“Hi, I’m Eric Smiley, and I’m running for City Council. Are you a Seattle voter?”
This phrase — and business cards with a big, yellow happy face — is how Eric Smiley, 56, approaches people who he hopes will support him in his bid for Position 9 on the Seattle City Council in the August primary. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez currently holds the citywide seat.
Smiley, and his campaign, are anything but typical, even for Seattle politics, which has a flair for the dramatic, unusual and occasionally just weird. His $1,500-campaign budget stretches the definition of “shoestring,” and his direct engagement approach takes time, energy and hustle.
He chats with people at bus stations, on street corners, in bus tunnels, wherever he can find them. He tries to make it to candidate forums, but generally has to leave early in order to make it back to the Bread of Life Mission in Pioneer Square, where he sleeps, wakes and gets breakfast.
Smiley, who’s been in Seattle for 20 years, lost his apartment when he could no longer pay rent. Since then his days consist of a well-worn routine of checking mail at his post office box, grabbing clean clothes from a storage unit he rents and a stop at the downtown YMCA. Also, lots and lots of coffee.
To pigeonhole him as a one-issue candidate would be a mistake, however. Smiley is passionate about early education, wants to improve mass transit (and get people out of their cars) and revisit constraints on the creation of livable spaces in Seattle to make rents manageable and get people indoors.
Why are you running for City Council?
I think I could do a good job. I believe I could do good work there, good work for the city. And it would be rewarding for me, really, especially in my current circumstances. I’ve always had an eye for politics.
When you have $65 million spent on bike lanes and they’re talking about a $250 million budget for an arena, and yet there’s kids without pre-school? The priorities aren’t really in order. So I think I could go on there and make a difference.
What are your priorities?
My priorities are education. I think preschool, and I think there’d be a good college approach which would have free associates degrees in education and health care, two areas which demand is only increasing. So that would be a priority. Affordable housing is definitely a priority. Public safety — how we can manage that — is important. Homelessness, and it’s not because I’m staying at the [Bread of Life Mission], there’s a solution here, obviously. And mass transit. I think those are the top ones.
What policies would you like to adopt in those areas?
Affordable housing, well, why don’t we take the building codes, why don’t we find what’s the smallest residence we can build? … If you’re going to buy a property and take down affordable housing, why not require that you put up as many units as you’ve taken down when you’re doing something like that? There’s all kinds of little pieces that you can expand — the mother-in-law units, backyard cottages, because [the need is] only going to grow. They’re talking maybe 1,000 people a week move here? So that would be something as far as affordable housing.
As far as education, I would use whatever money I could find. If you don’t get a good start in social skills, vocabulary, all those things, right then, it grows exponentially.
For public safety that’s the one I’m most challenged on. That’s what I said about Lorena Gonzalez, I respect her work there.
Where do you fall on the political spectrum?
I’m a pragmatist.
I am, I guess, more liberal. Progressive would be fair, but that’s kind of ambiguous. Things like education as far as taxation goes, I think some form of wealth tax is important. But what they’ve put on the table in the budget is what, $5.7 billion? And they have this income tax plan to get $170 million which seems kind of paltry, and so is there a plan to unburden those people paying regressive taxes as the income tax develops?
Do you want to push harder on the income tax?
So I like the idea of taxing income, but isolating Seattle among it — it seems fine — I’ll buy a house in Bellevue. I’m a rich man, it’ll save me $70,000 a year to own a property there instead of here.
You have well-off people saying they support the income tax. Well, you don’t have to wait for the income tax. You can make contributions to the city. I’m not sure how that would float … but I’d like to see there’s really very little cost to trying it.
How do you get the word out on a small budget?
I’ll go to the bus stops especially if I’m waiting for the bus, and it seems pretty easy. I went into the tunnel once and, as opposed to knocking on doors or making phone calls, you have somebody right there and you don’t have to walk more than a few steps and there’s somebody else you can talk to.
And yeah, that is the campaign. I’ve been working and polishing it down, but I have to reach out. I’ve got to go up north and down south, and be more effective there.
What’s your sales pitch? What about your background tells voters that you are able to do this job?
I try to talk about that and what their concerns are. I think I have qualifications, but I don’t stand there and discuss what my qualifications are. On occasion someone will ask and what do I say then? I have experience in health care pricing; I have experience in Model United Nations. I have experience in theater, government, education. I read to preschoolers and tutor elementary school kids.
What would it mean for a person with experience being homeless to hold a seat of power?
Well, it would mean better understanding, I suppose.
So some of the variations of what causes homelessness, I could bring that to the table. I could bring a number of people to the council meetings and help … and they talk, they’re comfortable with me and I’m comfortable with them, get some face-to-face perspective on what the needs are.
What do you think about the city’s approach to solving homelessness?
My approach would be to have, instead of bringing people to the office, to have field offices that travel around for every homeless service so you don’t have to go there to get food stamps, you’ll have a food stamp van, a health care van, social services, facilities that traveled around. See if that made a difference. Affordable housing is two sides of the same coin. You can’t afford a house, you’re homeless. That has to be recognized. You can’t get a place for less than $1,000.
What is your opinion of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda?
I don’t think it was well negotiated. The “grand bargain” wasn’t that grand, in my opinion. What I was thinking about, if they do redevelop it, OK, you want to take this property, OK, well make sure the new property has an equal amount of affordable housing as you’re taking away. I don’t like the idea of building a building and saying here’s 3 million bucks, which we won’t collect. Put affordable housing somewhere else. It’s isolationist. Here’s where the $70,000-a-year new techs will live, and now you guys [live] down in South Seattle somewhere.
Does living at Bread of Life make it harder to campaign?
There’s schmoozing that goes on until 9, even 10 o’clock on occasions. So I’ve been caught out before, start banging on a friend’s door, see if I can sleep on the floor and that hasn’t worked out well. So yeah, it’s definitely a challenge.
What opponent are you most concerned about in the race?
Lorena. She’s the incumbent; I think she won by 80 percent … two years ago. And so yeah, yeah, she’s as far as I could tell, she’s very well-respected, well-supported.
Read the full May 31 issue.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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