Two candidates — one with political experience and the other a political outsider — are vying for the 37th Legislative District seat being vacated by State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who announced last January he would not seek reelection.
While their experience in politics varies, both Kirsten Harris-Talley and Chukundi Salisbury come together in their passion for community organizing: Each has spent decades advocating for underrepresented people in the district, which takes in Rainer Valley, Columbia City, Beacon Hill, the Central District, Rainier Beach and Renton.
In the days leading up to the election, Harris-Talley, 41, sat in her Rainier Valley home as her young child sang faintly in the background. As she shared her social-justice based platform in impassioned tones over the phone, she momentarily paused to respond to her child’s question.
Harris-Talley’s identity as a queer, Black mother is so central to her campaign that when she decided to run, her husband and two small children weighed in on the decision.
“A wise person once told me when you run, your whole family runs,” said Harris-Talley.
Harris-Talley’s decision to run for Position 2 in the 37th Legislative District came at her neighbors’ request. She said her Rainier Valley neighbors were disheartened by the voting patterns of incumbent Pettigrew, who had voted against eviction protections.
Always swimming on the periphery of politics and never diving in, Salisbury, 50, didn’t think he would run this year. But that changed after getting into a car accident last January that made him reflect on how he wants to spend the remainder of his life. A few days before Pettigrew announced his retirement, Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash rattled Salisbury. That weekend as he grieved Bryant’s death, he was struck by a famous quote from the film “The Shawshank Redemption”: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” In that moment, Salisbury thought: “You know, I’m going to run for office.”
Seattle is so embedded into the fabric of Salisbury’s life that one of his earliest memories is seeing the city’s skyline through a Greyhound window when he moved to here from California at 5 years old. A Garfield High School graduate, Salisbury’s mark on Seattle over the past four decades has ranged from trail maintenance and the formation of community gardens to owning several businesses. His family has made an indelible impact on Seattle: Salisbury’s mother, the Rev. Harriet Walden, co-founded Mothers for Police Accountability and is a co-chair of the Community Police Commission, while his brother, Omari Salisbury of Converge Media, has documented the city’s movement for racial justice.
For many years, Salisbury said, he maintained a four-hour sleep schedule to accommodate his work as the sustainability and environmental engagement manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation, along with DJing at casinos and nightclubs and heading the nonprofit Service is a Lifestyle, which currently focuses on engaging Black parents and voters. He’s served on the board of directors for YMCA Camping Services Branch and Real Change News for nearly a decade, as well as his mom’s nonprofit Mothers for Police Accountability off and on throughout the years.
Salisbury is also the CEO of Seaspot Media Group, which does marketing, promotions and outreach, and he previously owned a barbershop in Rainier Valley. Outside of his work and volunteering, Salisbury has lived in Rainier Valley for 23 years with his wife and two children.
Salisbury said he brings a wide range of experience in environmentalism, business, community advocacy and unions, informing his platform that hinges upon police accountability, building a robust community services officer program and education.
A guiding principle in his decision to run was to ensure that the state’s impact meets its intent. “We say that we value these progressive values. But then how is it that we have erased Black people?” Salisbury said, as he referenced displacement from the Central District, where the Black population dwindled by 60% in 50 years.
His vision for Washington is simple: “We have a legitimate pathway for young people from this district into high-quality jobs,” said Salisbury. “When I’m done in the legislature, our district will have a pathway with a robust K-12 experience for students who are furthest away from educational justice.”
On the other hand, Harris-Talley said her experience affecting policy as a long-time activist in reproductive and housing justice, and as the former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, informs her campaign.
Harris-Talley was raised in rural Missouri. Her activism grew its roots in Seattle when she moved here from Chicago in 1999. In her reproductive justice work, Harris-Talley said she’s proud of fighting for 2010 legislation that banned prisons from shackling people as they gave birth. Her political work has helped her garner endorsements from the 37th Legislative District Democrats and the King County Democrats.
As a 2017 interim Seattle City Council member, Harris-Talley saw her activism work in the Block the Bunker campaign, which aimed to stop construction of a new $150 million precinct, come full circle. As an activist, Harris-Talley recruited hundreds of people to give testimony at City Council meetings. While she was on the City Council, she ensured that further discussion of the precinct’s construction would involve a racial equity toolkit. During her 51 days on City Council, Harris-Talley also directed $436,000 to the Human Services Department.
A self-described “budgeting nerd,” Harris-Talley hopes to have a wider impact through state policy work with a platform that centers marginalized communities. The central tenants of her campaign include progressive taxation, setting a clean fuel standard, and reproductive, housing and policing justice.
“We’re at a time in the country where we need to really grapple with things that we’ve avoided talking about, or we’ve avoided having accountability for, so having built those coalitions matters” said Harris-Talley.
The candidates have adjusted their campaigns to the pandemic by focusing on digital outreach through social media, Zoom meetings, and phone calls. As of Oct. 29, Harris-Talley had raised nearly $238,000. Salisbury’s campaign has collected over $140,800.
Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday or dropped by 8 p.m. that day in a county elections office drop box.
While their experience differs, a touchstone for both campaigns is to center the needs of the most impacted people.
“At the end of the day, when Black and brown people do well, we all do,” Salisbury said.