standing Rock Sioux’s protests against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Last Friday, Juarez, who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, led a rally through downtown as cheers of support echoed off high-rises.
But later that evening, after the speeches in Westlake Park, she and her staff look steamrolled. The press they’d hoped would swarm the resolution was largely focused on news that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray was delaying the construction of a new North Precinct police station.
Although Juarez is quick to say she inherited the police station project and its skyscraper of a $160 million price tag, she nevertheless embraced it from day one. After all, she says, it would live in her district and was promised to her constituents. And so she committed herself to its completion, taking a similar approach to the one she took in her time as a private practice lawyer — examining budgets, contracts, comparison reports, permitting applications and design review.
As she did so, however, something happened: The station, which has been a topic of conversation since 1998 — voted on in some capacity a dozen times in recent years, the beneficiary of over $20 million in pre-construction planning — became a symbol of police militarization, misappropriation of resources, income inequality and racism.
Why now? It’s hard to know exactly, but the Black Lives Matter movement has grown strong in Seattle. Scrutiny of police is at an all-time high. And the federally mandated reforms of the Seattle Police Department have moved slower than some would have hoped.
Ultimately, Juarez says she supports putting the project on hold as the city reconsiders the size of the new building and carries out its racial equity analysis. But the studious councilmember has found herself in a battle that has less to do with trimming the budget and more to do with 10,000-foot questions of the role of police in America.
It is not the battle she expected to fight, and it is spurring an existential examination of her role in City Hall and whether this office is really the place for her.
“I think the person that you met 10 months ago is not the same anymore,” she says.
On the campaign trail, Juarez wouldn’t denounce the Port of Seattle’s harboring of a Shell oil exploration rig, to the frustration of The Stranger.
Juarez, wrote the alt-weekly, pulled “a weird, lawyerly dodge on a question about Shell’s presence at the Port of Seattle. While Juarez says she’s anti-Arctic drilling, she also believes the city council shouldn’t have challenged the port’s jurisdiction and blargh blah blahhh. Fuck, does she even WANT The Stranger’s endorsement? We resent Juarez for not handing us that one, but we’re endorsing her regardless.”
In retrospect, The Stranger’s crass appraisal was not an exception to be looked over. It said everything about who Juarez would be as a councilmember.
“For me, my baseline is I start with the facts, not how I feel, not my political agenda, not what political winds come and go,” she says, sitting at her desk in City Hall. Did she want The Stranger’s endorsement? Sure, but not at the expense of her interpretation of the Port’s jurisdiction.
It should come as no surprise, then, that her pursuit of the new North Precinct station is cut from the same cloth. Juarez began receiving briefings on the new building around Thanksgiving, 2015, a few weeks after she easily won her race for council. Its completion was one of three capital projects she intended to see through to the end in her North Seattle district, the others being a light rail station and a pedestrian bridge.
Was it too expensive? Yes, she says. Would it get built? Yes, again.
The precinct building was built in 1984. The city began talking about replacing it in 1998. It was already too small, officials said. Between 2011 and 2015, the council approved five capital investment programs that tacitly endorsed the station’s replacement. Even when the building’s cost jumped from $88 million to $160 million last year, Councilmember Mike O’Brien, currently a station critic, voted to approve it.
“We inherited this,” says Juarez. “Of the sitting council now, five of those people were on the last council that approved this police station. ... Perhaps they should have done their due diligence before they voted instead of handing it to (Councilmember Gonzalez) and me.”
But about a month ago, councilmembers realized that the building was going to create a fight all the way through the budget process. They decided back then to remove it from budget talks, Juarez says, although they didn’t say so publicly until last week.
“We’re doing the homeless issue and we’re dealing with all these others issues that have to get done first,” she says. “So it was kind of pragmatic or sensible. I didn’t see it as a big, ’Oh, god, no.’ It was more, it doesn’t belong in this arena for these reasons because these people are never going to have a fact-based, reasonable discussion.”
As much as Juarez wants to divorce the question of infrastructure from the thorny issues of modern policing, it is in part wishful thinking.
On Monday, protestors shut down a city council meeting, demanding that officials halt the plans for the station permanently, revoke the permits for a new youth detention center, and place a moratorium on hiring new cops.
Juarez’s tendency to be “lawyerly,” as The Stranger put it, will likely catch up with her on this issue as well. Because when people show up to council demanding massive reforms to the police and criminal justice systems, the details of budgeting or permitting are hardly relevant to them. It doesn’t matter how many times other councils approved the new station: If Juarez is seen as giving the green light now, it is she who will be pilloried.
In her office last Friday, as City Hall emptied for the weekend, Juarez reiterated her belief that this project is not about race.
“Whether the station’s built or not isn’t going to make racism go away, it’s not going to make excessive force by police officers go away, it’s not going to take away judicial injustice,” she said. “We can’t say every time we have to build something to make a government work, ‘We don’t like what the people do in that building, therefore we shouldn’t build it.’ That’s just a very simplistic way to look at the world.”
Juarez said something similar last month at a council committee meeting. Councilmember O’Brien pushed back. “I think it’s important at least for me to say that I have heard from a lot of community members who are afraid of the people in that building and what that building stands for,” he said.
Still, the pressure is creeping in. “I’m not impervious,” says Juarez. “I bend, but sometimes I do snap. No one sees it. I think sometimes there’s a lack of real conversation and humanity on this floor (of City Hall) and it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m still confused of the culture here.”
Juarez has always been the wildcard councilmember — her votes are unpredictable and she has a penchant for speaking more bluntly than most politicians would. But her angst over the job is on particular display in the wake of the police-station debate.
When asked if Seattle City Council is the right place for her, she says, “That’s a tough question. Is it the right place for me? I don’t know. … I don’t know how people measure success here. I know outwardly how they measure success: They sponsored a bill, labor’s happy with them, they’re at the right rally.
“What I don’t understand about this world is that there’s a lot of duplicity. I know that politics is full of that, but there’s a lot of dishonesty. Sometimes I feel like I really am swimming upstream.”
The city was going to pay for the new precinct station on credit, reimbursed with taxes on real estate transactions. That it isn’t going to be built now doesn’t mean there’s a pot of money suddenly available, although there may be a little more flexibility in the bonding capacity.
In an interview, Councilmember Herbold said she wants to use the pause on the precinct station to dust off her old proposal for bond-funded housing preservation. Councilmember Sawant has called for something similar, although less specific, creating posters that demand using the money to build 1,000 new affordable homes.
Juarez has called Sawant’s new affordable housing campaign “a false narrative” that “raises expectations and hope.” This kind of bond, she says, can only be used for capitol projects.The City of Seattle is not in the business of building housing, which is outsourced instead to the Seattle Housing Authority or nonprofit housing developers like the Low Income Housing Institute.
“You don’t issue exigent bonds for programs,” she says. “So if you do that, you’re saying we’re going to become landlords.”
City Budget Officer Ben Noble agrees, saying in an email: “The funding source proposed for the North Precinct REET (Real Estate Excise Tax) cannot be used for housing. Per state law, housing is not one of the eligible uses.”
Juarez is committed to a new police precinct building or buildings, and will likely get support from the mayor and a majority of the councilmembers eventually. Herbold wouldn’t say explicitly that she would support new development, but said that the “conventional wisdom since 1998 is that that’s a facility that needs replacing because of the size issues.”
Fights similar to the #BlocktheBunker campaign will surely flare up as the council approves budget appropriations for new officers. So in the face of activist anger, it will be for Juarez to decide just how lawyerly to continue to be. The job, she says, “is just another hat I’ve got to wear. But I’ve been resisting being that person. I was trying to be the authentic Debora that people tease me about.”
David Kroman is the city reporter for Crosscut. A Bainbridge Island native, David has also worked as a teacher, winery cellar hand, shellfish farmer and program director of a small non-profit. His Twitter is @KromanDavid and his e-mail is email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of Seattle City Council, except for final image, courtesy of the Block the Bunker campaign.