Whether or not to expand the Kent Police Department looms as one of the major differences between Mayor Dana Ralph and challenger Dawn Bennett.
That became clear during the City of Kent Mayoral Debate hosted by the Kent Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 7 at the second-floor Heritage Club inside the accesso ShoWare Center. The general election is Nov. 2. There was no primary for the mayor’s race since Ralph and Bennett are the only candidates.
Ralph told the audience that she has asked the City Council to increase police staffing by five officers next year by unfreezing positions (frozen due to COVID-19) and that she will continue to advocate for more officers.
“The amount of police we have, we don’t need five more officers,” Bennett said in response. “We need to do policing differently in this town. When I worked as a gang specialist (in Seattle), I’d get home (to Kent) at 3 or 4 in the morning and sometimes four or five officers would follow me. That’s wasteful. We don’t need four or five officers on a stop. We need to stop the waste. We need to reimagine how we do policing.”
Ralph, who is seeking a second four-year term, had a quick response.
“Our police department is understaffed and underfunded,” Ralph said. “We are probably understaffed by about 30 officers.”
Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla has told the mayor and council he thinks Kent should have about 195 officers for a city of nearly 133,000 people. The council has approved a budget for 160 officers, with five additional positions frozen that Ralph proposed to bring back next year.
“Community policing cannot occur with the amount of staffing we have,” Ralph said. “I will advocate for more police so we have community policing, and officers and detectives to respond to violent crime and do investigations.”
Ralph said with officer numbers declining in Kent due to resignations and retirements, Kent at one point this year had just six or seven officers on a shift to cover 34 square miles. Recent changes in staffing shifts increased that number.
“We now have 12-15 officers on shift at anytime, but that’s not enough,” Ralph said.
Bennett said city funds need to be spent elsewhere.
“We need to readjust our budget when it comes to policing,” Bennett said. “We need to reallocate some of those dollars.”
Bennett said she would put more money in the Human Services Department to help the mentally ill or others who are struggling and causing some of the issues that police respond to.
Despite wanting changes in the the police department, Bennett made clear at the start of the debate that she does not favor defunding or getting rid of the police department.
“I am not for defunding the police department,” said Bennett, who was raised on Mercer Island. “My sister is a retired police officer.”
Bennett, a Kent resident for 23 years who said she recently moved to the West Hill from the East Hill, works as executive director of the Multicultural Education Rights Alliance, which she also co-founded. The nonprofit works to ensure all kids, regardless of their race or background, have supports in place to succeed in school. It works with teachers, develop mentors, provide training to create equitable, humane and culturally responsive classrooms and school environments.
Bringing in business
When asked about how they would bring new businesses to Kent, Ralph and Bennett again took different paths.
Ralph said it’s about ensuring the city has a skilled workforce, so the city has programs to work with schools and colleges to train youth in the skills necessary to fill jobs. She said it’s also about investment in streets, such as the overpass projects along South 224th and 228th streets that separate vehicles from train crossings and make it easier for trucks from warehouses to get across town.
“Trucks don’t have to sit in traffic because trains are there,” Ralph said.
Bennett wants more money in the pockets of residents.
“I’d put a cap on rent,” Bennett said about bringing in more businesses. “Folks need money in their pockets to spend at businesses. I’d put a cap on rent because folks are spending money on rent, and if they’re just trying to pay rent, they can’t go to businesses to spend. We will attract businesses if we have a community that can purchase from the businesses. We need to ensure citizens have money in their pocket to invest in small businesses.”
Bennett said during her door-to-door campaigning people have told her their apartment rents have jumped $200 to $500 a month.
“Folks in apartments where rent is going up, they take all that money and it can’t be put back in Kent,” she said.
During her closing comments, Bennett said she would invest more city funds in Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities and businesses.
“I want to be mayor because we are the number one BIPOC city in Washington and I want to bring white folks together with BIPOC to make us a stronger city and celebrate side by side with folks that don’t look like us,” Bennett said.
Ralph said during her closing comments that even though this is a nonpartisan race, she gets asked which party she supports.
“I am not a Democrat or Republican,” Ralph said. “I am an independent and always will be.”
Ralph said her background gives her an advantage.
“I want better roads, safe neighborhoods and good paying jobs in our community,” Ralph said. “I’m sure my opponent wants many of those as well, but the race boils down to experience and knowledge to accomplish those things. …Voters elected me to two terms on the city council and to be mayor.”
Follow the money
Ralph and Bennett each have been busy raising campaign funds. Ralph has contributions of $109,784 and Bennett $86,433, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission website on Oct. 8.
Ralph’s largest donations include $2,000 from the Firefighters Political Action Committee Local 1747 in Kent. She has more than 40 contributions of $1,000 each, including the Kent Police Officers Association, Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla, Landmark Development Group (which bought the former Riverbend par 3 golf course from the city), KSG Freight, Amazon.com Services and many others.
Major contributors to Bennett include $1,102 from Washington State Democrats and eight individual contributions of $1,000 each.
Ralph has spent $13,704 so far, including $3,613 to VictoryStore for yard signs and $3,000 to Matty Photo and Motion, of Lakewood, for a campaign video.
Bennett has spent $41,320, including $3,100 to Prism Washington, which is managing her campaign and $2,500 to Break Blue Strategies, a start-up full-service political and nonprofit consulting firm that works with Democrats, progressive candidates and like-minded nonprofit organizations, according to its website. She also has several other large expenses to Prism Washington and Break Blue Strategies.
Bennett has endorsements from several state senators and representatives, including Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent and State Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, according to her campaign website. She also has endorsements from the King County Democrats, 47th Legislative District Democrats and the 11th Legislative District Democrats.
Ralph has endorsements from State Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington and State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines as well as Kent City Council members Bill Boyce, Toni Troutner, Zandria Michaud, Les Thomas and Marli Larimer, according to her campaign website. Mayors from most South King County cities also endorse Ralph, including Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, who attended the Chamber’s debate between Ralph and Bennett.