Seattle firefighters work to put out a fire on Monday, October 7, 2019, at the intersection of NW Market Street and 24th Avenue Northwest in Seattle.
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Seattle firefighters work to put out a fire on Monday, October 7, 2019, at the intersection of NW Market Street and 24th Avenue Northwest in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle firefighter political ads are not about fighting fires

Firefighters are jumping into this year’s Seattle City Council races with both boots.

The PAC for the union representing them has spent nearly $200,000 on magnets in the shape of little firefighter hats, giant postcards and digital ads that picture lots of raging fires.

Despite all the fire photos, firefighting is not their top concern. It's homelessness.

Kenny Stuart, President of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, said their top issue in 2019 is “public safety,” and especially homelessness.

Stuart said that’s because firefighters, as first responders, have a lot of contact with homeless people.

“We help get them into shelter, we'll even buy them coffee and help them get food,” Stuart said.

Stuart said one of their top political priorities is funding for the controversial “navigation teams,” which are made of police officers and social workers.

“The teams have been very effective in building relationships,” Stuart said. That’s because teams offer people sleeping in unauthorized places services and shelter.

But the navigation teams don't just offer help. They also force people to move from tent encampments.

Critics call this policy “sweeps.”

One man who had been sleeping outside the Ballard library, “Roderick B,” said city council candidates who support the sweeps, “don't have a clue about what it is to be out here ... no inkling.”

Also in Ballard, Melissa Vandelic said she loses all of her stuff in the sweeps, including “blankets and pillows and clothes, the essentials to life, over and over.”

Vandelic said she is only offered overnight shelter, which comes with lots of rules. She’d rather sleep on the streets.

Dan Strauss, a current city council staffer who is running to represent District 6, the Ballard area, said that's the problem with the navigation teams.

"We are relying way too heavily on overnight shelter,’ Strauss said.

Strauss argued that when “people are refusing services,” it’s because the overnight shelters aren't the right kind of shelter.

Political mailer sent to residents in District 6 to support Heidi Wills
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Political mailer sent to residents in District 6 to support Heidi Wills
Credit: KUOW / David Hyde

“You have to line up at 8 o'clock at night," he said. "There's bedbugs. People are having night terrors. You can't have a pet. You can't be a couple. You have to be back on the street at 6 a.m., and you haven't gotten a good night's sleep."

Strauss's opponent in the Ballard-area council race, Heidi Wills, also supports building more permanent supportive housing but she is more supportive of the navigation team approach.

"It's not compassionate to continue to look the other way when people are sleeping in unmanaged tent encampments,” Wills said.

Firefighter Stuart said that's the kind of answer that got their endorsement. This year they’re backing Heidi Wills over Dan Strauss with nearly $100,000 in PAC campaign spending.

Heidi Wills and Dan Strauss hold agree on a topic during the lightning round of Saturday's CityClub debate for Seattle City Council District 6.
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Heidi Wills and Dan Strauss hold agree on a topic during the lightning round of Saturday's CityClub debate for Seattle City Council District 6.
Credit: KUOW photo/Gil Aegerter

Beyond this race in the Ballard area, firefighters are backing candidates in four other districts.

According to state records, they’ve spent nearly $40,000 for Mark Solomon in District 2 (south Seattle), almost $80,000 for Egan Orion in District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill), $16,000 for Alex Pedersen in District 4 (northeast Seattle), and nearly $9,000 for Deborah Juarez in District 5 (north Seattle).

It’s unclear if this ad spending will sway any votes in Seattle.

But Americans do tend to trust firefighters more than other professionals. According to one poll from 2016, 93 percent of Americans have either “complete” or a “high level” of trust in firefighters. In contrast, only 30 percent of respondents had a "high trust" in politicians.

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