After Mercer Island School Board candidates Deborah Schneider Lurie and Brian Giannini Upton described their similar beliefs in the importance of equity and diversity in Mercer Island schools, City Council candidates Joy Langley and Tom Acker faced off to explain how their approaches on issues — from addressing the city’s financial challenges, planning for growth, supporting small businesses and collaborating with others in the city and region — would differ.
Lurie and Upton are not running against each other. Lurie is running for Position No. 4 (her opponent dropped out of the race after the withdrawal deadline), and Upton’s opponent for Position No. 2, Caifeng Wu, declined to participate in the forum.
Acker and Langley are vying for Position No. 4 on the council. Though Acker grew up on Mercer Island and ran for council in 2015, he is campaigning as a political outsider, unafraid to “challenge the system in a productive way,” while Langley is touting her ability to operate within the system to “make government work for its citizens.”
The Beach Club held a forum for the other contested council race, between incumbent Benson Wong and challenger Mark Coen for Position No. 6, on Sept. 28. Salim Nice is running unopposed for Position No. 2.
Langley has worked as a government affairs manager for Expedia and for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and as executive director of Cultural Access Washington. She is currently the chair of the Mercer Island Arts Council.
Acker is a human resources leader for Boeing’s China strategy, who also formed the community group Save our Suburbs (SOS). Some of the group’s initiatives involved stopping the development of a parking lot at Luther Burbank Park’s Kite Hill, along with advocating for impact fees and against a bus turnaround facility.
Langley said she can “balance needs of constituents with priorities of government.”
“Government affairs is my profession and solving complex problems for our community is my passion,” Langley said. “I learned that navigating national, state and local governments requires knowledge of systems, and I have that knowledge to deliver for Islanders.”
Acker said he wants to bring accountability and transparency back to city government.
“What I really want to do is make sure in our Island, our region and our community, everybody has a voice at the table,” he said. “I can bridge the gap … I want to bring us together as a community. There’s been too much divisiveness.”
Both talked about the issue of affordability on the Island. When asked about “last mile solutions,” especially for seniors, Acker said that he doesn’t believe the miles between Mercer Island and Bellevue and Seattle should ever be tolled, and supported the idea of an electric intra-Island shuttle system. Acker also called for a “timeout on taxes.”
Langley said that the city needed “immediate and effective solutions” like carpooling apps and more commuter parking at churches, and noted that Mercer Island could accept a tradeoff of more density in Town Center to create housing for teachers and police and fire employees.
Coen also supports electric shuttles, and he, Acker and a few other Islanders hosted a seminar on the new technology on Oct. 20. Coen said he will be “a new voice for Mercer Island” on issues like transparency, mobility, taxes and infrastructure. Wong said his priorities if re-elected would be to address the city’s financial challenges, transportation issues and emergency preparedness.
For business development, Acker said that he would like to see wider parking spaces and better ground floor retail in Town Center. Langley supports tax incentives for new businesses and the idea of the Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) as an anchor for the downtown area.
Acker said that he is “embedded” in the community and has the support of three current school board directors and three current council members. Langley has been endorsed by five Mercer Island mayors.
According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Langley has raised more than $19,500 in contributions for her campaign, while Acker has raised about $15,000, as Oct. 23. Wong has raised about $18,500, and Coen’s campaign has brought in $16,000. Nice has raised less than $5,000.
Though Lurie’s opponent has dropped out, Lurie told the Beach Club audience that it was “still a contested race” and that she was there to earn their vote. She talked about how she didn’t discover a passion for school until her senior year of college, when she took a business law class. She then became a public defender.
Lurie, a native Islander, said she is “student-centered and responsive to student needs, whether it is academic, or social-emotional learning, or diversity.” Upton said he is a “champion for diversity,” and sees opportunities for change and growth in the district.
Upton’s passion is for theater, art and advocacy. He is an actor and stay-at-home dad who became deeply involved in the West Mercer PTSA and interested in educational policy, and establishing “equity for every student.”
“We could position ourselves as a community that welcomes diversity and knocks down roadblocks, so our students can see themselves reflected, not only in the classroom, but in our administration, and also in our literature and our curriculum,” he said.
Upton said he is also focused on breaking down gender barriers, encouraging more girls to pursue science and math and boys to sing and dance.
The candidates were asked about their plans to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum in Mercer Island schools, but agreed that most of the kids interested in those fields were being served. They did express support for bringing back more vocational education programs.
Lurie said that the STEM path “is great for some,” but the assumption that every student should be taking those classes is hurting some kids, and causing anxiety.
Upton added that “students exposed to music do better in math” and “flexing our artistic muscle helps us be more empathetic.”
“Our goals should be to teach our students how to think and help them find their passion and confidence,” Lurie said. “What was missing for me was finding my voice … It would be wonderful if our kids could find that a whole lot earlier than I did.”
Wu did not respond for a request for comment. In her candidate statement, she writes that she has 11 years of teaching experience as a middle school physics teacher.
She is the treasurer of the Mercer Island Chinese Association, and wrote she has “a unique understanding of Chinese family education and [is] excited to share that with our school district.” She has also worked with adult learners on overcoming language barriers.
Lurie and Wu have raised less than $5,000 for their campaigns. Upton has brought in about $7,600.