Tammy Morales: An organizer for economic justice

In the election for Seattle City Council District Two, the favorite prioritizes stopping displacement

Morales 1
As a child, Morales experienced housing insecurity

 

POLITICS

By George Howland Jr.

Tammy Morales is Mexican American by birth, Jewish by choice and an organizer by vocation.

The Seattle City Council candidate for District Two (Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, Chinatown International District) grew up poor in San Antonio, Texas. For the last 20 years, Morales, 50, has organized for economic justice in Seattle’s south end. Now she hopes to bring her perspective to city hall.

She won August’s seven-candidate primary with a whopping 50 percent of the vote—the kind of numbers that are usually reserved for incumbents. In Nov. 5th’s general election, she is facing off against Mark Solomon, 59, a crime-prevention coordinator for the Seattle Police Department. Solomon only won 25 percent of the primary vote, despite conservative and corporate groups spending over $100,000 to support him.

It’s very likely Morales will be celebrating on election night. If so, Morales would become the third Latinx woman on the nine-member city council in a city with a Latinx population of only 6.6 percent. Morales would be serving with sitting city council members Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda.

Morales says, “I do identify as Mexican American, not as Latinx.” She explains that it is probably her age that makes her prefer the former term. “It is part of who I am,” she says. Both of her parents are Mexican American, but she grew up living with her mother in a single-parent household. “I did not grow up speaking Spanish. I grew up hearing it. It was what the old folks spoke when they didn’t want us kids to understand.” She remembers sitting under her grandmother’s dining-room table, listening to the adults talking Spanish and trying to make out some juicy tidbits of gossip.

The culture of her home, with her husband and their three children, includes Mexican American traditions. “It’s the food we cook at home,” she says. And the family celebrates holidays like Dio de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). “We honor our ancestors with a small altar with pictures and treats. My daughter [9] likes to celebrate year-round with candles, pictures and cat food for the cat,” she says laughing.

Morales grew up Catholic. “My mom tried,” she says. “I remember trying to be observant, but it never really stuck. As I got older, I started to feel really dissatisfied with all the consumerism around Christmas.

“In middle school, I had a lot of friends who were Jewish,” she recalls. “I always appreciated the religion.” As she grew older, she was drawn to explore Judaism further. “I went to temple services for about a year,” she says. Then, she decided to convert to Judaism. In that same year, she began dating Harry Teicher, a Jewish man from New Jersey. Later the couple married and now live in Seattle’s Lakewood neighborhood and belong to a reform congregation.

Unlike many politicians of color, Morales doesn’t talk about her ethnicity very often. When people ask why, she replies, “I don’t have a good answer. San Antonio can be a pretty racist city. As a light skinned Mexican woman, I got away with things that the members of my family who are darker skinned did not. Ultimately growing up in a poor family had more of an impact on me.”

Housing insecurity, economic justice and displacement

As a girl, she and her family lived in “Section Eight” low-income housing as well as squeezing in with her aunt and cousins when necessary. Her family’s housing insecurity affected her deeply.

Morales says, “Economic justice has been very important to me.” She adds, “If you map the disparities that we see, it is the communities of color that experience lack of housing and lack of employment [disproportionately]. It’s communities of color that have suffered the most from those systems.

“It’s the lack of fairness and the lack of justice—that’s a huge part of what drives me. That’s why I am running for city council. I am running to bring power to low-income folks and communities of color. It is the role of [District Two’s] seat to do everything we can to stop displacement.”

Representing District Two also brings the challenge of having a constituency that is the most diverse in the city. District Two’s residents are roughly one-third black, one-third Asian American and one-third European American. The district has recent immigrants and refugees from many countries including Eritrea, Somalia and China.

“This seat is going to have to represent people who are not like them. That’s because of our diversity,” Morales notes. “I’m not black; I’m not Asian; I’m not gay. Anyone who is in this seat will be in the same boat.” Organizing on behalf of this diverse community “is the work that I’ve been doing for the last twenty years,” says Morales.

Her first job in Seattle was with an affordable housing lender focusing on the south end. Next, she worked on food policy, trying to address the food deserts and injustice that exist in the district. Currently, she works for the Rainier Beach Action Coalition where she has organized around economic development, public safety and displacement.

In order to mitigate displacement, she supports Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s proposed law that would replace, one-for-one, any low-income housing that is destroyed by development. She also wants to see the city facilitate more shared ownership of housing and commercial spaces. She is open to different strategies including land trusts, historic districts and putting land in the hands of a public development authority (Seattle’s most famous is Pike Place Market). “We need to develop structures that takes land out of the speculative market,” she says.

Morales is very clear about her ultimate goal as an elected official. She says, “We need to shift the way things work in this city and make [Seattle] more equitable.”

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