On Friday, September 17, at the Moore Theatre, The Stranger will give out five Genius Awards (along with $5,000 apiece) for excellence in arts. There’s no award for excellence in politics (and no money, either), but there are people in politics who are geniuses. So this year, the Stranger news team is naming Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change newspaper, an honorary political genius for winning political battles—and even changing the landscape of local politics—while coming out unscathed.
The room was far too small. Twenty thousand copies of Real Change newspaper would arrive every Wednesday at the office in Belltown, where writers and staff were already cramped. Dozens of homeless men and women would then try to enter a waiting area that only seated about four people to get those papers and sell them. So Tim Harris, who had a background in journalism and founded the newspaper in 1994, decided earlier this year that it was time to move.
But the Pioneer Square Community Association (PSCA) balked when Harris signed a lease two miles south. The group lobbied Mayor Mike McGinn to intervene against the presence of another social service organization, and it lobbied the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board to ban the business, claiming that the offices weren’t “retail use.” PSCA director Leslie Smith even teared up as she pleaded at one of the public meetings. Then, when all that failed, Smith filed a legal appeal with the city.
Harris chided the group in the local press, but then in a calculated turnabout, he volunteered for a neighborhood cleanup. “We had an eight-person crew weeding and planting and putting down mulch in the median on First Avenue—right by our new offices,” he said this spring. Shortly after, both groups issued a joint press release to say the legal challenge had been dropped (and PSCA changed its name to The Alliance for Pioneer Square). “We look forward to Real Change‘s contributions to the vitality of the Pioneer Square neighborhood,” said a newly tuned Smith. Real Change hadn’t offered any concessions. It had won yet another political fight—this time against a well-heeled group anchored by real estate money in the city’s oldest neighborhood.
“The beautiful thing about Real Change,” says Harris, “is that it isn’t a politically smart thing to do to hate on Real Change.”
The Pioneer Square story (fighting, winning, and leaving the arena with a stronger relationship with his opponent) is only one facet of Harris’s genius.
Part of a national street-paper movement, Real Change employs up to 400 people a month, mostly homeless, who earn 65 cents for each copy they sell (they buy them for 35 cents and sell them for a dollar). “The horizon for social change is very long and uncertain, but homeless people’s needs are very dire and immediate,” Harris explains. “Real Change is a way to engage homeless people in social and economic justice—and meet their immediate needs at the same time.”
The paper does a staggering number of things at the same time: providing social services during a human-services funding drought, running a media outlet—a newspaper that is growing steadily—while most newspapers are shrinking and closing, and parlaying all of that into a political body that converts the most down-and-out scapegoats in society into a virtually unassailable constituency.
For example, Harris was behind a city initiative in 2002 to build more homeless shelters. In a deal with the city council, Harris agreed to withhold it from the ballot if the city council funded half of the project (“We were bluffing that we had money for a campaign,” Harris says). Harris and Real Change transformed the debate around building a new jail by filing another initiative in 2008. Although former mayor Greg Nickels and former city attorney Tom Carr supported the jail initially, the discussion pushed politicians to the third rail of racial and social justice by last year’s election (when Carr and Nickels lost). Now elected leaders almost universally oppose another jail. And this spring, in defeating an aggressive panhandling bill, Harris’s opposition “was critical to the outcome,” says city council member Nick Licata.
Even people Harris has opposed in politics adore him. For instance, Council Member Tim Burgess, sponsor of the losing panhandling bill, says, “I like Tim,” adding that he’s “respectful” and a “true leader.”
The organization runs on an annual budget of around $850,000—about 40 percent from newspaper sales and the rest from donors—which is fairly lean for the size of the operation.
Harris reflects, “From the beginning, I was very clear that the newspaper was a vehicle for organizing.” Now, with a 20,000-paper circulation and over 1,300 annual donors, Harris has built the organization from a one-man show 16 years ago into “a network of relationships that translates into political power,” he says. “I think that is part of the reason why elected officials don’t want to cross Real Change. No matter what people think about me, Real Change, or our organization’s priorities, they are not going to openly attack us. We are too popular.”