Sunday, September 27, 2015

Olympia’s Mayoral Candidates: A Distinct Choice

Above: Marco Rosario Rossi is a candidate for Olympia city council's mayoral position.  

“I think there is a misconception of just how pervasive poverty is in Olympia. So I look at the statistics from the county (Thurston Regional Planning Council), and Olympia has the highest poverty rate of any incorporated city in the county. Olympia actually has the third highest poverty rate of any area in the county – the only two that are higher are the reservations,” says Rossi.  

By Janine Unsoeld

Olympia voters will have a distinct choice in who will preside over the city: current city councilmember Cheryl Selby, 54, a homeowner in the historic South Capitol district, or political newcomer Marco Rosario Rossi, 34, a renter in the southwest neighborhood area of Olympia.

She is a downtown business owner, and he is a fulltime medical assistant at Planned Parenthood.

Little Hollywood conducted two, separate, on-the-fly interviews with each candidate as each went door to door introducing themselves to potential voters in two different neighborhoods: Selby in her South Capitol neighborhood and Rossi in Olympia’s eastside neighborhood. Little Hollywood strove for balance but did not necessarily ask the candidates the same questions. 

Ballots will be mailed to voters on October 14.

Above: Cara Stimson, left, a South Capitol resident for 20 years, meets mayoral candidate Cheryl Selby, right. Stimson was enthusiastic about Selby and said she voted for her two years ago. Stimson is active in her neighborhood and serves as a lead moderator for an online neighborhood networking group called Nextdoor.

Mayoral Candidate Cheryl Selby

I met Selby at her home in a neighborhood where many historic Craftsman style houses were for sale, ranging from $650,000 to $268,000. 

On this recent Saturday afternoon, Selby had four teenagers helping her: Aspen, 16 and Jake, 16, who attend Capital High School, and Mackenzie, 16, and Aly, 16, who attend Olympia High School. Selby said she and her team have doorbelled about 7,000 homes since early June.

She is endorsed by a long list of elected local leaders and the firefighters union, Local 468, the latter of which Selby credits to her background in public health and safety training.

Selby has owned an upscale women’s clothing shop near the Olympia Farmer’s Market for nine years. She’s lived in Olympia since 1994.

As of this writing, her Washington State Public Disclosure Commission reports show that she has raised a whopping $21,837.49. Many of her highest donations are from real estate related individuals and associations, such as the Olympia Master Builders. She admits that she heard from known Democrats about that, and defends her choice to accept their donation. The mayoral and city council positions are nonpartisan; Selby is a Democrat. 

“Their current president is on the board of Sidewalk with me and he’s rallied so much support for rapid rehousing and Homes First! and all those kinds of approaches. We need those people supporting affordable housing options, so why push them away?

“I do have a broad range of support…I bring everybody to the table…I will be collaborative…. Ideology is not a good a good basis for government, certainly not on a municipal level - we can’t afford it. Our resources are so small! If we get caught up in every single global issue…and bog down city government on every national issue, it is not productive.”

Overwhelmingly, the top issue on voter’s minds is the condition of downtown Olympia.

A woman who just moved here last year asked Selby about the artesian well area and said she doesn’t go down there anymore.

“That’s a situation where everything that could go wrong did go wrong…. ” started Selby. She said that they are working on programs to help many of the people who hang out down there, and explained the role of Community Youth Services. The woman was unconvinced.

Moving along, an old timer bluntly told Selby, “The only thing the city council has done in 40 years is screw up parking.”

“…Well, there hasn’t been a business owner mayor since Tom Allen Sr., in 1976, so we need that perspective of our city on the council….” she responded.

“Well, I don’t think the city is going to do anything to improve downtown, other than to chase the bums out now,” he retorts.

Selby continues, “Well, I’m not going to give up…I want an opportunity for our kids to find family wage jobs and a quality of life….”

“Define family wage jobs,” the man demands.

“Well, we can’t just rely on the state for that….we’ve got county jobs, but we have to go after high tech industry, just like everyone else, right, but we’ve got amazing recreational and cultural assets. We just hired our economic development coordinator…and she is our tool in the toolbox for recruiting businesses,” she says.

“Well, I’ll be surprised if it happens…private enterprise is what’s going to make that sing…Like I’ve been saying for 40 years…what have we got? We lost Penney’s, we lost Miller’s….” he says.

“Yeah, well, the mall opened…” Selby responds, and picks up speed. “We have to be more creative with what we do with our downtown. We’re not alone. There are cities very similar to Olympia that have Main Street corridors, and that’s an asset. We have arts, recreation, cultural, and heritage assets….” 

Finally, she closes the conversation with him, saying she’s not a one trick pony and has a lot of energy.

Selby says the lack of mental health services and oxycodone/heroin use has created the perfect storm. Selby serves on the board of Sidewalk, which works to place people into rapid rehousing – 500 people in the last three years.

“If it wasn’t for Behavioral Health Resources, the Dispute Resolution Center, and rapid rehousing, downtown would look a lot worse…We’re doing as good a job as we can,” she said.

Addressing the frustration heard about downtown, Little Hollywood asked Selby about city ordinances that aren’t being enforced.

“I feel that our community wants one thing, and when it happens, they push back against it, and so the police are like, ‘Where do we stand?’ and with the police shooting, that elevated that feeling of them reassessing their support in the community…I think they feel like they’re walking on eggshells right now. They need to feel supported by their community, and supported by the business owners, and that’s going to happen through a lot of relationship building. Chief Roberts is probably the best thing to ever happen to the city of Olympia. I think he is a community justice advocate…I think he was just about there when the officer involved shooting happened and that set us back.”

Little Hollywood asked Selby what she is looking for in Chief Roberts’ report regarding the internal review investigation into the May 21 shooting of two men by Olympia police officer Ryan Donald.

“I’m looking for a better understanding of how our agency, individually, treats situations like this, what we can learn from it. I’m looking for a real tough look at that situation, internally. I want to know how we handle pulling our gun out of our holster. I want to know more about that.” Selby said she thought a citizen review committee would be a bit of an overkill.”

“What I’m waiting for is the findings of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Community Relations. They are going to dig in on it….”

Moving along, I asked if the city will see a leadership style from her that’s different than Mayor Buxbaum’s. She says yes, that she will run city council meetings more efficiently. She said she will try to limit public comment to 30 minutes.

“If we have more than ten people show up for a single issue, which is about a half hour, it’s in our council guidelines that the mayor has the authority to reorder people, so if someone has never been to city council before, they can speak first. And if we have 20 people wanting to speak on one issue, I’m happy to meet with them and ask them to speak for two minutes each, or otherwise, have them pick two or three spokespeople,” she said.

She agreed that such a process could get sticky. “….We do need to get a handle on it. When those occasions happen, they hold us hostage. Stalwarts can wait until the end….”

On the proposed $15 minimum wage campaign, Selby said, “I would love it if we could make that across the nation. Again, it’s one of those issues where just can’t cherry pick a city and make it happen…It’s not fair…Let’s pressure the state to get to $12 minimum. Let’s start with $12.”

“When I started my business, I didn’t even get a paycheck for a couple years. I would just have to shut my doors if I had to pay $15 an hour. There’s no way…I’ve been open nine years and I pay my employees between $13 - $15 now. I’m a dying breed…retail is just so hard, the margins are just so tight. My competitor is not down the street, it’s Amazon. People will come into my store, take a picture, and look it up online and buy it. I can’t raise my prices like a restaurant can….I’m kind of locked in….harsh reality.

Asked if she’s particularly frustrated by any issue, Selby mentions the Deschutes Estuary vs. Capitol Lake issue. “We haven’t been able to get forward on it…”

When asked her opinion on whether or not the lake should revert to an estuary, she says, “Honestly, I don’t have one….”  She says she’s met with all groups associated with the issue.

“As someone who is not a biologist, a wildlife specialist or a water quality specialist, what I see is that both sides have conflicting science. What’s that about? So, with the $250,000 that the Legislature appropriated to talk about it again, I’ll be happy with whatever comes out of it. We just can’t leave it the way it is. Either way…I just want it to be logical and then I want to advocate for whatever position comes forward….”

Mayoral Candidate Marco Rosaire Rossi

Marco Rosaire Rossi is the last one standing in what had originally been a platform of three candidates for city council under the banner of Olympia For All. 

Rossi has raised $5,137 to date, and is being endorsed by Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, several local unions, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council.  

Rossi first moved to Olympia in 2000, and has lived on the westside most of that time.

He has been involved in community bicycle outreach with the Emma Goldman Youth and Homeless Outreach Project (EGYHOP) and currently volunteers with the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.

For the last six years, he has worked as a medical assistant for Planned Parenthood, and is a steward for UFCW 21, the largest private-sector union in Washington with members working in grocery store, retail, health care and other industry jobs.

Earlier this month, Rossi said he had been busy doorbelling renters in apartment complexes, a traditionally marginalized, transient population often overlooked by candidates for public office. He has since narrowed his focus to those who are more consistent voters.

I asked him what he is hearing at the door.

“It depends on what neighborhood we are doorbelling in….Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t vote…so at the door, you do have an opportunity to educate people and talk to them. People are curious and want to find out more about the campaign.

“The estuary vs. lake issue has come up with some people, mostly on the westside. Nearly everyone is interested in it becoming an estuary so it’s just a matter of figuring that out, and that’s a position I support too.

“....The issue of downtown can be broken up into different issues: how is downtown going to develop, and safety issues….I found that people respond to issues of poverty….Usually when I talk about that, a lot of people are in agreement.

Asked about the need for a day shelter for the homeless in Olympia, Rossi said, “The city passed up a great opportunity to work on something like the People’s House to be located downtown. That type of low-barrier model is critical for pulling people off the street. Parts of that program did end up in the basement of the First Christian Church - that’s really good - I volunteer there - but we need an area that is close, and can provide multiple services: shower, laundry, all those things.

“We have to get out of this model of thinking that the homeless population can access services where they are and be more strategic and efficient about it, figure out the most cost effective way to do it, and make it easier for people to access. I want to concentrate services in the downtown, and adopt a Housing First! strategy. Cheryl Selby’s model is more incremental, with services more dispersed.”

Asked about the $15 minimum wage campaign, Rossi says the majority of people are really positive or interested in the issue.

“I’d like to adopt the Seattle strategy - if you are a large business with a high margin, you have to transfer over to a $15 minimum wage really quickly. If you are a small business with fewer employees, you have a longer period of time to make that transition….We’ve reached out to local businesses. Once we lay out the numbers and show them how they can make the transition, they tend to come around and say, ‘Yea, we can see how this can be a good thing.’” 

Rossi says the livable wage numbers say it all.

“The MIT Livable Wage indicator, which gives extremely conservative estimates…sets the livable wage in Olympia for a single person at $10.77. That's for someone working 40 hours a week. However, if that same person has one child, that figure jumps to $22.32. If that person has two children, then a livable wage is $26.47. Considering this context, we need to recognize that the fight for a $15 minimum wage is really the starting point for many single mothers, not the end goal….”

Asked about other issues, and specific downtown development proposals, such as the proposed community renewal act, Rossi said he does not have strong feelings about how to develop the isthmus area.

“It’s a very divisive issue and there’s a lot of proposals on the table. We just need a good process for exploring all those issues and what’s most beneficial for the city. Why the city is focused on that area is because in terms of development, it’s essentially the low hanging fruit…the reason the city isn’t going after smaller areas like Griswold’s is because it’s just not worth it for developers….It would be great if we could push the development of downtown northward toward the Farmer’s Market. The problem is that that area is owned by a lot of different developers, and much of it is on fill and contaminated….”

Asked about the proposed Metropolitan Parks District (MPD) ballot measure, Rossi expressed concerns.

“An MPD could be good for the city, but I do have some concerns. Olympia’s parks do need some critical maintenance. Yauger Park needs repairs in many areas, Bigelow needs improvements in its bathrooms and shelters, and Woodland and West Bay trails need to be completed. However, there is no guarantee that the revenue raised…will be used for these projects….Before we raise revenue for parks we should have a strategic plan for our park system that emphasizes density and equity….When we think about where we’re going to put a park, we need to put them in areas that are most dense. That tends to be areas where a lot of poverty is concentrated….I want to make sure that people who come out of their home onto concrete can walk to a nice park and enjoy it just like someone who lives in the suburbs.”

In that context, Rossi also wondered about other city needs.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be a misconception that we can spend endlessly on parks. Sadly, we can’t. We have to make prudent decisions if we want to have a park system that truly works for everyone in the city.…Are we going to push other things off the table which need critical investment? The city needs investments in infrastructure if we’re going to accommodate the growth we’re going to see and if we’re going to have the kind of density that will be beneficial for the environment….”

Moving on, Little Hollywood asked Rossi what he is looking for when Chief Roberts’ report comes out regarding the investigation into Olympia police officer Ryan Donald.

Rossi said it is critical to have a thorough investigation into the matter.

“No one should be assumed guilty of wrongdoing without evidence, whether it is Office Donald or Andre and Bryson….Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the passionate feelings people have about this event, and the innate tragedy of the event itself, means that we as a community need to have a grand dialogue about police, race, and our criminal justice system.”

Asked if he would he like to see a citizen review committee overseeing the police department, Rossi said, “Citizen review boards for police are as essential to a democratic and well-functioning city as open elections and public records. I have long supported a civilian review board for Olympia and will continue to do so. Ideally, the board would have legal powers and its own independent investigator. It would have the ultimate authority regarding disciplining officers, including the ability to fire, and its members would be accountable to the public through elections or a transparent appointment process.” 

Upcoming Opportunities to Hear the Candidates

Subject to change, there are several upcoming opportunities to hear Olympia mayoral and city council candidates. Service organizations may charge an entrance fee that includes a meal. Not all candidates can attend all forums.

September 28 – 12:00 p.m., Kiwanis Club of Olympia, Tugboat Annie’s

October 1 – 7 p.m., Green Party of South Puget Sound, Traditions Fair Trade

October 5 – 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m., Downtown Rotary Club, Red Lion Hotel

October 6 – 12:00 p.m., Rotary Club of West Olympia, Tugboat Annie’s

October 11 – 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., PFLAG, United Methodist Church

October 14 – 7:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., Olympia Timberland Library, facilitated by the Thurston County Auditor’s Office

For more information about the mayoral candidates for Olympia, contact:

Cheryl Selby at 120 State Ave NE PMB 211 Olympia, WA 98501, (360)7543954,,

Marco Rosaire Rossi at PO Box 6133 Olympia, WA 98507, (312) 9613825,,

Above: A view of downtown Olympia from the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial on the Capitol Campus.