by Emerald Staff
Organizer, promoter, entrepreneur, computer scientist, father, and community gardener — Chukundi Salisbury has amassed several titles since moving to Seattle as a 5-year-old boy in 1975. He’s looking to add at least one more come November: state representative for Washington’s 37th Legislative District.
The one-time intern of former state representative Dawn Mason hopes to bring what he says is a pragmatic, thoughtful, and discerning approach to representing the district — which includes Beacon Hill, the Central District, Rainier Valley, Skyway, and parts of Renton. Salisbury has a vision of shared and increased prosperity, more police accountability, and more access to economic opportunity for those without.
A resident of the district for the majority of his life and a product of Leschi Elementary, Garfield High School, and the East Madison YMCA’s Young Government program, he sees his familiarity with the community as an advanced degree in accessing the political needs of and remedies for one of the state’s most diverse districts.
The Emerald spoke with Salisbury about his platform and why he feels he’s best positioned to represent the 37th District in the state legislature.
(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Emerald: Why do you feel you’re the best person to represent the 37th district?
Chukundi Salisbury: You know, I just feel as though I’m the best candidate at this time because the more that we see what’s kinda happening during COVID and everything else, the more I realize that we need somebody that’s not necessarily a politician. I haven’t been tied to these institutions, and I haven’t been a lobbyist, if you will. I just feel I’m the best candidate because of my deep, action-oriented connections and community.
I feel as though [my opponent and I] agree on a lot of things: progressive revenue, fully funded childcare, education, police accountability, police reform, supporting small businesses. However, as you dig through my past you find a wealth of real world, lived experience. One of the things that makes me the better candidate — or just a great candidate overall — is that experience. When we talk about small businesses being forced out due to no fault of their own by not getting the resources that they need in our district, I lean on my experience as a small business owner.
Did you know I used to have a barber shop on Martin Luther King [Way]? We were forced out of business due to the light rail construction; this is obviously different from COVID, but it was still … it was a pandemic to me. I had a real popular barber shop. People like Jason Terry (Franklin High School alum, formerly of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks) and other NBA guys used to come there to get their hair cut. Rocky Bernard from the Seahawks used to come and get his hair cut there. But then when the light rail came through and they started piling up dirt in front of our door, and there was nowhere to park, our business suffered and closed. We couldn’t get any grant assistance because we had opened up after the deadline. With COVID assistance you had to be in business before this particular [date]. And so at the end of the day … it’s one thing to say I’m supporting small business and I want them to get the results, and these are all great talking points, but in my particular case I’ve had a small business that was forced out of business through no fault of my own and I was unable to get those resources — so I know how that feels.
I feel as though I’m a great candidate because of my lived experience and work experience here in the district and across the city. So when I say I want to have clean air and great parks, it’s because I’ve actually worked here for 23 years in the parks department. It’s not because I think that it’s a talking point — it’s something that I really have experience in. And then you talk about police reform, right? … after COVID here and George Floyd, everybody wants police reform, right, but again it’s one of those things where I’ve been working on this with my mother and my brothers for 30 years with Mothers for Police Accountability. So you know, I’m uniquely situated — my family’s been a victim of police brutality. … I could go on and on.
Each one of these things that is very important to the community, I would say I’ve had some type of lived, volunteer — other than my day job — experience. I guess one more would be we’re talking about disparity in students in high schools and our schools, and through 100 Black Parents, a nonprofit that I founded, I’ve actively been working in schools, other than the schools my kids go to, with other people’s kids as a volunteer. And I think educators and folks see that and they say this guy’s really rolled up his sleeves after work. And I most certainly participate in the PTSA in my own kids’ schools, like anybody else, however I’ve gone the extra mile and [am] really working with other people’s kids around education as a volunteer with 100 Black Parents, and so that’s kind of the answer to your question from my point of view … why I feel I’m the best candidate is [while] there’s a lot of common ground … my lived experience and work experience just have roots in this community when it comes to actual work on the ground.
Emerald: I know you’ve been somebody who’s definitely been all about it when it comes to trying to help with economic opportunities in this area. Tell me a bit about what you would hope to do — especially with so many people with COVID and also the pandemic of displacement and gentrification — what your plans would be at the state level to attempt to enhance economic opportunity for folks in this district.
CS: You know, one of the things I’d like to do at an entry level is, for one, to bring back the net state tax revenue from cannabis sales in our district — and across the state — but specifically our district … like, that’s actual cash. That’s revenue that exists right now, right? So for example, $1.2 million dollars goes to the State Patrol for their D.A.R.E. program. The State Patrol doesn’t have a real presence in our district, and so that’s something we could do immediately is be able to bring cannabis revenues back into our district and … use those cannabis revenues to not only spark economic development through microgrants to small business but also employ young people.
I’m a big fan of PLAs [Project Labor Agreements], and so I want to be able to see public works and public projects use local people. One of the things I would do immediately is look at projects we have where we can bring out discrete elements, right, and … there’s capital dollars where we’re spending money that we could [use to] employ regular people. So that’s one of the things, and obviously I want to drill that down to youth employment.
Emerald: In terms of issues that are impacting our youth, there’s been an uptick in gun violence in South King County, with many structural factors in play. What are your ideas around addressing gun violence from the state level?
CS: Well, you know, again, at the state level I want to be able to secure resources such as cannabis funding to be able to immediately put resources into our young people … and to find more opportunities for them. When you fund engaged, happy young people, I believe that violence will go down. In the short term, I’m promoting using existing resources — revenue sources that are flowing out of our community to go back into local programs such as Community Passageways. You know, of course everybody likes to name-drop that, but that’s actually somebody — Dom Davis has actually endorsed our campaign. He is another community leader that I grew up with.
And so at the state level I’d like to look at earmarks for programs that are doing amazing work and have result-based outcomes. And then, in the longer term, what I want to do is be able to also work on strengthening programs in our high schools and even in the middle schools to restore our ability to get people into the trades and other careers.
Everybody is focused on college, and what we’re finding is that a lot of young people are being left behind, and so I really want to focus on the trades and really just showing … through opportunity and engagement, I think we’ll be able to reduce youth violence. We want to engage people before they hit the juvenile justice system. And that’s through opportunity — education and opportunity; economic opportunity where you can really see the connection for your future.
Emerald: So, another topic that’s top-of-mind for many people is police accountability. You’ve obviously been privy to those conversations in your activism, but what is your approach to dealing with it?
CS: You know, my approach is that we need to focus on our contracts with our officers and the way that we recruit officers and also really look at laws and ordinances that are already on the books. And funding … community-based solutions or other institutions that seek to analyze and investigate these claims. … you know, no matter how much we cut the budget, that does zero to deal with entrenched officers who have shown by their actions that they really don’t see themselves as protectors and guardians of this community, right? And so that’s a real issue that I feel is being left off the table. And we can address that issue through our contracts where, one, we’re just able to have better oversight and we have a pathway for officers to exit the department. Currently, we have contracts tying leadership’s hands.
I would say one of the things that’s not ever mentioned in any of these conversations is [former SPD Chief] Carmen Best tried to fire a lot of officers, but the contract, [via] arbitration, allows these officers to get their job[s] back. And that’s something that nobody’s really talking about, right?
If you were in charge at a restaurant, and you’re the chef, and the owner of the restaurant — not you, but you’re the head chef — makes a deal with all of the sous chefs, the people that work underneath you, that says basically no matter what, you have to go to this third party to negotiate your jobs, and so every time somebody burned up a meal or did something that you feel they should be fired for, they could go to arbitration [with] somebody that doesn’t even work at the restaurant and they could get their job back. What kind of restaurant would that be if you were the chef there and these people can get their job back?
And so I’m just pointing out that — back to your original question … in the short term, we really need to look at the contract and the 2017 police accountability ordinance. And then in the long term, as we recruit new officers, you know, we just need to have a different standard of how we recruit people and their accountability. And so, on a state level, you look to states like Colorado and Minnesota that have recently passed sweeping police accountability reform, which speaks to individual officer accountability. Just like any other profession, it speaks to more community oversight — that’s in state law.
So that’s something we can do here in Washington … and that’s something I’d like to do is emulate those kinds of laws that those states are putting into place. But I agree completely that we do need to have a balance, and I kind of take exception when people say that we won’t ever need any police. That’s just not true. We’ll always need some type of security, because at the end of the day everything is not a crime of societal issues. When somebody shoplifts because they’re hungry, that’s a whole different thing. Or if I kill somebody because of the fact that my community’s been flooded with guns and there’s no jobs — those are big conversations. … I believe in community-based programs, again like Community Passageways and those type of things, where we can work with people to de-escalate, defuse, and put people on a different path. But none of that speaks to crimes of passion.
Emerald: You mean there’s no way to account for every interaction between individuals?
CS: At the end of the day, Cain killed Abel. I was talking to Nikkita Oliver and Sadé Smith, and they’re very outspoken [about] the need to get away from the phrase “Black-on-Black crime” because people tend to hurt the people who are closest to them. We happen to live in the Black community, but if we [were white and] lived in a white neighborhood, it would be white-on-white crime.
So we need to get away from that term, and I understand that completely, but at the same time, within those so-called crimes, there will always be crimes of passion that humans do. They get angry — people still lose their job[s] and go postal. Like, that is something that no amount of community response teams and the like is going to stop. If somebody gets fired from their job or whatever and they’re feeling some kind of way, it can happen. And so again, I guess the point is that we do need to have a balance between some type of security and then community resources.
I’d like to see a new agency, because I also believe in high-quality union jobs that we have at the City of Seattle, and I love all these kind of community-based solutions — the ones that are proven, I definitely want to fund those, but honestly I’d like to see an additional … first-responder agency. It’s mental health professionals, it’s folks that are coming out and addressing issues that perhaps don’t need an armed response. Car accidents and the like would be an example. Let’s say somebody broke into your house or what have you. And so if they arrive on the scene, they would be like any other officer. They’d call for backup if they needed it. You’d say, “Well, wait a minute, I got over here to look at this burglary, and it’s actually her ex-husband who’s broken into the house with a pistol and got the whole family held hostage, so let’s call in our security,” or whatever. I’m just pointing out that if you get into this car accident and you find out that actually these guys wrecked the car cause they were coming from a bank robbery, and now they want to have a shoot-out, we need to call the security forces. But I am of the mind that we most certainly can have a response team that comes out to serve a community that is versed in de-escalation and community resources and that’s not armed, to be able to deal with the overwhelming majority of 911 calls that do not need an armed response. So that’s where I am at on that.
Emerald: So just to clarify, you’re for reallocating funds from the police department?
CS: What I’m saying is that it’s all “reallocate.” That’s really the problem, is that we’re using this word “defund.” I would say that it’s all “reallocate.” If we defund, we’re still talking about reallocating to Community Passageways or reallocating to Mary’s Place or Africatown. It’s all reallocation. I guess what I’m saying is as a 23-year union employee with a pension, I want to see us maintain high-quality pensioned jobs for folks that exist now. And as a person that works for the City I know that once you get rid of that budgetary pocket — right now we’re kind of into the details of how the City works, but … say I’ve got a pocket for $180,000 — people say police officers are overpaid, and I think that is in some cases probably true, but instead of taking that $180,000 [police officer salary], I would say why don’t we take $90,000 of that and keep a high-quality union job in the City where that person is working as a City employee of the institution, and then you can still put out half of those funds into community-based organizations.
Emerald: Turning to our tax and revenue system here in the state, I know that there have been studies done that say we have one of the most inequitable tax systems — meaning folks who have less income pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than those who are more wealthy or affluent. And knowing that this comes at a time when we need as many resources as possible financially when dealing with this pandemic and so forth — what are your thoughts on that and how to create some level of equity in our tax system? I know you’ve been a supporter in the past of Bob Hasegawa’s state bank idea.
CS: Yeah, I’m most certainly in favor of the state bank. Even before I decided to run for office, I met with him and we talked about a state bank. I actually did an interview with him for URBVOTE three years ago — 2018 I was talking about the state bank, and … it’s a shame that apparently the University of Washington was supposed to do some research on that but it didn’t come through. But at the end of the day … that’s something that’s gonna take a few years to stand up.
But I want to see the state bank, and I want to see us be able to use the state bank to not only finance our own housing projects but also help finance small businesses in our communities. Imagine if we could give very low-interest loans — microloans — to businesses through the state bank. So there’s a lot of opportunity there in terms of economic opportunity and state savings, so I’m definitely in favor of that and would vote for that. And then just in terms of other progressive revenue … I would support a progressive income tax. You know, what you’re talking about is [that] our income tax [structure] comes from almost 100 years ago where we talked about equality instead of equity, and trying to have everybody pay the same percentage, the same tax, obviously punishes people with less money … And so, of course we need a progressive revenue situation here, and that would be through an income tax, so I would support that. Obviously, I don’t know if it’s something I could bring to the floor as a representative, but I would support a state income tax that is equitable. I’m in favor of this boss tax where we’re taxing certain … high-net-worth individuals in the state and companies as well.
And so that’s one way to bring about revenue, and then obviously I talked a little bit about the cannabis taxes and the like, but yeah … we have the most regressive tax system in the country with this sales tax and the way that we’re taxed, and then the other piece is property tax. And so the other thing I’ve learned during this campaign is that we really need to pass some type of homestead initiative to allow people to age in place in their homes. Because that’s a huge issue in our particular district. I talked to somebody the other day that’s 85 and their taxes increased by 33% over last year. They’re on a fixed income and they’re just like “How can we afford to do that? We’re just trying to grow old in this house. We’re not like some developer — we’re not trying to flip the property or what have you.” But if you are in an owner-occupied property and you’ve lived there for X amount of years and you’re over a certain age you ought to be able to just stay in that house. So those are some of the things that I want to work on. Property tax reform, progressive revenue around taxing high-net-worth individuals and companies, recouping cannabis taxes to our neighborhood, and supporting a progressive, equitable state income tax that takes the burden off the poor.
Emerald: I know that you are a proud father, and obviously, like other parents in the district and elsewhere, you’re attempting to adjust to some of the realities of what the school year might look like. Washington had already had issues with addressing equity, and so we have the 2012 McCleary decision requiring equitable education and funding through K–12 public education. Now with COVID we have issues with people getting equitable access to education, knowing most of it will happen remotely, certainly for the early part of the school year, if not longer. So how would you look to try to address educational equity at the state level?
CS: Well, first of all, what I will want to do is get staffing and resources for the Office of Equity. So here’s another piece where we have this excellent body that’s supposed to work on this, but it’s unstaffed! … So that’s one piece is to be able to get staff on board to help identify areas that we can work towards on a state level, and then two, really identify a lot of the gaps that McCleary really didn’t cover. So when we say fully funding education — it’s not fully funded. So we just need to revisit that and make sure we have the resources for our schools to be able to reach our students.
And then part of that is having some type of accountability with our school districts. We continue to throw money at [the problem]. … we keep talking about defunding the police, right? … “Well, why would we continue to throw money at a problem? The police haven’t solved crime.” But we continue to throw money at the school district, and Black kids continue to fail. So that’s an issue.
The other piece — from a state level, I’d really like to work on helping districts provide more opportunities for city- or school-district-operated institutions that speak to our populations that are on fire. So we already have that model in Seattle Public Schools where you have Seattle Indian Academy, you have Nova, we used to have an African American Academy — I’d like to bring some of those things back and provide resources from the state to our districts to be able to do that.
Emerald: You’ve lived in this 37th district for the majority of your life, and you know how diverse it is, particularly economically and racially. What systems would you put in place — is it town halls, is it coffee hours — how do you ensure all voices are heard with all the economic, financial, gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in this district?
CS: You know, what I would do and what I have done at my work with the City is partner not only with community-based organizations within the district but to hold town halls in a real way to be able to … work with other stakeholder organizations or at least coalitions to hear from [them] what their concerns are, what’s working, what’s not working.
And then I think that one of the things we can do in the future is … the database that we’re learning about now in terms of running for office, this is something that we can continue to use. I think that’s one of the things we don’t have happen in a real way in non-election years. We spend all this money to outreach to everybody to try to get their vote, but we don’t spend the money and the time during the off years. Of course people do have their online piece, but we don’t spend anywhere near the amount of energy that we would spend in an election year to reach people. I see myself utilizing the network that we’re building now across the district to maintain those relationships and reach out.
Emerald: I wanted to turn to climate change as it continues to be an existential threat and stands to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities.
CS: Climate change is real, man. It’s real. … I’ve actively been working on that. I helped develop the Green Seattle Partnership, which is an effort to reforest our green spaces here in Seattle — that effort has had a million volunteer hours in the last 15 years to help restore the canopy, and a lot of that has been right here in the 37th district.
And I guess that’s part of that, when I say, “Oh yeah, I’m for the environment — I’m for protecting our environment.” Well, what job did you have doing that? So that’s another piece where I’ve been working on that. So I just want folks to remember that I’ve been working and connecting our community around environmental justice and environmental engagement literally for 25 years in a real way and when I say that, I’ve got the articles from 25 years ago. I just want to ask people again, check the receipts. And that’s really what it comes down to.
Emerald: In addition to the climate crisis we’re also still dealing with a homelessness crisis in our state.
CS: While we talk about police accountability … if you look across the population, [Black people] make up the most people experiencing homelessness, even though we’ve put all this money into attempting to address homelessness. How is it that Black people can make up 40% of the homeless when we only make up 4% or less of the population? We continue to take the loss — and this is when we had great progressive politicians in charge.
So that’s why we need a different type of person fighting for us in Olympia, and I would contend that I’m that different person. I speak that I’m not a politician. I have a great life! I’ve been working for the City for 23 years, [I’m an] Internationally known DJ, loved by my community.
I’m adamant about not being a politician. I know that folks say, well, who has the most experience in Olympia and I would say that yeah, I don’t have the most experience in Olympia but regardless of who’s been in Olympia, we’ve seen the erasure of Black and Brown folks in this community — in this district. So we need a change. And we need to have somebody who’s not — my goal in life was not to be a politician and I haven’t worked side-by-side with politicians for years. I’ve worked side-by-side in this community for years. And I was already loved by my community, and I didn’t come here to be a politician, but at the end of the day, if we keep electing folks that seek to be politicians, the natural course is that we will continue to be erased. I talk about that in my speeches all the time — I talk about how Black and Brown communities continue to take a loss.
I just feel as though somebody from around here needs to stand up and speak for us in Olympia, especially around tax reform, because at the end of the day, my selfish reason for running for office is that I don’t want to be taxed out of my house. I want to retire. I want to be able to retire — I want to be able to sit on my porch and get my fixed income, my Social Security, and know that I will be able to live there and pass away on my porch drinking a lemonade and my house can go to my kids, and I won’t be taxed out of living in my neighborhood.
Featured image by Susan Fried.