On August 1, the city of Seattle will hold a primary election to decide the top two candidates advancing to the city’s mayoral race in November. With nearly two dozen candidates declared, the field is rather crowded—though it was made slightly less in May, so when incumbent mayor Ed Murray announced he would not be seeking reelection following reports he allegedly raped and molested a teenage boy 30 years ago. Still, one candidate, Nikkita Oliver, stands out with a radically different approach to looking at and solving Seattle’s problems.
An attorney, educator (she earned her Master of Education and law degrees at the University of Washington), organizer, and artist, Oliver has raised more than $75,000 as part of the newly formed Peoples Party—a grassroots movement centered around “partner[ing] with the communities of Seattle to develop equitable political strategies and solutions which place people over profits and corporations.”
Though she envisioned her political career playing a role to help elect others, Oliver soon found herself as the candidate. In November 2016, she was part of a group of friends and clergy who travelled to Standing Rock. On the return trip, a friend died in a car accident. Oliver and a group of community organizers in central and south Seattle found themselves grieving, grappling with the election of Trump and reflecting on the injustices they’d just witnessed at Standing Rock.
“It was so glaringly apparent that the law and justice are not the same thing as you watched law enforcement openly protect corporations that were drilling on land that at that time, they had absolutely no permits to drill on,” she explained to Jezebel in May.
As organizers they realized they could not afford to get into political apathy. They began discussing what action would look like and founded the People’s Party. The party began making a list of names they wanted to see run for Mayor and Oliver’s name kept appearing. Though initially hesitant, she says the support from her community pushed her to accept the nomination.
I spoke to Oliver about the People’s Party, her campaign and her vision for Seattle. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Can you talk about the cornerstones of your campaign and your vision for Seattle?
NIKKITA OLIVER: In terms of this particular mayoral race, Seattle is facing a crisis around housing, homelessness, accessibility, affordability, eduction—our school system is facing a $74 million deficit. As well as a criminal legal system that, to be honest, does not work for everyday people and in a lot of ways criminalizes poverty.
We really believe that our system needs a transformation. We believe Seattle is the place for that to happen. Seattle has been a place of true progress where people are willing to take bold stances and do creative things with integrity. All of those things set Seattle up to really lead in terms of policy across the nation.
Unfortunately, our city is at a place where the existential question is: Who has the right to stay here? And if we don’t answer that question, instead of becoming healthier and more diverse, we’re going to become wealthier and more homogenous and I don’t think that’s what Seattle wants. I believe that we are a city that wants to be diverse and wants to make sure we have equitable access to opportunity. I believe that this city and the mayor’s office sit in an incredible place to bridge the gap between developers and corporations, but also our wealthier residents and those who are more economically disenfranchised and really start to build what equity looks like and maybe set a new standard across the United States for how we all invest at the level we’re capable of investing in our city and in healthier communities.
Has anything about the response to your campaign surprised you?
The day that we did our launch, my campaign manager and I pull out to Washington Hall, which is a theater in the Central district—a historically black neighborhood in Seattle—and there is a line around the building to get in. The building was filled to capacity. We had to turn people away. The offsite place where we had video playing of the launch was packed to capacity and there was this incredible moment of realizing that we were really organizing for a new movement in Seattle.
This has been 100 percent volunteer, people-driven. It’s people power and that’s what keeps me doing this every day. Because I’m still working full time—I still have multiple jobs. I still do pro bono legal work. And, to be honest, as a queer woman of color in Seattle, there are questions I get asked and critiques come at me, especially being young, that you would never heard towards a white male candidate.
Have you you been disappointed by any of the narratives around your campaign?
We really had to push the media in Seattle to acknowledge that I even existed even though we were the campaign who, other than the incumbent, had raised the most amount of money. And not even just to get them to acknowledge I existed, but to even include my merit. There was a point in time where they referred to me as a Black Lives Matter leader and an activist. While I’ve certainly participated in the movement, as a black woman, they would not mention attorney, they would not mention educator, they would not mention organizer or the body of work that I have in Seattle. Not just around criminal legal reform, but also around education reform, community development, economic opportunity. I’m on the record at City Hall testifying a lot on a lot of issues.
What I did find heartening about that though, as we called that out in numerous ways—we put a video up online, we would call reporters and say, look you referred to me like this, but here’s actually who I am. Over time we’ve actually seen journalists really start to shift. And not just shift how they report about me, but shift in how they report about all the candidates and try to be more holistic. And, again, that’s another win.
After the presidential election, we saw a lot of calls for women and people of color specifically, as well as people who wouldn’t ordinarily have considered it, to run for office. Do you see yourself as part of this larger reaction following the election? If Hillary Clinton had been elected, do you think you would be running for mayor right now?
That’s a great question. I don’t know if I would be doing it right now, but would I be doing it eventually. Although, I will say, I’ve never had aspirations of being a career politician. My role has always been as organizer, and while I have quite a bit of substantive experience around policy development and doing work with political people, I’ve always more so viewed myself as a community advocate.
What I think became an incredible impetuous around the election was really starting to question why is it we do not view community advocates or organizers as having a political role and why is it that public service, when it comes to being elected to office, has been relegated to career political or those who have enough money and access to become politicians. I can say that watching this last election really revealed to me how important it is that we redistribute that knowledge.
Some people may be concerned you’re too “radical” or that you’re not a politician. How you would respond to that sort of critique?
Angela Davis said, “Radical means to get the root.” I know when people call me radical they’re thinking of something in particular, but the way that I view that word is that it’s about getting to the root of the problem. Thinking about the context we live in now, Trump is certainly a problem, but Trump is not the problem. Trump is actually a symptom of something that has been living beneath the surface for a long time. Part of the problem is we have not gotten to the root of the historical and present day inequities in our system as they pertain to cash poor people and as they pertain to black and brown folk. As a result, there’s been a bubbling up. To see someone so openly talk in such a bigoted way take office is really a symptom of how we haven’t addressed the cultural things beneath the surface. In a country that really talks about itself as a land of opportunity and equality and justice, the reality is, where you see the law and justice are not the same thing because your value for justice and for whom, is really at a heart level.
So, my response to that is, you may think I’m radical, but let’s look at the substantive positions that I’m taking around issues that are very much at a crisis point in Seattle. And if you agree with my substantive position, if we can agree there’s at least a root problem that has to be addressed and actually within our current context needs a bold addressing, then I’m perfectly fine being called radical. If we can at least agree to start taking some bold stances forward around what equity truly looks like in Seattle. I believe Seattle can be the progressive city we talk about it as. There is so much money and so much opportunity in this city and if it was shared a little more equitably, I cannot imagine the strides forward we could take. They’re so unimaginable they’re so exciting—they’re that great.