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One-on-one with Seattle's first Indigenous city council president

City Council President Debora Juarez is pledging to take a more collaborative approach with the council and mayor's office.

SEATTLE — Debora Juarez was elected Seattle City Council President by her peers this week, becoming the first indigenous person to ever hold the title.

Juarez was old enough to remember a key moment in Seattle history when a group of local Native American leaders staged a protest to recover one-time indigenous land at the old Fort Lawton.

As she sat at what is now the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center at Discovery Park, Juarez recalls, "When they pushed down the fence, and we climbed over it, who would have thought, you come full circle."

As an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, the spot and that moment in time, are not lost on Juarez.

"Here I am, Seattle City Council, council president, mom, attorney, all the things I've done, it's the space, these people, that have lifted me," said Juarez.

63-year-old Juarez talks a lot about her past and how it has shaped her perspective about the present and the future. 

"You don't lead, you ask people to walk with you," Juarez said about her approach and was quick to cite a phrase from a former Navajo Code Talker. "Whatever we've destroyed we will use to rebuild." 

Juarez's colleagues unanimously approved the appointment this week after she often found herself among the minority votes on key divisive issues over the past few years.

Perhaps it is recognition of an election cycle that included centrists wins on the council and at the mayor and city attorney offices. While Juarez doesn't like being labeled a moderate, she acknowledged Friday that she believes a course correction is needed in the city. 

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"We can't ignore what our city looks like. I see it when I drive up Lake City Way, Aurora, Northgate, Capitol Hill, it breaks my heart," Juarez said when talking about homelessness and how the issue also intersects with public safety.

"We had the summer of 2020, we saw what happened in 2021, we need to rollback this a little bit and rebuild," Juarez said on the topic of the police department. "I'm hoping this round of discussions doesn't turn into us and them. We can agree to disagree but don't need to come to my home and threaten my life."

New Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has consistently suggested the Seattle Police Department is understaffed by hundreds of officers, as did his predecessor Jenny Durkan. 

The new council president said she agrees. 

"You do need a staffed, and the charter requires it, a staffed police department," Juarez said. "You're hearing it from me now, I don't know if I'm more politically aligned with Mayor Harrell." 

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Juarez said she's looking to have a more collaborative approach with the 7th floor of City Hall and any sort of legislation. 

"Because his name is on it, doesn't mean I take immediate defensive posture, that it must be bad, it means he's the mayor and I want to talk with him about it," Juarez said.

One key discussion point could also be renewed talk about changing single-family zoning in some parts of the city.

"These debates about single-family zoning, I would say those are all relics of the past, that we should be ashamed of to some degree because they were created by banks and mortgage companies to keep people out, now we can't keep these things hanging around. We have to pick em up and reexamine them," Juarez said. 

Juarez said she has some alignment with Harrell on writing the final chapter on a saga that has alluded her predecessors, bringing back an NBA team to Seattle. 

Juarez was instrumental in finalizing a deal to build a new Arena at Seattle Center, a new Storm practice facility and recruiting the Seattle Kraken to build a training center in her district at Northgate.

"That's a priority for myself and this mayor," Juarez said. "Hopefully, with some discussions, we will bring back the Sonics."

It collectively means that Juarez will be forced to be a more vocal face of the Council. Juarez is known for having a sharp sense of humor while being direct and a straight shooter at City Hall but has been reluctant to claim the spotlight or "speechify" at council meetings like some of her other colleagues since she was elected in 2015.

In all, Juarez said, she will be guided by the principles that have guided her over the course of her life. 

"Native American people and Indigenous leaders, I'm not magic, I need my eight colleagues to work with me," Juarez said. "You don't lead, you ask people to walk with you."

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