Mayoral candidate Cary Moon on leadership: ‘If we’re all trying to solve the problem piecemeal…we are wasting a lot of energy’

The people running for office this November have lots of policy ideas for Seattle. But how would they actually learn and lead? Nine Evergrey readers sat down with them to find out in a project we’re calling The Evergrey Leadership Lab.

Cary Moon is an urbanist, community activist, and founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, an organization that fought to halt the downtown tunnel project below Highway 99. This is her first run for public office. In this year’s mayoral election, Cary is running against former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.

We asked each candidate, “What are you still learning about being a leader?”

Our takeaways from talking with Cary:

1. She gets frustrated by some aspects of politicking.

“I don’t like parts of campaigning. It’s nasty and it doesn’t have to be. The patriarchy and white supremacy has set out this structure of you have to go into the ring and prove that you can punch harder and have more stamina than the other person. I still resist because that is not what leading an organization is about. It’s not about being more aggressive or being meaner—it’s about leadership. I still resist and I’m still frustrated at moments when I get, you know, punched in the back of the head. That’s not what being a leader is about. It feels unnecessarily nasty and set up by a system that we need to reject, not perpetuate.”

2. She wants to reframe what it means to pursue big ideas.

“I think even though Mayor Bloomberg in New York, I didn’t like all his policies and he was far more centrist and neoliberal than I would be, I am, I did appreciate his ability to say, ‘This is what New York is aiming for: Here is the soul of our city. Here are our values. Here are our objectives based on how the world is changing, of what we need to be achieving as a city.’ … I think that kind of clarity around what we’re aiming for is really essential in this time of flux because we don’t know where our city is headed. We don’t know who’s at the table making decisions… If we’re all trying to solve the problem piecemeal, in silos, we are wasting a lot of energy and wasting a lot of resources… People are so focused in advocacy organizations of the progressive movement around the sort of immediate challenge in front of them that it’s very hard to get people to set that aside for a moment and look way upstream at what the bigger shifts need to be… There’s that metaphor in the progressive movement of you’re so busy catching the babies that keep floating down the stream that you don’t have time to go upstream and see who’s throwing the babies in the stream to start with.”

3. She’s still learning to take credit for her own work.

“I’m always in this tension of I am a natural collaborator, I am a natural convener. With the People’s Waterfront Coalition, it was 10 organizations and thousands of people and I like to share credit and share power and share decision authority and actually build things together. But then sometimes my role becomes invisible because people want there to be a ‘You want this. You led this. You made this happen’ and I always resist that. I’m like, ‘No, I didn’t. We all did.’ It’s hard for people to see me as a leader unless I find ways to talk about my accomplishments in a way that meets expectations. So I just need to be cognizant of that. My hesitancy to say, ‘I did that,’ I need to get over that….  I like people too much. When I interview people, I want to hire everybody because I always see the best in people. I need to surround myself with people who are a little bit more, have more specific judgement skills and are ready to make hard decisions, people who are glass half-empty, not half-full people. I just see the potential in everybody. I just feel like, ‘Oh, there’s a really great spark there. I bet that person, even if they haven’t exhibited that skill in the past, I see that they could do that in the future.’ So I need somebody who is more focused on ‘No…we need a finer grained filter.”

Here’s what The Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers thought of the conversation:

Shana Bestock:

Cary Moon is a nuanced storyteller. Soft spoken, direct, almost eerily calm, she projects an entirely different energy from a typical politician. Some of the things that she said that resonated with me were that the mayor is a visionary in chief, not a politician in chief. That leadership is not about being more dominant… She said, ‘Cities are my passion and my profession,’ and that passion is very evident, as is the professionalism with which she approaches strategic thinking and planning. She asks, ‘Why is politics about politics and not about city building?’ And also the question that she asked that I was the most struck with was, ‘How does systemic racism show up in our liberal city and why is it so stubborn?’ I think Moon is a picture-painter, a strategic thinker who envisions broad, transformative change. She’s not a signature issue thinker. Rather she wants to move the needle on the level of shared values and goals and she really leans into where she can make an impact. I think she’s good at letting go of the little things in service of the bigger picture.

Hear Shana’s comments in her own voice below:

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Elliott Bronstein:

“Cary Moon asked us (the panel) a question: Why does Seattle find it so hard to address racism? What is it with us as a city? She was pretty honest about her own white privilege, and it didn’t sound like something she’d memorized in a workshop. It sounded like if she’s elected, she intends to center race in the mayor’s office.”

Priya Gupta:

“In terms of what answer most surprised or impressed me, I would say that I liked her answer around the first question we asked which is, when you changed your point of view on something, what that process was like. She talked about starting out as a board around believing that they knew all the answers in terms of what the solutions should be and then ending up really turning that idea on its head, realizing that they needed to approach the issues they were trying to address from a ground-up perspective in terms of race and social equity and really apply the learnings from the community, and also so there is a huge shift at the organization to make that happen. So that that seemed pretty impressive to me….

And the questions we had around compromise, around when the results of an initiative or a project didn’t go the way that she wanted it to go, I didn’t quite get the sense that — we asked her, how do you operate in the realm, in the world in which the solution which has been decided is not your own or is not your own, not the one you agree with. I got the sense that she really chose to operate in that realm and work forward and work forward in that world or in a collaborative manner with the people who put forth that solution that she didn’t want.”

Hear more of Priya’s comments — in her own voice — below:

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George Perantatos:

“First, Cary most surprised me when she called out privilege, and reflected on her awareness of what her privilege as a white person in today’s society has afforded her. She talked about her own self exploration and self-education on this, including reading a lot of books from people of color. It’s something I haven’t heard many white candidates discuss in their campaigns and those that do I don’t think are as self-aware as Cary is on the topic…

So finally, my impression over all of Cary was that she’s humble. She seems to come from a place of wanting to make civic change and not just climb the political ladder. She came off to me as someone who would be firm with their points of view, but kind in her approach to bring along others, which struck me personally as a reasonable way to approach a climate where there’s a ton of different opinions and issues that are really complicated to solve.”

Hear George’s comments in his own voice below:

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Eric Svaren:

“Cary Moon has many ideas and brings an engineer’s mindset. She seems to have a broad set of ideas she’d like to see put into action, but that’s a long shot for a first time elected official. She shared the challenges of working in politics when it feels in conflict with her personal values. I wondered about her tolerance for the sausage-making of politics. In fact, she said she wants to change politics in Seattle. On diversity, Cary was transparent about the lessons she’s had in recent years, but it struck me that she might be trying too hard to impress by working into her interview phrases like white supremacy and patriarchy—rather than having a true empathic sense of oppression. When asked about how she’s working on her own leadership, she mentioned learning to take credit for her behind-the-scenes work. While she struck me as a learner, Cary’s response didn’t suggest to me strong self-awareness and left me wondering how she’ll manage in the tough job of mayor.”

Mellina White Cusack:

“I left my time with Cary feeling like I understand her more as a human being rather than just a politician with a specific platform. Hearing how Cary has approached leadership roles in the past is a really great indicator in my opinion to better predict what kind of mayor she would be. And from my viewpoint, I think it will be something very different from what we’ve experienced in Seattle in the past…

If I could give Cary one criticism, I would say that I wish she had been a little bit more specific on the challenges she has faced in the past, and as painful as it can be to your make yourself vulnerable and talk about those things, there’s so much that one can learn from struggle that makes them a better leader than well with someone who hasn’t had any struggle at all in the past, and I would love to have had a little bit more insight about that. But lastly if I could say anything, I really appreciate her genuine desire to help Seattle, and I feel like I got that so much more having this type of conversation with her then in any other platform before.”

Hear Mellina’s comments in her own voice below:

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Curious how the rest of the conversation went? Check out our whole interview with Cary here:

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Thanks to Cary Moon and her staff for making the time to chat with us, and to Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers Shana Bestock, Elliott Bronstein, Priya Gupta, George Perantatos, Eric Svaren, and Mellina White Cusack.