by Marcus Harrison Green
Add mayoral candidate to Nikkita Oliver’s striking resume. On Wednesday the scholar, organizer, educator, lawyer, poet and boxer officially announced her candidacy for Seattle’s highest executive office on behalf of the Peoples Party.
Well respected in both Seattle’s artist and organizing communities (she’s represented the city in national Slam Poetry competitions and been at the forefront of the city’s No New Youth Jail and BLM movements), Oliver says she is running a grassroots campaign to restore a “true public servant” in City Hall, one whose interests align in lockstep with residents increasingly priced out of Seattle by skyrocketing rents, marginalized by city policy, and wanting Seattle to be progressive in practice, not only pronouncement.
A frequent face at City Hall meetings, public demonstrations, and South Seattle high school classrooms, Oliver was initially hesitant to run for office but was convinced by the persistent urging of elders and others from the community dissatisfied with the city’s current direction. She also received a boost by the endorsement of King County Councilmember and local civil rights legend Larry Gossett.
Oliver promises a truly grass roots campaign that rejects corporate donations and is based on accountability, transparency, and humility. “No representative can know everything, and they need to really listen to the community instead of pretending to,” she shares.
Her campaign staff currently consists of nearly 20 volunteers ranging from Muslim to Christian, black to white, cis-gendered to trans, “an updated Rainbow Coalition” she jokes. She’ll be leaning on this growing number of supporters to combat the grueling tasks that await the first-time candidate in making it through the mayoral primary in August, which currently features six other declared contenders, and to ultimately dethrone Mayor Ed Murray next November.
“Underdog”, however, isn’t a label she’s too keen on adding to the pile of hyphens preceding her name, nor is “protest candidate.”
“I’m running to win,” she says bluntly when asked about her campaign’s viability.
The Emerald spoke with Oliver about her reasons for running and why Seattle is ready for an innovative “artist-leader” in the age of Trump.
Emerald: So why did you decide to run?
Nikkita Oliver: I was invited. Community members asked me to run and I took that seriously. There were multiple community members, but elders who I respected started asking me and that’s when I really settled on my decision.
After the presidential election, a bunch of us in the community started having dinner with each other and talked about what we should do going forward. We decided that if we wanted to make sustainable change it would have to be done at the local level and involve local politics in terms of a transformational election process.
We initially didn’t talk about running anybody. But we discussed running a platform. We asked each other what were the substantive issues our community cared about? Before you knew it, our table went from 5 people to 10 people to 15 people to 20 people at last night’s announcement gathering because I think what really resonates with people is a participatory governing process acknowledging that one person does not actually know what benefits all communities. It actually requires someone willing to sit down and listen to people and hear their ideas and really consider them in the decision making processes, understanding that no one person holds the answer to everything.
And so, after literally months of arguing with each other, drafting platforms, and researching election law we came to the conclusion that only wealthy people can afford to run in our current system. We started to think about what that meant for those of us who aren’t wealthy or groomed for political office. We needed people to begin running as public servants on this idea of a participatory governance system, doing so in a way that was really transformative.
It’s not just about getting elected. The process of how you get there matters. How we develop our platform matters. How we talk about the person running matters. Most campaigns are built on a single person. But really what’s going to effectively change politicians back to public servants is their connection and relation with community. We’ve become too corporatized in our politics.
Emerald: But why willingly endure a high profile mayoral race that has the potential to see everything except the kitchen sink thrown your way by candidates who will most likely be better funded?
Oliver: They’ll probably throw it all at me including the kitchen sink but we can’t afford not to try. I think when elders in our community ask us to do things we consider them, and also it’s the community that I’m building this platform with. I’m not doing it by myself. I think we need an electoral process that respects our brilliance and ingenuity. Yeah, we’re starting behind the line for a whole lot of reasons that we didn’t create and sure we’re going to lack financially. But what we lack in funding we’ll make up in actual, real community relationships.
If you see pictures of me with young people, it wasn’t a photo op. It’s not because I went down to Rainier Beach High School to have a fake conversation with young people and take a picture and say it happened. It’s because I actually spend time at Rainier Beach. If you ask those young people about who I am they’ll say I’ve seen Nikkita in the community. You’ll see pictures of me with young people, but they were taken in community, not just some transactional stuff that politicians do.
That’s why I make the distinction between a public servant and politician. I’m here to serve and I’ll always be here to serve my community regardless of the outcome of this election. The other thing is I’m working with a group of folks who vowed to hold me accountable before we began talking about any possibility of running a campaign. We set non-negotiables.
Emerald: What are some of those non-negotiables?
Oliver: Understanding that if you’re not accountable to the principles we agreed upon when they’re brought up to you personally, then you will get called out publicly. We will always put people over profit. We will not take any corporate money for this campaign.
Emerald: Is your campaign attempting to send a message to other communities that have been energized across the country but still don’t see the Democratic Party as necessarily serving their interests in our two-party paradigm?
Oliver: We see that the energy is there to do something different and that the desire is there to do something different. We lose nothing by trying. However, we can gain everything if we succeed.
The question I ask myself is if people are starting to see this system as a problem then why not make a move? And while I openly critique the system, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been afforded privileges that allow me to mitigate immediate harm.
As a lawyer with their Master’s degree in education that’s part of my responsibility. People in policy making positions are in the best place to do that. But look at what our government is doing right now. People lack backbone. They’re not taking a stand against bigotry and hatred effectively; while our city calls itself a Sanctuary City we were also the only city that had arrests during the protest of the immigration ban. How can a sanctuary city be sending its police force to stop its residents from protesting against the very policies we say we’re not going to stand for?
Emerald: What’s your opinion of the current leadership of those elected officials who happen to be people of color? I realize you’re not trying to single anyone out, but I know the organizing community has had critiques of our local policymakers of color in the past, and now you’re running as one.
Oliver: Do I agree that there’s a class of folks who come from oppressed backgrounds and when they get power they forget about where they come from? Yes.
They forget what it means to have the trust of communities that invested in them to get to that position. Is that real in Seattle? Yes. Does it have to stay that way? No. And those folks are not lost. It’s just that too many politicians have forgotten who they’re accountable to.
Emerald: What’s your response to those people who might question your campaign against Mayor Murray, from presumably the left, as he’s expressed a commitment to safeguarding the city’s immigrant communities, proposing his “Our Best” initiative for the Black community, and so on?
Oliver: Starting with Our Best, which is just a carbon copy of [President Barack Obama’s] My Brother’s Keeper initiative, how many times have we tried it? Is it an effective policy strategy that can be implemented so that it truly changes the experience of Black folks in Seattle, or is it a hot button phrase?
I think the community that’s most impacted, which he seems to be speaking on behalf of, would tell him it’s a hot-button phrase, and a proven ineffective strategy. We actually need a holistic approach and it needs to be lead by the Black community.
How many promises did Mayor Murray make to Africa Town at the start of his first campaign? There are so many promises that he hasn’t followed through on. What is the Central District? The African-American Arts Cultural District or something like that?
Why does it function as a museum to Black folks as cultural relics in Seattle that we can go visit but we can’t live in? It’s because he has sided with corporate developers time and time again. If you look at zoning laws that have happened in the last four years it’s all been driven by corporate developers. And it’s been the exact same zoning that’s pushed Black folks out and it’s the exact same zoning that’s raising property taxes over the entire city.
And it’s not just Black folks being pushed out. White folks are losing their homes too. I think I can talk about this issue as Black, as a woman, and as just a human. Skyrocketing property taxes and rents mean all people who are not making enough money will be pushed out, white, black, Asian, Pacific Islander – those of us who are cash poor will not be living in this city. Nor will any of the artists, who made Seattle the cultural hotbed that it is, be living here.
Emerald: So what’s victory look like for you with this campaign? Is it winning the election come November or getting your message across?
Oliver: I wholeheartedly believe in impossible transformations. I believe they can be made possible. Do we want to win? Yes. Do we have an important message? Absolutely, we do.
I think it can push the conversation because it’s genuine and real and it’s coming from the people most impacted these last four years by bad policies. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our message and how to get it out properly.
Winning would be an amazing, hopeful, victory for people across the country, not just in Seattle. Nonetheless, the message has the power to be transformative in and of itself, when we’re committed to really speaking truth to power. We live in a day and age where being truthful and honest is not only not applauded, but it’s also disrespected. We want to get back to a place where telling the truth is expected. I don’t need applause for telling the truth.
Emerald: So do you feel Mayor Murray doesn’t tell the truth?
Oliver: I think that often Mayor Murray tells the truth he’s comfortable with, or the truth he thinks will get him re-elected. I don’t know if that’s necessarily always the truth he believes.
Our slogan is “Our Seattle is Your Seattle.” We really want to find ways, whether it’s healthcare, housing, transportation, education, or development, to think about what does it mean for our Seattle to be responsive to multiple communities and really do that equitably. Some people’s voices resonate louder than other people’s. To be a city that’s about equity means that we take that into account and we’re thoughtful. When we lift from the bottom, and pull from the margins as a city, Seattle is healthier and safer as a whole.
The entire team of folks I’m working with has the capacity to think about substantive issues, but more importantly, think about solutions. We’ve been building solutions our entire lives. That’s how we’ve survived this far. As organizers we’re solution orientated. We know law and policy, but we also know community.
Emerald: I assume you anticipate strong support in areas like the CD and South Seattle, however, do you think your message can resonate with people living in Wallingford and Magnolia?
Oliver: Where are those 120,000 people that came out to the Womxn’s March? They showed up. Where are those 3000 people that showed up at the airport? Where are the thousands that have shown up at the protests that have happened since the inauguration?
I think Seattle is ready for something different. I absolutely think that the White folks you’re speaking about have had an awakening that no one is safe. Some folks might be safer than other folks, but no one is completely safe. I think this current presidential administration has woken them up to the fallacy of the democracy that we thought we lived in.
So yes,I think our message can resonate. As I said, everyone, different races, creeds, socio-economic status are being pushed out of the city. The folks that have made this city what it is are being swept out of this city and that includes White people.
I even think the people who say not In my backyard, can at least resonate with the idea that we have a houselessness crisis. They do care about finding effective strategies and solutions to make sure people have access to housing. That means people are cared for and the city is safer.
Do I think it will be easy? No, we’re going to have to have some hard conversations, and there’s going to be some blowback. But criticism, critique, and community feedback have to be received humbly. It’s an opportunity to do better.
Emerald: One of the criticisms sure to be aimed at your campaign is a perceived lack of policy and governing experiences as this is your first foray into electoral politics. How would you respond to that?
Oliver: Well, I have a law degree. Unlike our mayor, I can actually litigate in court. I’m trusted enough to take someone’s case right now. So, I think I can be trusted enough to actually give a methodical examination of law and policy as opposed to implementing something that will impact thousands of people haphazardly.
I’ve spent years in community strategizing around policy and around how to read the law. I went to law school because we needed to know how to effectively make policy changes. I’m about redistributing that access to community, not about saying who doesn’t belong in the governing process.
I think we need to start building a government for and by the people that can be accessed by those who most need it. Any other way is to accept a top-down strategy that says people like me with a law degree, and a Master’s in education, with experience speaking on legislation and policy making, don’t have the capacity to govern as well as Mayor Murray does.
I think people with that critique really need to look at just what kind of government they’re reinforcing and ratifying.
Emerald: We mentioned the support you’re expected to receive by many in the organizing community and certain areas of the city. How are you hoping to use that as a springboard for your campaign?
Oliver: I still think I have to prove myself to them as a candidate. You get nothing for free, and you shouldn’t expect to get anything for free. I think myself and the campaign team I’m working with are going to have to put in work. And any trust we’re given is going to have to be honored.
I’ve obviously worked on the south side of Seattle for a long time, and I do hope my body of work speaks for itself. I don’t take that for granted; however, I still owe people a certain work ethic and commitment to knowledge building and resource sharing that earns you that trust.
Emerald: You mentioned accountability as a huge component of your campaign. What else can people expect to hold your campaign accountable to?
Oliver: Honesty and transparency. We are going to be hosting community listening posts around the city, where the goal is to organically develop more thoughtful, substantive policy ideas that the community itself is speaking to.
While we might not have the exact understanding of everyone’s concern, we do have the access and the capacity to implement the knowledge that we’re entrusted with, and we have the desire to do that.
Emerald: What are your campaign’s primary issues?
Oliver: Housing, for sure. There’s of course education. We have a school district that has a major deficit right now, and the way in which the city has chosen to interact with that is not necessarily effective. I think the teachers have a lot of feedback. I’m regularly in schools and I hear teachers talk about what they would like to see implemented to make sure the district is effectively and equitably serving every child.
Which is why our methods of policing, along with jails and courts are important to me, as they are all one end of the school to prison pipeline. An end we invest a substantial amount of time and money into at the expense of other areas.
We need to think strategically about the whole pipeline of the city. We also need to talk about the impact of having a police force that is still under a consent decree and still not actually accountable to a civilian review board. We’re still under an OPA (Office of Professional Accountability) that has officers investigating other officers. We cannot be okay with that.
I do see that some good things have been pushed through by the mayor to try and change that but it’s taken too long. The Community Police Commission made well over 45 recommendations. Most of which were not accepted by the mayor. They were the sort of recommendations that need to be implemented so that our police force is not only reformed but transformed. Some good work has happened but it’s not nearly enough.
In regards to housing, we need to reconsider HALA. Why would you base affordable housing on the median income in a city that has one of the highest median incomes in the country? And the 15 Now Campaign was great, but with that median income determining housing, $15 an hour is not enough for a family of four to afford to live in the city any longer.
Emerald: Conventional wisdom says that elected office is usually the den of lawyers and business folks. I realize you’re multi-faceted; however, many people primarily view you as an artist. Why do you think people are open to having a mayor with an atypical background?
Oliver: I think ingenuity and creative solutions to complex problems are really something not just myself but the team I’m working with brings to the table. We’re teachers. We’re artists. We’re social service providers. We’re service workers. We’re homeowners. We’re Muslims, Christian, Jewish, non-religious.
We’ve been thoughtful about being intentional about bringing people to the table, including high school aged people. They’re going to be voting one day. They need to be contributing to what this process looks like.
We need more multi-faceted individuals in office who can think beyond just business. I can think business. I went to law school. I know how that mind works. But I’m also an artist. I’m able to imagine what seems impossible and then figure out the steps to get that onto paper. You don’t just learn to write a good poem. You dream about it, think about it, and then figure out how to do it. We’re long overdue for a new way of doing things in the city.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image by Alex Garland