Screenshot taken during the “lightning round” of the Burien portion of the Seattle Southside Chamber Candidates Night on Sept. 22, 2021.
 

By Nicholas Johnson

Three city council candidates who have campaigned on promises to make Burien more welcoming and responsive to small businesses chose to skip a long-planned candidate meet-and-greet event Wednesday night (Sept. 22, 2021) that was organized and hosted by the area’s leading advocate for local businesses.

Following King County’s candidate filing week in May, the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce extended invitations to all candidates in Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac and Tukwila – as well as those running for county and Port of Seattle elected offices – to save the date, Sept. 22, for its bi-annual Public Officials and Candidates Night, which was held virtually via Zoom this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite regularly sending reminder emails to candidates for months in the lead-up to the event, the chamber never heard from Position No. 7 candidate Stephanie Mora nor Position No. 5 candidate Alex Simkus, said chamber President and CEO Andrea Reay. Two days before the event, Position No. 1 candidate Martin Barrett informed Reay that he would not be attending.

“Last night was unique in that in the Burien panel we had so many candidates who did not have their challenger present,” Reay, who emceed the three-hour event, told The B-Town Blog in a phone conversation Thursday.

“That has not historically happened,” she added. “I couldn’t hazard a guess as to why some people chose not to show up.”

Simkus declined to discuss his absence when reached Thursday morning by phone at Andy’s Handy Mart, the gas station Simkus owns and operates on Southwest 160th Street in Burien.

In a written statement Thursday, Barrett urged voters to reach out to him, saying he “will swing by” if he has not already stopped by their home in the course of his canvassing efforts.

“Based on the personal attacks that I have already faced in this campaign, I have made the decision to take my message straight to the voters of Burien,” said Barrett, who did not respond to a request that he specify what personal attacks he was referring to.

In her own written statement Thursday, Mora echoed Barrett in saying that she has decided to take her message straight to voters.

“I have no interest in participating in an event hosted by an organization who, in response to the widespread Burien business community opposition to DESC [Downtown Emergency Service Center], took no position,” Mora said in her statement.

While the chamber does not endorse candidates, Reay said, it does take advocacy positions on policy and legislation when lobbied by its membership, which numbers more than 500 businesses, about 70 of which are in Burien, with many located in the city’s downtown commercial business district.

“We did have members come to us and request that we oppose the siting of the [DESC permanent supportive housing] facility,” Reay said of the project planned for 801 SW 150th Street, two blocks from the city’s primary commercial corridor of Southwest 152nd Street.

“We also had members come to us and request that we support the facility,” she added. “Because we had requests for and against, the chamber decided to remain neutral.”

In response to business concerns about crime and public safety, the chamber convened a Burien District Roundtable that meets quarterly and has included participation by Burien Police Chief Ted Boe and King County District No. 2 Fire Chief Mike Marrs. The roundtable’s next meeting is set for Oct. 20.

Also, in response to its membership, the chamber came out in opposition to the city council’s February decision to require large grocery businesses to pay workers $5 an hour in hazard pay during the pandemic. More recently, the chamber decided to endorse the renewal of Highline Public Schools’ property tax levy. That measure will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

When asked whether she, as the chamber’s chief executive, was disappointed by some candidates’ decision to not participate in Wednesday evening’s event, Reay said she believes the chamber’s role as a nonprofit service organization is to remain “as positive and engaging as possible, and always take the most respectful interpretation.”

She added, “I think it’s really hard for us to say one way or the other, whether we’re pleased or displeased by any candidate’s individual behavior. Our responsibility first and foremost is to be in service to the business community.”

VIDEO
Watch the Burien Council Candidate segment below (running time 22-minutes, 42-seconds):

Encampments and homelessness
Those Burien candidates who did participate spoke about themselves and the focus of their campaigns, they fielded a slew of yes-or-no questions in a lightning round that served as a sort of business-community litmus test, and they all addressed a single issue-based question devised by the chamber’s government affairs committee: What role if any should encampments play in addressing homelessness in the city of Burien?

(While B-Town Blog Publisher Scott Schaefer serves as a director on the chamber’s 16-member board, Reay said that he is not a member of its government affairs committee and “was not involved in crafting or approving any of the questions” prepared for Wednesday’s event. “Scott and South King Media are our media sponsor for the event,” Reay said. “That means Scott acts as our technical producer.”)

Speaking first, Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx, who is running for re-election to Position No. 7 against challenger Mora, said she knows what it’s like to experience homelessness firsthand because she spent six months at age 8 living in her mother’s car, whether parked under a bridge or in a friend’s garage, west of Olympia in Aberdeen.

“I think an encampment is a sign of a failure of society as a whole,” Marx said. “However, I believe that it does take time to move people from an encampment to services that benefit them, and that takes trust and communication with a government that may not have been helpful to them in the past, with a police force that they may have seen as adversarial.”

Instead of resorting to sweeps “that do nothing,” she said, the city should “equip our community service organizations to address these encampments in an ongoing relational manner.”

Sarah Moore, who is running for Position No. 5 against Simkus, agreed with Marx about the futility of sweeping, or clearing, encampments of people experiencing homelessness, but Moore stressed the importance of embracing a housing-first approach.

“Housing First is proven to be the most effective solution to ending chronic homelessness,” Moore said, calling it “the most effective tool in our toolbox.

“Most folks who are unhoused will begin to recover from this – regardless of the behavioral-health issues – once they have access to housing,” she said.

Up next was Position No. 3 candidate Mark Dorsey, who is challenging Mayor Jimmy Matta. Referring to homelessness as “a buzzword,” Dorsey said he supports “solutions that address specific homeless challenges.

“I think it’s really important to dive down into the details of why these specific groups are homeless to begin with and then provide solutions for each of those demographics,” Dorsey said. “Whether it’s drug abuse, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s somebody that just lost their job, there’s a lot of different ways we need to help them in order to ensure that they succeed.”

Saying “we really got to talk about [homelessness] in a humane way,” Matta praised Mary’s Place for its first-ever permanent supportive housing project in Burien serving families experiencing homelessness with medically fragile children.

The mayor also spoke in support of the planned DESC permanent supportive housing project, saying that “what we’re providing is a life-saving measure.”

Hugo Garcia, who is running for Position No. 1 against Barrett, said he has come to understand the dynamics of homelessness and the necessity of building homes in order to address it through his work on the planning commission as well as the business and economic development partnership.

“Our goal of 144 housing units a year has to be met,” Garcia said, “and we have to supplement the building of homes and multifamily housing that we for years and decades have not invested in with the services that are needed – both job creation services and programs so that people are able to address poverty.”

Garcia applauded the city’s law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) program and stressed the need to tackle “the root causes” of homelessness: “lack of opportunity” and a historic lack of state investment in mental health treatment programs.

“I want to make sure we expand on systems that provide mental health support, job placement support and case management, not just one or two days a week, but evenings, nights, seven days a week,” Garcia said.

Debates and donations
For their part, both Barrett and Mora said they are looking forward to debates set for either Oct. 12 or 13 in the 42-seat theater at the Tin Room Bar & Theater in Olde Burien.

Brian Callanan, an award-winning television news journalist who serves as on-air host and moderator for The Seattle Channel, is slated to moderate the debates, said organizer and Tin Room owner Danny House.

The debates, which are set to be live-streamed by The B-Town Blog, will feature questions cooked up by local businesses, said House, who also told the blog that candidates would receive the questions ahead of the event.

House, who has spoken publicly in opposition to the DESC permanent supportive housing project’s planned location near downtown businesses, is among several downtown-area business owners who have made cash donations in support of select city council candidates’ campaigns.

Whether individually or through his businesses, House has donated to incumbent-challengers Mora and Dorsey, according to publicly available filings with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

Mora, who for the past seven years has been an employee at Lollipops Consignment Shop in Burien, has also received donations from Burien Auto Repair, The Point and Burien Counseling, as well as Angelo’s of Burien owners the Ricci family and Iris & Peony owner Robyn Desimone. Marx has received money from Burien Toyota owner Dean Anderson.

Dorsey has also received donations from Burien Auto Repair, Angelo’s of Burien owners the Ricci family and Iris & Peony owner Robyn Desimone.

Dorsey’s opponent, Matta, also boasts downtown-area business supporters, including Classic Eats, Grand Central Bakery, Antojitos Locos and El Pique Peruvian & Mexican Restaurant, along with Wah Kue Cafe owner Henry Chen and Celeste Boutique owner Rosario Romero, among other Burien business owners.

While Barrett’s campaign has received money from Town Square Dentistry owner Randy Olson, Garcia’s campaign has received support from Burien Press owner Matthew Wendland.

Simkus has received money from The Point, while Moore does not appear to have received support from any downtown-area businesses or business owners. She has, however, received support from Garcia, while Simkus has received money from Barrett.

Marx has seen donations from Garcia, Moore and Matta, while Mora has not seen support from any fellow city council candidates. The same is true for Barrett, while Garcia has seen support from Marx and Moore. And while Matta has seen donations from Garcia and Moore, Dorsey hasn’t seen a dime from his fellow candidates.

(This story has been updated to identify a downtown-area business owner who has donated to Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx’s re-election campaign.)

VIDEO OF FULL EVENT:
Below is full video of the entire Candidates Night event, edited for time (removal of tech issues, long pauses, etc.), with a running time of 2-hours, 30-minutes:

Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to [email protected].