LNG plant resolution, Juarez’s version, moves forward

The Council resolution regarding the proposed Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) plant in Tacoma passed out of committee this afternoon. In the process, we saw some interesting power dynamics play out. We also got to witness a rare sight: Council member Kshama Sawant stuck her foot in her mouth and bit down hard.

It’s important to understand the context of Juarez’s committee meeting today, which was the kickoff for a new effort on her part to reframe the legislative branch’s relationship with native tribes. She invited in tribal leadership, heads of community-based organizations serving the native tribal communities such as the Chief Seattle Club, and representatives from service providers working with tribes. Juarez had two main goals: establish a government-to-government relationship, and jointly begin building a work plan for what the City Council and tribal leadership should be doing together. Part of that was recognizing the dearth of data on native communities in the Seattle area and starting a data collection project to remedy that.

Dealing with the LNG resolution was the only awkward period in the whole meeting. As I wrote a few days ago, Sawant and Juarez had very different views on the  goal of the resolution. Sawant, who originally introduced it, framed it as the Council making a clear statement of opposition to the LNG plant, one more environmental battle to be fought by her grassroots movement on behalf of their brothers and sisters in native tribes as well as all Puget Sound residents. But Juarez bristled at the notion of other people deciding what is best for native tribes, so when the resolution was referred to her committee, she wrote a new draft that reframed it around the lack of government-to-government consultation and negotiation in the permitting process as required under the native tribes’ treaty rights. For Juarez, that also meant the new draft also needed to be negotiated government-to-government with tribal leaders — otherwise it would be hypocritical to point the finger at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for not working with the tribes.

Juarez’s new draft, the result of two weeks of negotiation, read very differently. Whereas Sawant’s explicitly opposed natural gas and the new plant, Juarez’s expressed concern about the environmental impact but focused mainly on demanding that PSCAA establish government-to-government relationships with the Puyallup tribe on this issue, and other local tribes in general, and negotiate an acceptable outcome as required by treaty. In other words, it’s up to the tribes to say whether the plant is acceptable, not the City of Seattle.

This obviously did not sit well with Sawant and the environmental activists in her movement. It also made kayaktivist Council member O’Brien unhappy. Both of them chose to abstain from voting to swap Juarez’s draft for Sawant’s, disapproving of the softening of the opposition to the plant but knowing that Sawant had a couple of amendments prepared to address her concerns. But with Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez also at the table, Juarez had three “yes” votes and her draft sailed through.

Sawant then offered two amendments to Juarez’s draft. The first removed this text:

data shows that LNG is one choice to fuel some ships and provide natural gas to residential and commercial customers to reduce sulfur emissions, harmful diesel particulate matter by 90 percent, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 90 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions by 35 percent over that of diesel or bunker fuel

Both Sawant and O’Brien felt it was inaccurate and overly positive on the climate impact of natural gas (they’re largely correct). But Juarez had carefully negotiated the entire text of her draft with tribal leaders and was unwilling to fiddle with it further since that would undermine the principle of government-to-government negotiations. And Mosqueda and Gonzalez backed her on that stance. Sawant’s first amendment failed by a 2-3 vote.

Sawant’s second amendment added text that the Council would urge PSCAA to “reject PSE’s application for a permit for the proposed LNG facility.” That also failed by a 2-3 vote.  Juarez reminded Sawant and O’Brien that she had asked for all potential amendments to be submitted to her by February 9th so that they could be part of the negotiations with tribal leaders. Since neither of Sawant’s amendments were submitted to her by the deadline, she was in no mood to take them up today.

In the end, both Sawant and O’Brien joined Juarez, Gonzalez and Mosqueda in voting to pass the resolution out of committee, despite not containing Sawant’s language. Sawant might try again on Monday when it comes before the full Council for final adoption.

It was fascinating to watch an emboldened Juarez deftly manage Sawant, despite a crowd of her activist supporters in the audience. In a clever move, Juarez pushed the public comment period to the end of the meeting, so that they wouldn’t need to listen to an hour of environmental activists demanding that Sawant’s amendments be adopted. Having her supporters “pack City Hall” and angrily demand their way is a tried-and-true tactic for Sawant to pressure her colleagues. Sawant requested that Juarez move the public comment session back to the beginning so that her supporters could speak before they considered the resolution, but Juarez quickly and flatly denied her request.

It was also clear that Gonzalez and Mosqueda had Juarez’s back, and with that knowledge Juarez moved confidently throughout the whole meeting. Mosqueda repeatedly voiced her support for the principle of government-to-government negotiations. Gonzalez said very little, but unflinchingly supported Juarez with every vote. These three are the new power trio in Council Chambers; it’s obvious that they are caucusing together and they consistently vote as a bloc. They loyally support each others’ issues and legislation, and more importantly they have created a moderately-progressive wedge that marginalizes Sawant and O’Brien to the extreme left and gives the other four Council members aircover in distancing themselves from Sawant and her agenda. They can do that because they each have rock-solid support from a key set of community advocates (District 5 community leaders and native tribes for Juarez; the LatinX and immigrant communities for Gonzalez; labor organizations for Mosqueda) that gives them immunity from open criticism by Sawant’s movement activists. When they stick together, Sawant can’t hurt them.

This is a huge change from last year, when Sawant’s movement left several Council members cowering.  Now Johnson, Herbold, Bagshaw and Harrell have an alternative to Sawant that offers some political protection. Herbold will often side with Sawant and O’Brien, but can also go rogue; Johnson is a bit of a wild card; but if Sawant can’t convince Juarez, Mosqueda and Gonzalez to join her on an issue, she has no hope of getting Bagshaw or Harrell.  The power-trio are now the swing vote in the Council and I expect they will wield a tremendous amount of influence this year as people on either side of the spectrum try to negotiate with them.

With her base of vocal supporters silenced today, Sawant was clearly off-balance, and she made a huge gaffe while trying to argue against Juarez’s substitute version of the resolution and its guiding principle of government-to-government negotiation. She said:

“So it’s really important that we have the presence of leaders from every community, but I also think we cannot underemphasize to this degree that it has happened at this table the role of ordinary people. As [tribal] Council member Rideout said it’s been a grassroots movement. And that movement includes ordinary indigenous people, and just for the record I don’t agree with this overemphasis on government-to-government. I mean, who is government? It’s ordinary people urging the government to do the right thing and we wouldn’t have been here unless ordinary people, including indigenous people, who have been part of this movement.”

This is straight out of Sawant’s populist handbook: position leaders as elitist and out of touch with “ordinary people.” This was a disastrous misread of who she was talking to and a clear demonstration of her ignorance of tribal culture and the unique role of tribal leaders and elders in their communities. Sawant left the meeting after the LNG resolution passed, but the rest of the meeting featured a litany of tribal representatives angrily calling out Sawant in absentia for her “disrespectful” remarks. Juarez held her own tongue, but was clearly supportive of their critique of her colleague.

In all, the meeting was a huge win for Juarez, both in getting her new effort to raise the visibility and status of native tribes in Seattle governance off to a great start, and in confidently establishing that she can hold her own against Sawant.  In turn it was a disaster for Sawant, whose standard playbook failed her repeatedly — and in the process she severely damaged her relationship with the area’s native tribal communities.