by Emerald Staff
Kirsten Harris-Tally says her decision to run for the state legislature came down to one thing: It’s where she felt she could make the biggest impact for the community she’s called home for the past 15 years.
On Thursday, the Hillman City resident announced her run for state representative of Washington’s 37th Legislative District, which includes Beacon Hill, the Central District, the Rainier Valley, Skyway, and parts of Renton.
The current Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and former program director of Progress Alliance of Washington seeks to replace Eric Pettigrew, who earlier the same day announced he would not seek re-election to the position he’s held since 2003. Sharon Tamiko-Santos holds the District’s other representative seat.
A self-described “policy nerd,” Harris-Talley, who served on Seattle’s City Council for a 51-day stint in 2017 after Tim Burgess stepped down, says her background in the non-profit, organizing, and political worlds uniquely equips her to address the pressing issues facing the district. Those challenges include housing affordability, education inequity, tax reform, public safety, and improved responsiveness to unincorporated areas.
Harris-Talley sat down with The Emerald to discuss her candidacy.
(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Emerald: After your 51-day tenure on Seattle City Council, there was some speculation about what your next move would be, politically. What made you settle on the Washington State legislature?
Kirsten Harris-Tally: That’s a great question. For me, I’d been in this work for a long time in different iterations. My first real, professional job in nonprofit work was in an organization at the time called Center for Health Training, now called Cardea, and that gave me an understanding of how the systems of governments and nonprofit health institutions worked.
It became really clear to me that the parts of that work that intersected with policy change and activism really resonated with me. One of the very first political things I worked on was the state level policy for the Healthy Youth Act. At the time that I came into that work, it started from community coalition work.
Chris Gregoire was governor at the time, and she’d just come off of being [Washington State] Attorney General. She was one of the attorney generals that had sued the tobacco companies and won. So there was a lot of policy change happening around the indoor smoking ban, and I got to be in community doing that work. I got the bug then for political work. From there I went into a nonprofit called Progress Alliance of Washington that specifically funded progressive political work and wins. In seeing how the nonprofit side had to scamper for resources, I thought, “Well now I want to be in the seat where I get to make sure the resources are going to the right places.”
Emerald: You wanted to allocate public funding?
KHT: Yeah. The thing I was struck by, with the city council and that work, was that so much of what I was working on there—housing equity, homelessness, what it was going to look like for folks to have housing security and secure rents—is preempted at the state level.
It’s not that folks in Seattle don’t want to have rent control—there’s literal preemptions and barriers at the state level, legally, that keep us from being able to have rent control. The same around economic justice issues, right? Talking about progressive tax for the city, talking about what that looks like, right? A whole host of options could be on the table, except for a number of preemptions, right, and laws at the state level. So what I kept finding myself in is, as I was getting into the scale of these really big problems, is that a lot of stuff has to actually be opened up at the state level.
So, I think that’s really where my mind was. I often sit back whenever I’m in a transition and I always ask myself where can I be of the best service and value add to the work? And when I asked myself that question it really felt like “Okay, maybe bringing a different type of community voice to this position at the state level could unlock something for representation of our communities.
Emerald: So why do you feel you’re the best person to represent this district?
KHT: I think I am for a lot of reasons, and quite frankly, I think my activism is one of those reasons. I’m a Black mother, right, a wife to someone who presents as white but is a man of color as well. I’ve lived in this city for a long time. I’ve lived in this district for a long time, I’ve been in community working shoulder-to-shoulder with people to move the work forward.
The thing with activism is that you get—the same as political work—the highs of the win and the lows of the loss, [it] can be really extreme in the same ways. But the promise that you’ll come back to the fight is, to me, what’s important. And I am someone who’s very good at helping bridge and build cross-community collaborations towards a hope and vision of the new phase of the fight until you get to the win.
It’s something I’ve been honing for a really long time in my work. My first job at Center for Health Training, I was very blessed, in hindsight. I didn’t recognize it at the time. At the helm of that organization was a woman, April Pace—she’s no longer with us—who was a Black woman who grew up in the Civil Rights era, and she brought her wholeness to her role of leading that organization. In hindsight I see it, because in the moment I was new to my career—I didn’t recognize what it was. But later in my career as I found folks not showing up in that same way that she felt she was emboldened to, as the leader there and a Black woman who had come out of civil rights work, I saw how she was able to bring her lived experience to the work. And that meant she stood up for her folks of color in a way that other organizations haven’t figured out.
I’ve been doing state-level policy work for a long time. So, I helped build an organization—Surge Reproductive Justice, a collaborative—that has led to statewide policy wins, the most recent being that now you can have midwifery and doula access as an incarcerated person while in prison. That’s a game-changer. In the abolition work we’re trying to do to dismantle a system, as much care as we can wrap around folks at the state level, of folks while they’re still incarcerated—how we take care of them makes a huge difference. So, I’ve been weaving in and out of that work for a long time, and also because of my activism and community work, want to build—similar to what I did with the short time I was in city council, we built a bridge between community to show up and [for] governance to be responsive, and we did it immediately. And I want to do it again at the state level. And I know I can do it, because it’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.
Emerald: You moved to the district in 2004, what have been the continuous concerns you’ve heard expressed over that time that you feel need to be addressed?
KHT: This issue about what housing security is going to look like for the city at large and for the county at large and state at large—and quite frankly the country at large—is, I think, the core crisis of our time, in many ways. And right now, for this district, we do not have a lot of solutions.
So what I’m seeing for my neighbors here is what it looks like for housing and security to also be in the intersection of a huge amount of wealth disparity and also how racialized that conversation is because of how gentrification plays out for folks of color and immigrants and refugees and others. The nuance of what that looks like for this district is a different conversation than in other parts of the state, and it’s really important for that to be voiced and for folks to speak for themselves on that—folks should not have so much worry in a district where we have a much higher rentership than other districts, as well, at the state level.
And what I’m experiencing now, especially for folks of color—I have a lot of elders, some of whom own their homes outright—it’s actually the taxation that’s keeping them from home security and other things. I have a lot of folks who are renting and find themselves—when their rent doubles on a whim of whatever’s happening with whoever owns that building—there’s not anywhere to go and stay here. Folks are not being allowed to actually stay in place and build and steward what they want their community to look like.
Folks of color and others are being pushed further and further out, actually, from the center of our lives. This also then intersects with “What is transit” and the conduits for folks to get to where they need to be. And considering what happened with I-976 last year, right, where the car tabs bill is now taking out all the infrastructure, I know from the past what that looks like and how disproportionately the South End has been impacted.
So what that context of that conversation is going to look like on the state level, when we refill those coffers or we don’t, and who’s going to get hit hardest, I want to make sure someone is fighting to make sure everyone is getting hit as equitably as possible, and certainly the deficits that we’ve already suffered will be taken into consideration before this district is hit further.
The other considerations I have, particularly when I look at the state level, [is] that we’ve had now two cycles of trying to have some really amazing policy around climate, and what that looks like. I cannot talk about housing security and transit and climate without actually talking about how that intersects with people’s everyday lives and their pocketbooks. The biggest piece around climate resiliency is actually what the cost of living skyrocketing is going to look like, and we’re not having that conversation. This is not abstractness, right? People’s everyday ability to live is going to be about whether they’re going to be able to weather the shifts in climate or not and be resilient to that and it comes down to dollars and cents. Utilities are going to go up. The cost of living is going to go up dramatically as it becomes harder and harder to sustain this infrastructure in an imbalanced climate. And the folks I know who are going to be hit hardest are right here in this district, because we’re already at disadvantages because of the other -isms surrounding us.
Emerald: With the tragic shooting that happened in downtown Seattle recently, and slight uptick in gun violence in the city, public safety is at the top of many people’s minds. There’s a fairly pervasive narrative that public safety and police accountability can’t coexist. Can you share your thought process on that?
KHT: My lenses in my work my whole career have been around intersectionality. And what that has meant is bringing folks who don’t seem like likely allies together because they’re all impacted on some facet of the issue by the issue. The immediate thing about that shooting, and I’ll say this as a Black mother, is I thought first about who was impacted immediately in the incident and then, my next thought was, “What’s the reverb from that, and now who is going to be collaterally impacted by what is or is not the response to it?” When you are a mother with children of color, you know that probably, disproportionately, your kids are going to be impacted on the reverb of it. So knowing that, that means I’m often thinking ten steps ahead about the reverb and trying to get the folks impacted by the reverb to the table early on.
The response to the shooting is going to see a saturation of policing on that corner. But what we know from science is actually the presence of more police does not curb crime. That’s why I really also believe in science-based solutions. I do not want to hunker down—if we continue to have policy that’s about opinions and fear, and not hunker down in the reality of what we’re living in.
Fear, very rarely, is telling us the truth of a situation. Fear can be healthy—I think it tells us where things are uncomfortable and we need to pay attention, so we need fear, but to make solutions or decisions out of fear hardly ever serves individuals or communities well. And I know that instinct—get more folks around me—but if it’s not actually going to solve the problem of what you’re afraid of. Folks are saying “I don’t want me and my family to be hurt.” No one wants that to happen. But don’t then choose a solution that’s not actually going to protect you from that happening.
Emerald: The unincorporated area of Skyway (and its surrounding neighborhoods collectively known as West Hill) are part of the 37th. Its status means it has no municipal infrastructure or targeted representation at the county and state level. So what will your approach be to the area?
KHT: Skyway is definitely a neglected area when it comes to policy making. I want to name that first. When you look at infrastructure needs, Skyway, northern Renton, and some of these other unincorporated areas absolutely have been under-resourced. So the big thing that we’re going to be doing with this campaign from the start is community visioning sessions.
It’s not enough for me to know housing is an issue and here are all the policies solutions that have been offered and here are my ideas. I need to understand the context of that in Skyway—exactly what that looks like. So that’s a huge part of it. We’re also going to have to call in the organizations that do state-level work. By serving in office you can be a conduit to bringing those folks together to do that work together. The other pieces—we have to start identifying what has been remiss in resources to those spaces and start making a big stink about it. Because again, those lack of resources are real. Folks cannot solve the problems that are happening in Skyway and these other areas without money. You can’t fix the roads and sidewalk infrastructure and school infrastructure and transit infrastructure needs there that are really, really acute because of how it’s been isolated without money. So the big question, too, is going to be about who’s going to pay for all that stuff. And quite frankly, unincorporated areas are paying well more than their fair share in taxation for what is brought back into their communities from public resources. That has to be rebalanced, and that’s the conversation I want to start having with folks.
Emerald: One ongoing conversation has been the crisis of those experiencing homelessness in the region. During your 51 days in City Hall, you helped steer more than $470,000 of the city budget toward human services to make sure then mayor-elect Jenny Durkan had a little running room to help address the issue. As a 37th district representative, what solutions would you seek at the state level?
KHT: It’s interesting. At the state level the context of the conversation has not been as acute as it is on the municipal level, partially because the way resources flow around that issue starts at the city level. That said, there are conduits of those resources from the state level to the county level to the city level that happen, and from the federal level. I understand how those resources flow, and I understand what accountability should look like in those systems. And I also recognize there is not accountability at every level of all those systems right now. So that’s one thing.
Thinking about that, the second piece is we do not have enough housing inventory in any city or county in the state of Washington, or the entire United States. Every county in the country has a shortage of affordable housing infrastructure. When I think about that at the state level, the biggest piece of conversation that we need to start digging into is that we actually do have quite a bit of inventory on the municipal and county level that are sitting empty because of speculation and foreign and bank investment in property. It’s because real estate is so lucrative of a place to have, hold, retain, and grow money in our region.
Market-rate housing is being driven up by folks sitting on speculative land and empty inventory. If we do not start talking about policies on the state level that let us measure that and the bit of housing inventory we have that is currently sitting empty and could be made accessible as affordable housing, we’re going to just keep deepening this problem.
The second piece is, we need revenue to also start building affordable housing to scale. That’s a lot of money and a lot of building, and quite frankly, a lot of jobs—good, government, union jobs—of building a heck of a lot of houses very quickly for folks so they can be safe, so they can have a roof.
The other piece is similar to abolition work, where while we’re figuring out how to build a new system so we can dismantle this one, we have to take care of folks now. So we have to start taking care of homeless neighbors better—now. There is no reason we should have a shortage of beds when we know exactly how many beds we should have for those experiencing homelessness. That lack of infrastructure—of consistent places for folks who know “When I need it, I have a dry, safe place to sleep”—it boggles my mind. This is a state with the largest corporations in the world.
Emerald: So what does that look like in practice as policy?
KHT: At the state level it means talking about revenue—real revenue, real progressive revenue—where those who can afford it are paying their share, because that is not happening right now. And I don’t just mean that as individuals. There are also corporate entities who are not paying their share. We do not talk about the deficit of taxation to corporations. And darn—the federal government thinks corporations are people, right? So they should have as much transparency as the rest of us have to have about how much they have to pay.
Emerald: That brings us to tax reform in our state. Currently wealthy Washingtonians pay an effective tax rate lower than their working and middle-class counterparts, according to a study by the Economic Opportunity Institute. Past initiatives for a state income tax on affluent Washingtonians have been voted down, but you say you believe the time is right to address our inequitable tax system?
KHT: Absolutely, extremely wealthy individuals have been benefiting from the inequity of the tax system. When I was on the city council, the progressive revenue question was put on the table very quickly. That consideration was looking specifically at corporate actors and large businesses for that solution. The progressive revenue task force, which I served on, had a lot of conversations around “What is progressive revenue, who should be taxed, and how should they be taxed.” What was interesting to me is that folks who really hated the idea of the progressive revenue solution in Seattle—the head tax—would constantly evoke, “Oh, we wouldn’t even have this problem if we had an income tax.”
KHT: Yes! For me, I’ve never lived in a state that didn’t have an income tax before I moved here. I remember when I first saw my taxes, I was like, “I’m confused!” I literally went to the library to get help, because I’m like, “I can’t figure out how to do my state taxes,” and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t have that here.” It blew my mind! And I’m still baffled that a state as wealthy as ours is the worst state for tax policy, straight up, because of what happened in the mid-forties about tax policy on the state level. And to your earlier point, those of us working the hardest and earning the least, on average, pay seven times more than those who may be working as equally hard but they’re certainly making a lot more for doing it.
We don’t talk about how money makes money. That’s why the conversation on taxing capital gains is a good one. But there’s this greater conversation of what we need to do about creating an equitable economy. It’s the number one priority. Race is the number one lens in which you can look at the inequities of our economy, because of how racialization from genocide of Indigenous people to slavery of Black people has formed the basis of our economy from the get go. But they’re not the only two communities anymore impacted by it, certainly. So that question of what we’re going to do to raise revenue is the core question for me. And the big question of why aren’t we matching up with most of the states in the country that have an income tax—there’s no reason not to have that conversation every session, every day.
Emerald: So in addition to that conversation, what else would you identify as potential revenue sources?
KHT: We definitely need to close the capital gain loopholes, here. Our laws are quite egregious for that, particularly because of how much happens within the capital gains space in Washington state, and how a number of businesses operate here.
There’s also been several cycles of the Working Families Tax Credit work. I’d like to see a larger tax inclusion for families and what it looks like to offset benefits, and there’s a lot that still needs to be worked out around that. But data is showing us that when it comes to inequity, actually reducing their tax burden and letting folks keep the money they have is the biggest value add you can add immediately to an individual family.
Emerald: We know that every business isn’t Amazon, so how do you support the small businesses of the area like Nevzat’s Espresso, Island Soul, or Red Wing Cafe?
KHT: For me it comes down to the local economy. The other thing I love about the 37th district—there are so many folks building amazing small businesses here. So the more of my neighbors that have cash in their pocket to go have a cup of coffee, or to Emma’s BBQ, or the barber down the street, the better that neighbor is and the better our economy is. And that’s what I want to see. I want to see cash flow locally. I want to see people passing that same dollar around so it stays here local. So the big thing is to look at the inequity we have on the state level in terms of big corporations versus small businesses in how they’re taxed. There’s some solutions on the city and county level, but again, there’s a lot of preemption on the state level that’s keeping us from having a good equity standard there.
Emerald: Turning to education, how would you address educational equity at the state level?
KHT: Our oldest child is in Seattle Public Schools and loves it. We’re very lucky at our neighborhood school: all of the folks in administration are Black women, which is really unique. The first thing I always think about with education is, again, resources, and the McCleary decision. So what came down with the McCleary decision [that tasks the state with fully funding K–12 public education], and particularly how the sort of starving of resources at the state level had that trickle-down effect on what was dispersed on county levels. The conduit of that is huge, and greatly impacts those of us in poorer parts of the district, and those of us in browner parts of the district who are far more disadvantaged with how those dollars were resourced. The difference between the financial resources of Roosevelt High and Rainier Beach High is huge.
We’re personally blessed because my daughter’s school has a really active PTA. Whatever the gaps in resources have been during that time we were able to fill those coffers because of our PTA. And quite frankly, that’s the most inequitable way I can imagine for schools to have basic resources.
With McCleary, what they’re using as a measurement of whether there’s enough resources is based on numbers from almost a decade ago. Well, the need for resources has only gone up in that time. We can’t reference back that many years and think we’re going to have enough resources for what we need now and in the future.
For all those reasons, I have deep concerns about charter schools. Charter schools are a semi-privatization of public schools which then get to utilize 100% of public dollars. I don’t see a semi-privatization as being able to fix the inequities in education, particularly when you add a racial lens to it. Because what you have is less recourse to address it in a charter system than you do in a public school system. So I am not for charter schools at all. What I am for is improvement of all public schools. We should be laser-focused on how we can ensure the same level of needed resources are available to every child in this district.
Emerald: The 37th is extremely diverse, particularly economically and racially, how can you ensure all voices are being heard?
KHT: My campaign is actually starting with community vision sessions happening in every neighborhood in the district, because I plan to bring that in as the way that governance will happen in the district once in office. The biggest piece I learned from the city council appointment process was asking for conduits as a way to start talking to everyone in the city. Sometimes it’s the little casual conversations in the grocery store that’ll illuminate some part of an issue that you weren’t aware of. You can then go in and analyze “What is the solution there?”
The other piece I know about policy is that we talk a lot about new policy coming in, but what we don’t talk enough about on the state level is “What policies are on the books right now that are actually standing in the way of progress?” Which is why these questions of preemption are huge—we need to undo a lot of that preemption to start getting to some of the solutions. So that’s also a huge piece, and that is actually a lot of education for folks to even know it’s there. I’m a policy nerd, so I think about politics most of my day. Most everyday people only have time of about 15 minutes a week to think about politics, usually.
They’re too busy. Also, they shouldn’t have to think about politics all day. If we had an equitable society, they could just be doing their living and live a really thriving, wonderful life. And yet, a democracy requires participation, which is also why I love it. So a lot of that—it’s not fair to me to think I’m only going to talk to the folks who have the privilege and ability to get to Olympia to talk to me. What I’m going to have to do is be rooted in community here, and bring the conversations here, and take those solutions back with me.
The reason I like democracy so much is that anyone can stand up and be as bold as they want, and all your neighbors get to decide if they want to join you and try that. Right? The beauty of authenticity is that I also don’t have to be 100% right 100% of the time. Being authentic also means being accountable when you’re wrong. Good governance I wish had more of those accountability moments where we actually talked about when we’re wrong, and that’s why I’m talking about undoing some of these preemptions and other things. There are solutions, right?
Take the fight that I took part in for I-940 for example [that removed a 32-year-old barrier in state law that made it virtually impossible to bring criminal charges against police officers]: the law that was on the books before that barrier (the malice standard) was a law that said a police officer could shoot someone while they were leaving—from the back. And that was legally viable. The malice standard was a better standard than that standard at the time it was introduced. In hindsight it’s appalling that it was ever a standard. We keep evolving.
Activism has taught me that the world is not static.
Emerald: How else did it prepare you to possibly represent this district?
KHT: The thing about activism that I’m aware of is that every solution I’m bringing forward, I hope my children look back and go “That wasn’t good enough.” Because standing on the shoulders of what is good work now means there’s something better that’s going to be across the horizon in the next phase. So I never get scared of being authentic about my stance and coming up against someone being authentic about their stance, and our stances not matching. I try to talk to folks in a human-to-human way and find the thread of what can be a conduit for us to work together to find maybe a third solution that might actually work better.
Emerald: So it’s almost an open-source solution, if you will?
KHT: Yeah. It’s important to create a space for when policy solutions come together, where as many of our neighbors as possible can see themselves in that solution. Being in a governance role is actually the first thing I thought of before I even thought of running for office. Positioning of “Well, if I did achieve that and I got into office, how could I show up better for people and make sure the solutions they need are happening as quickly as possible so that we can see if they’re the right solutions that fix the things that we want to fix right now?”
And in that governance, that means there might come a time when I might be fighting for something and then learn a new thing about it and know, “Oh, I was fighting for it, but I should be fighting for the thing next to it!” Or something different, right? So I’m really excited about that. And again that coalition-based work keeps us from having the wrong answer more than not. I have found that usually in places where I’m wrong it’s because I’ve had a limited perspective of viewpoints and I didn’t have enough information to see the full picture before the choice point. So I actually try to avoid that!
I’m excited about these conversations, too, with folks who have maybe never seen themselves voting. Maybe this will be an opportunity for them to think of themselves participating in that way.
Emerald: In running, you join a recent wave of POC candidates who have vied for political office at the state level, including State Senators Joe Nguyen (D-34) and Rebecca Saldaña here in the 37th. What does more People of Color running locally mean to you?
KHT: That we’re on the cusp of actually opening up the promise of what democracy can look like. This stuff’s huge. Even on the Bellevue City Council, we have the first Muslim representative. I love hearing “the first” but I’m also like, “Thank goodness that’s gone,” right, so hopefully now we never have to have a “first” again. Now we can just have people be.
That’s ideal. I think it’s a game-changer. I think it’s bringing a new and fresh energy to conversations. I think it’s bringing a diversity of perspectives. I mean, the thing with politics is, like anything else, you’re gonna have a discussion, and sometimes you’re going to get everything you want, and sometimes you’re not, but even to have the discussion, you’ve moved the needle. And now we’re having discussions that are really different than discussions we’ve had before.
Emerald: Let’s say that you do get elected. What would you want people to be able to say after your time in office?
KHT: I would say overall, I hope people say that when they spoke something that they needed to be heard and understood that I listened and understood. I hope they can say I helped them find a way to take action and took action and stood beside them in that, and that they feel like the policy solutions—I mean, the reason I’m a political nerd and a policy nerd is that it creates a permanency and access for everybody. And there’s not a lot of places where you get to do that—make a change that everyone can access that change. So I hope they would say, “She was able to help bring some really positive change and that has inspired us to keep making the change we want to see.”
Featured image by Giovanna Orecchio