Oliver brings organizing background, experience as lawyer, educator to mayor's race

When Nikkita Oliver entered the mayor’s race in March, she and the newly formed Peoples Party of Seattle did so against an incumbent that many thought was well-positioned for a second term. 

“We got into the race when everyone said the incumbent was undefeatable,” she said.

Fast-forward five months, and Oliver is challenging 20 other candidates, none of them outgoing mayor Ed Murray. The organizer, lawyer, teacher, and spoken word artist said her campaign wants to be accountable to the most vulnerable communities and most disenfranchised in the city.

“It wasn’t about their being an open field,” she said. “It was about a state of urgency, that we know that if we don’t get voices into city government that represent stories that often don’t get told or go unseen, then we’ll continue to have our stories untold and unseen and we’ll continue to not have a voice in how this city develops, and ultimately we won’t be here anymore.”

While Oliver said that two of the major issues facing the city are the housing affordability crisis and the state of emergency around homelessness, both they and another hurdles the city faces can be tied back to the root causes of poverty. That includes issues around police accountability, the Seattle School District, and the widening income in equity gap in many areas of the city.

With a budget of approximately $5.6 billion — more than $1 billion of which is the city’s general fund — Oliver believes there’s enough money in place to make “significant strides” on these challenges.

“I think the problem is we have not actually prioritized putting our money where all of our progressive words are, and so I do think the next mayor has to be willing to make significant steps to reprioritize our budget,” she said. “How we do our spending really shows who and what we value in this city.”

That said, she also praised the efforts of the Transit Riders Union and other organizers to press the city council to pass a high earner’s income tax. While that measure will be challenged in court, Oliver said she thinks there’s precedent and “analogous law in other districts,” to allow it to withstand such challenge. She’s also in favor of other revenue measures, like a speculator’s tax, a corporate head tax, and impact fees, and hopes that the city can get on a path toward “not having to continue to use property taxes and sales taxes as a way of addressing social issues, because we made significant strides in actually eliminating those at the root.”

But, issues like homelessness and housing affordability go beyond not addressing the root causes of poverty, in her view. It’s also about a lack of vision for development priorities.

“What does strategic density look like?” she said. “How do we help transportation and affordable development move in lock step with each other to ensure that we use an equity lens around who has access to the city and who doesn’t? I think it’s really important that the next administration has a strong vision for equity but also a strong understanding of what are the root causes that are making these social issues happen.”

For example, Oliver noted the “rapid rehousing” model, an evidence-based strategy that has seen success in places like Houston and Salt Lake City. What’s been overlooked, she said, is the large differences in the housing market in those cities compared to Seattle.

“Rapid rehousing works there because when you get folks into homes and their subsidy ends, housing is affordable enough that they can afford to pay the rent afterwards,” she said. “What we’re seeing here is we get folks housed, their subsidy ends, and they actually can’t keep up on the rent.”

Efforts like rapid rehousing and the navigation center are a good starting point, she said, but the city also needs to look at development and density, market invention strategies (like the aforementioned speculator’s tax), potential rezoning that could be used to quickly build affordable housing, and both the public housing and community land trust models.

“I think while there is a foundation, it’s missing major parts of the context as to why our current path forward is not being effective,” she said.

To her, getting at the root causes of these problems is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.

“I 100 percent believe that when we invest in addressing the root causes of things, we actually in the long run will save ourselves a lot of money,” she said.

Though this is Oliver’s first run for public office, she said the experience she does bring to the table — as an organizer, educator, attorney, renter, worker, and “from the groups whose stories are not usually told,” — is what sets her apart from the field.

“What we’re telling people who don’t have career political experience is, ‘Your experiences don’t matter,’ and so I think what is incredibly important and makes this particular election and this campaign and my candidacy transformational is showing that the experience of grassroots organizing combined with the other merits I’ve earned of having a masters of education and a juris doctorate, and the work that I’ve done is viable and important experience,” she said.

Oliver is also endorsed by a pair of city councilmembers in Kshama Sawant (District 3) and Mike O’Brien (District 6), along with King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.

However, organizing success isn’t measured merely through short-term efforts. Instead, Oliver said, it’s about the outcomes for a community, and whether or not they feel heard or represented.

“For me, a metric of success as an organizer is whether or not the community you’re organizing with can do this work without you really tells you whether or not you’ve effectively organized,” she said.

On police reform, Oliver said significant strides were made in both writing and approving police accountability legislation through the city council, but that, as evidenced through the death of Charleena Lyles, that there are still significant failures when it comes to training, and the follow through on training. She believes the Community Police Commission should be fully funded, and given additional enforcement powers, and that a civilian oversight committee is also needed, whose only role is to focus on investigations of misconduct. She also mentioned the conversation around “community policing.”

“I think things like the LEAD program are a good step in the right direction, but the community’s not been involved in talking about what is community policing look like for us,” she said. “How do we see it actually rebuilding our trust with the policing institution?”

Now is the time, Oliver said, for the city to match its progressive ideals with measures to achieve them.

 “If we want to do something different, if we want to have our progressive words met with progressive action, we might need a different type of representation,” she said.

To learn more about Oliver’s campaign, or the Peoples Party, visit www.seattlepeoplesparty.com. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.