by Victor Hawthorne -
SGN Contributing Writer
It has been a year since Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen announced that he would not be running for re-election to a fourth term. After 12 years serving the City of Seattle and with the new City Council sworn in, Tom is looking forward to starting a new chapter in his life that he describes as being more balanced, focusing on his family and working more directly on issues that are closest to his heart.
A lot has happened in Seattle over the course of Tom's service on the City Council, which translates into a lot of critical decisions made by him and his colleagues at a time when the city is changing dramatically before our very eyes. I sat down with Tom to reflect on his time serving the city, discussing the highlights, accomplishments, and challenges of the past 12 years, as well as the future issues the city is destined to encounter in the years to come.
Tom's interest in public service began long before running for City Council in 2003. He recalls first becoming interested in government as a teenager in Eastern Washington and volunteering in presidential election campaigns well into his college years. It was during this time and through his involvement in politics that Tom met his husband, Steve, in Yakima shortly before moving to Bellevue where Tom's public service career really took off.
After graduating from law school, Tom served as an assistant to a progressive City Councilmember named Jeanette Williams. He then spent 8 years working for the nonprofit, Senior Services, fighting for seniors on various projects.
Ethics issues and overall public dissatisfaction with the City Council encouraged Tom to run for office in 2003. His opponent, incumbent Margaret Pageler was increasingly seen as disinterested and disengaged, creating a dramatic contrast between her and Tom, a fresh voice who was eager to serve. Tom ended up winning the election with 53 percent of the vote to Pageler's 47 percent.
Tom Rasmussen has since gained a reputation for being a soft spoken and devoted civic servant. Working to solve a myriad of complex issues, he chaired three committees while on the City Council: Housing and Human Health for four years, Parks and Seattle Center for two years, and Transportation for six years.
'It's an incredibly powerful and challenging position, serving on the Council. As long as you have clear goals, you are focused, and you work hard to accomplish your goals, it can be very rewarding.'
As we sat drinking coffee at Kaladi Brothers on Capitol Hill, I asked Tom to reflect on some of his greatest accomplishments while serving on the council. Tom pointed across the street at a newly constructed building in what was part of a six-year neighborhood wide project attempting to preserve the city's character while allowing much needed development as the city expands vertically. Examples of this project can be seen throughout Capitol Hill.
Tom explained that this now trendy neighborhood experiencing enormous growth was once a fearful part of town where few wanted to move and special land use codes prevented buildings from exceeding 65 feet, so the neighborhood developed a special character that many of us began to cherish. But with the new growth Seattle is experiencing, many of the shorter buildings began to be bulldozed, changing the landscape of the neighborhood into something unrecognizable.
Both conservationists and developers had plans for the neighborhood's future, one advocated creating a conservation district to preserve the remaining buildings while the other valued development over preserving the unique character of Capitol Hill. Neither plan had the neighborhood's best long-term interest in mind until a compromise was reached known as façadism.
Working with businesses, developers, and the community, the City Council drafted new regulations that would allow developers to build 10 feet higher if they preserved a building's façade and back dropped the building behind this façade in order to preserve some of Capitol Hill's unique character. Though not perfect, it was an extraordinary accomplishment in that it exemplified a resolution where both opposing camps compromised and the neighborhood preserved some of its character while maintaining inevitable growth.
As expected with politics, not everyone agrees on everything and Tom recalls this as the most difficult part of his job. In particular, occasionally disagreeing with the people he normally agreed with and vowed to represent - labor organizations and his constituents. 'Having to disagree with these groups, that was most difficult.'
When asked about the most challenging issue he worked on, Tom recalls his time spent chairing the Parks and Seattle Center committee, when in the midst of a recession, funding for Seattle's parks was soon to expire without any plans to renew the levee. 'This was particularly challenging because few people wanted to deal with the issue in a recession and the mayor was against it,' he recalled. Luckily Tom found enough support on the City Council to fund a campaign putting the issue on a ballot measure which ended up passing, ensuring the continued funding and maintenance of Seattle's many parks.
With the economic growth the city is experiencing, Seattle is bound to run into many problems along the way. Chief among them are transportation and housing.
Despite the fact that Seattle spends 45 million dollars on dealing with homelessness, more than most major U.S. cities, Tom explained that it continues to be a huge problem in the city partly because it's a multifaceted issue but also because it's simply becoming less and less affordable to live here. According to Tom, 'figuring out a way to make it affordable for all incomes will be crucial in dealing with the issue - one of the many important issues the new city council will have to undertake.'
Living in West Seattle, Tom knows a thing or two about the hassle of commuting from one part of town to another. 'We're a peninsula over here,' he says about his neighborhood where it was once quite a journey just getting downtown. 'This is a major issue that will have to be dealt with as the city grows' at a rate that is difficult to keep up with. With experience on his side working on past transportation issues, Tom is confident Seattle will make the smart decisions as it has done in the past, to continue to fund infrastructure projects that will make Seattle a more livable place to live in the future.
After his success with façadism on Capitol Hill, Tom envisions putting a lid over I-5 in what could potentially be a new community linking downtown to Capitol Hill, making use of valuable space while cutting out the noise and unsightly views of the freeway for the entire surrounding community.
'A community with housing, shops, landscaping, that's the vision I have for capping I-5.'
When Tom announced that he was stepping down last January, he did so with the intention of focusing more on the issues in his final year instead of on campaigning. Most admirably, he decided against running for a fourth term to give someone else a chance to govern, understanding that service in government is not a lifelong career but an opportunity to serve the people as well as a great responsibility.
As my time with Tom wound down, I asked about his plans for the future and he replied with, 'Oh gosh, I still have boxes from the Council to unpack.' To be fair, it has only been a few weeks but Tom doesn't envision himself retiring from public service any time soon. 'Human services and human rights are a part of my DNA,' he explained, 'and I plan to continue to serve my community in any way that I can be useful.'
These days Tom is busy volunteering and raising money for different causes and organizations while adjusting to life away from the Council. He is also recovering from a recent trip to Mexico where he and his husband Steve explored the local community, snorkeled, and hiked along rivers and jumped into them in what is called 'canyoning.'
While he's certainly not planning on taking it easy in this next chapter of his life, I think it's safe to say that Seattle approves of him taking some Tom time off.
You deserve it - thank you for your service, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen!
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