Last week Olga Sagan, a Russian immigrant and TV news micro-celebrity who owns local small business Piroshky Piroshky, announced she will challenge Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis to represent District 7, which includes South Lake Union, Downtown, and Interbay.
Sagan is admittedly pretty new to local politics–she has not voted in a municipal election in 10 years, and she was surprised to learn she had voted in a local election at all when I told her about her voting record. But during her self-described “meltdown” over the City’s lackluster response to the shootings outside her 3rd and Pine bakery, she remembered she had the power to pick her elected leaders and even to become one herself.
“I sucked! I was the asshole everyone talks about because I only learned [the importance of voting] when things got bad for me. When things were good for me, I was like ‘Doot-do-doo! I’m a small business owner, I’m so cool.’” Now, in a recently adopted libertarian mode, Sagan says she wants to push back on what she calls the establishment, search for “inefficiencies” in the budget rather than impose new taxes, and support small business.
Where Oh Where Are My Tax Dollars?
Sagan wants to be clear. She’s fine paying taxes. She makes money, she can afford it, whatever. But she’s still shocked at the amount. She claims Piroshky Piroshky paid more than $1.5 million in sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes over the last five years. That price tag upsets her, she says, because she does not know where the money goes.
There are certainly ways to look at the budget without winning an election, but Sagan did not follow the extensive budgeting process at the end of last year, nor has she referenced online resources that break down public spending.
Once she does all of that, though, she feels strongly that her business background will give her the tools she needs to find inefficiencies in the budget. She said she wants to start there before committing to any new taxes.
For the most part, the rest of the City is on a different page. Even the pro-business Mayor is up for finding new progressive revenue streams since the City expects an average budget deficit of $224 million in the years 2025 and 2026.
However, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently asked for a three-year break from JumpStart, a payroll tax on big businesses that helped the City fill past budget holes. Business and real estate interests will likely support candidates who advocate for that JumpStart pause or who are otherwise weary of new taxes. If the new council gets too anti-tax, Seattle might see less progressive revenue, in which case the City will need to cut social programs and/or raise regressive taxes.
Sagan said big business can probably afford to pay the JumpStart tax (she was unfamiliar with the tax at the time of her interview with The Stranger), so she would only support the holiday if the council took the time to audit the budget and see if the City really needed the tax anyway. At the same time, she is unsure if she would raise JumpStart because she wouldn't want to scare away big business, which would be bad for small business. A lot of tech workers eat piroshky!
A True Business Woman
Sagan does not think of herself as a policy expert, except maybe when it comes to small businesses. To that end, if elected, she’d prioritize extending the “grandfather period” for small businesses looking to expand or move into different buildings, a rule that essentially allows businesses to skirt some new regulations. Sagan says increasing the timeline would give owners a better shot at finding spaces that wouldn’t require often costly upgrades, and it wouldn’t cost Seattle a dime.
However, some of those regulatory changes are super good, actually, such as accessibility standards that require elevator access. Sagan said wheelchair access is great, but “it's probably impossible on some of those spaces. So what are we going to do?”
She did not answer her own rhetorical question, but she did identify high rents as another barrier for small business owners. When asked if she would support commercial rent control to address the issue, she said she doesn’t like the phrase “rent control” and probably would not support the policy, either.
Instead, she suggests a commercial vacancy tax. She didn’t call it a tax herself–she looks at it more as a tool to incentivize landlords to lower rents in order to attract tenants to their vacant storefronts. She also suggested making a public registry where landlords must report each time they deny a small business–particularly a minority-owned business–from renting their space.
Despite her business mindset, Sagan said she’s very pro-worker. She was disgusted by the 1% pay “raise” the City offered workers, arguing that it amounted to a pay cut because the increase was below the rate of inflation.
Her own workers will probably serve as the best gauge of how pro-worker she truly is, so if you’re a Piroshky Piroshky employee, then my email is at the bottom of this post.
She Does Like One Tax, Though
While taxation and small business appear to be her main focus, Seattleites will go to the ballot box with two issues at the front of their minds: housing and policing.
When it comes to bolstering the stock of affordable housing in Seattle, Sagan said she wants to build more of it (good luck without more taxes lol), but she also said developers cannot build quickly enough to outpace the current crisis. So she wants to look at what the City can do right now to make existing housing more affordable. To help achieve that goal, she turns to a familiar policy: a vacancy tax on residential buildings.
Some argue a vacancy tax would not raise that much money, but, again, she only wants the tax as a way to manipulate the market–she doesn’t care if it raises only a little money.
She felt very strongly about renters rights in general. She called the council’s $10 late fee cap on rents “dumb” because landlords such as herself should not be able to impose a late fee whatsoever. Her competitor, Lewis, initially wanted landlords to charge late fees on a sliding scale, which would make the charge more expensive in almost every case. He said he came around to preferring the $10 cap thanks to an influential figure on Urbanist Twitter.
Sagan hated the late fee cap so much that she suggested making landlords offer discounts for tenants who pay early. She also believes landlords wrongfully hold their tenants’ security deposits. She’s not sure how she would limit a landlord's ability to keep security deposits without cause, and she did not commit to banning security deposits since they're helpful if someone kicks a hole in the wall or something.
How About Those Cops?
As for policing, Sagan doesn’t think we necessarily need more cops. Sure, cops say the response times are shit, but she argues the City could reduce response times by giving the cops fewer responsibilities. Besides, she says, social workers or street outreach are better suited to respond to mental health crises or situations when people dial 911 just “because a homeless person looked at them funny.”
Ever the penny-pincher, Sagan would not have supported the council’s recent hiring bonuses. It's not the money that keeps new recruits away, she argues, it's the fact that no one likes cops and there’s a national shortage.
With the state’s new drug possession laws finally settled, the City Council will now consider creating a new law to criminalize the use of drugs in public. Sagan said people should not go to jail for that behavior–kind of. If someone deals drugs or blows their smoke everywhere, or if the drugs cause them to commit other crimes, or if someone is just doing a drug too much in public, then she thinks punishment may be in order. But she’s holding her moral judgment, arguing weed was once a scary illegal drug like fentanyl, and now it's seen as medicinal and safe for recreational use.
She is unsure about whether or not she supports harm reduction measures such as needle exchange or free pipes, another thing the City could ban based on the new state law.
Where Does She Fit in the Race?
Honestly, Sagan is sort of a wild card, but she may be just the right wild card to give Lewis a run for his money. Lewis received early endorsements from both labor and business, the two major powers in Seattle elections. But his friendliness gets him in trouble when he has to actually pick a side on a vote. Sometimes he’s accused of just going wherever the wind blows.
If he’s covering both of the usual lanes, then continuing to develop an anti-establishment, populist persona–or at least the appearance of one–could be Sagan’s best approach. But when the council is more progressive than ever before, maybe anti-establishment just means conservative, allowing her to lure more support from business and real estate or at least limit his appeal for those groups. That tension could push the incumbent to the left, or it could make him grovel before business so they don’t leave him. Either way, if her fundraising trajectory continues, Lewis may actually have to defend his seat.