The race to fill Council President Bruce Harrell’s South Seattle seat has a new candidate. Phyllis Porter, an educator and South Seattle community organizer, formally announced her candidacy this morning for District 2 of the City Council.
Porter has worked as a vocational instructor for much of her career as well as working as an organizer in the city’s cycling and street safety advocacy circles, including time with the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways nonprofit. She’s lived in the Seattle area since 1986 and raised two children as a single mother in the city. She told me during an interview that she wants to use her own life experience to make sure city policies are helping all people.
“I’ve lived what happens when policy doesn’t work for single black mothers,” Porter said. “I’ve done all the right things yet struggling was a large percent of living. There are people in this community that are just like me, people that are struggling.”
Porter is joining a crowded race in District 2—which includes the International District, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, and Georgetown. Ari Hoffman, a local business owner, and Matthew Perkins announced their campaigns last year. Tammy Morales, who came within a few hundred votes of beating Harrell four years ago announced her candidacy last week with early endorsements from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña. Harrell announced the following day that he would not seek reelection.
I heard Porter might be running so I reached out last week and set up a time to go on a bicycle ride with her in her home district. We met up during that stretch of sun this past weekend at the Beacon Hill Station. I arrived a few minutes early so I saw her get out of the station’s elevators wearing athletic attire and pushing a sleek road bike. I told her to take it easy on me and not ride too fast, myself being out of cycling shape and dealing with a Saturday morning hangover, which she was kind enough to do. I was also helped by the fact that we had strategically started our ride at the top of a hill.
We cycled our way south along Beacon Ave, then turned left and headed down S. Alaska Street and found ourselves in Columbia City, where she currently rents an apartment. It was a relatively short ride but long enough to pass through two construction zones that forced us to dodge dangerous cuts in the road and occasionally ride on the sidewalk. When we sat at a picnic table at the Rainier Playfield in Columbia City Porter told me cycling shows you a side of the city you don’t see otherwise.
“Since I’ve been cycling… I started to pay more and more attention,” Porter said. “I think getting around on a bike, it’s deeper [what you notice]. You see more, you hear more, you know more, you can acknowledge more, you can talk more.”
Porter wasn’t always a cyclist. She started riding a bicycle in 2012, a year before her daughter, her second and youngest child, graduated from high school. Porter had just left a job at Pima Medical Institute, where she taught vocational classes, and her daughter was getting ready to leave Seattle for college. Facing an empty nest, Porter decided to start cycling. She said riding bicycles brought her straight into activism.
“When I started to ride my bike, doors just started to open,” Porter said.
She started organizing vigils for pedestrians and cyclists that had been killed or badly hurt in collisions with vehicles. She said seeing the mayor and councilmembers come to her events inspired her to do more. She got involved with Greenways, joined Rainier Bicycle Club, started her own chapter of the national organization Black Girls Do Bike, and started organizing rallies calling for safer streets.
Now she wants to take her advocacy directly to the council. She told me her biggest priority would be to bring more housing to the south end in order to deal with the region’s rapid gentrification. She said to fight displacement the city needs to build more family size housing, including two- and three-bedroom units.
“Something has to change there, it’s just small apartments and studios being built,” Porter said.
Porter personally knows the struggle of dealing with rising rents while you’re raising a family on a budget. When I asked her what neighborhoods in the city she’s lived in she rattled off a long list, including Magnolia, Queen Anne, West Seattle, Mt. Baker, and even stints outside of Seattle in Kent and Burien. She now rents a place in Columbia City, where she said she’s seen longtime residents get pushed out of the city to the south.
She said she also wants to increase the amount of community police officers in District 2.
“I do feel like we need to have more policing down in the south end. Even though crime is better in certain areas in the south end, there’s still crime,” Porter said.
Porter said she is going to enroll in the city’s democracy voucher program, which gives councilmembers the ability to collect up to $75,000 in democracy vouchers during the primary campaign and $150,000 during the general election. Each resident of Seattle is allocated four $25 vouchers they can give to qualifying candidates.
Harrell is currently the only councilmember that is Black. His departure raises the possibility that next year’s council could have no Black people. Porter said this question played into her decision to run.
“Once he goes there’s not going to be any African American representation whatsoever on the council. And we need to make sure that we still have a stake at a table,” Porter said. “We need to have people that represent the entire city.”
We’ll find out this year if South Seattle thinks Porter is the right person to represent them.