by Ansel Herz
Election season is heating up in Seattle with the entry of Brianna Thomas, an accomplished City Hall staffer who managed campaigns to reform election financing and raise the minimum wage, into the race for City Council Position 9, the citywide seat being vacated by her boss, Lorena Gonzalez, as she runs for mayor.
“I am running because I am called to service,” Thomas told the Emerald in an interview. From the COVID-19 pandemic to homelessness to systemic problems in policing, “all of those things I think normally would scare somebody right out of this job,” she said. “But it just caused me to dig in.”
Thomas grew up in the South, a biracial only child of a white mom and Black father who spent her early childhood in a trailer park. She moved to Tacoma as a high schooler and then to Seattle some 16 years ago. Since then, Thomas said she’s worked “all over this town” as a waiter, Showbox bouncer, and day laborer, but has been hooked on politics ever since working on her first campaign. As a first-time candidate for office in 2015, Thomas ran unsuccessfully for City Council, garnering 10% of the vote in the race for the seat now held by Lisa Herbold, but found great success with progressive referendums, managing landmark campaigns to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in SeaTac and implement Democracy Vouchers in Seattle.
She is currently the chief of staff for Council President Gonzalez, and has been at City Hall for five years. Asked what she’s learned about city government, Thomas said the discussions that are least productive are “the ones that you’ve come to with a predetermined outcome. Governing is a team sport.” Thomas stressed the “team sport” point several times, adding that in her view, “ideological purity serves no one, especially the ideologically pure, because you’re not going to get exactly what you want.”
Thomas said she supports the Jumpstart tax on large businesses and hazard pay for grocery workers. She also supports the cuts the council made recently to the Seattle Police Department budget and believes there should be more unarmed responders to situations involving poverty, mental health crises, and youth — but does not support abolishing the department.
“I believe in the community’s calls for alternatives to policing,” she said. “But we’re not going to undo a 400-year-old system in a budget cycle. It’s going to take work, and it’s going to take investments in community that are sustainable and consistent.”
She smiled and paused when asked whether Amazon has been a responsible economic actor. “I appreciate that Amazon has provided some good paying jobs for some people. I do not think Amazon has met its corporate responsibility to this community. I think there’s a lot more they can do,” Thomas said.
Thomas is a resident of West Seattle, a renter with student loan debt, and hasn’t owned a car in six years. She said it would be “badass” to be the third Black woman to serve on the Seattle City Council in its 152-year history, and her election would hopefully “make the city more welcoming to other Black people since we’ve gentrified them all out.”
“I’ve had to walk into interviews and give people a little bit of time because Brianna Thomas doesn’t sound like a Black girl,” she said, “and my experience in my resume doesn’t read like someone who is a Person of Color, because we’re not supposed to have these opportunities. I know what it’s like to have to overcome people’s assumptions of who I’m supposed to be.”
Thomas enters the race with the support of her boss, Gonzalez, as well as State Senator Joe Nguyen. While she emphasized the need for “collaborative leadership,” there are things she said she will not compromise on: “I don’t tolerate bullies, under any circumstances. I don’t believe in hoarding resources because you can. I think we’ve seen a lot of that in this city.”
And, Thomas added, “when it comes to making investments in our communities, we’ve got to look at where there’s been a lack of investment historically. We’ve got to start there.”
Ansel Herz is a Seattle-based writer and editor and former reporter for The Stranger.
Featured image courtesy of Brianna Thomas
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