Is Seattle at a turning point?
The pandemic has exacerbated entrenched problems — most visibly, homelessness — heightening tensions over the direction and effectiveness of City Hall. Meanwhile, the uprising following the police killing of George Floyd has empowered the push for racial justice — and a call to defund the police that has turned especially controversial amid a spike in violent crime overwhelmingly affecting people of color.
All that is playing into one of the highest-profile races on the Nov. 2 ballot, for the City Council’s at-large Position 9. The open seat was created when current Council President M. Lorena González decided to run for mayor. Both candidates call for change — of contrasting varieties.
Nikkita Oliver, an executive director of a nonprofit, lawyer and prominent anti-racism activist, promotes bold action to lift marginalized communities. Sara Nelson, co-founder of Fremont Brewing and a onetime aide to former City Councilmember Richard Conlin, says the council needs to be turned around from a focus on left-wing movement-building to one on basic services.
More specifically, Oliver wants to end zoning restrictions on apartments in single-family neighborhoods, generate new revenue for housing homeless people, and provide those in encampments with hygiene stations and trash pickups until housing is available. Oliver also champions an abolitionist vision that for now centers on defunding the police by 50%.
Nelson opposes defunding, proposes more gradual zoning changes to increase density in single-family neighborhoods, and wants to remove encampments from parks and other public spaces with a phased approach. She also wants a concrete plan and more data on homelessness before pushing new revenue, noting the city will soon get more money through the JumpStart payroll tax and, if it passes, the federal infrastructure bill.
Nelson calls Oliver’s policies extremist. Oliver casts doubt on Nelson’s values, suggesting she is more concerned with making parks comfortable places to go than with helping people in encampments.
Some of the most revealing comparisons, though, are not exactly attacks.
“That’s something very different between me and Sara,” said Oliver, who is Black, talking about participating in the 2020 protests following Floyd’s killing. “I just don’t go to a protest because I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s because it’s my life.”
Nelson, who is white, says she respects a focus on root causes of societal problems — a central theme of Oliver’s — but we need to focus on “problems we can solve right now.”
Oliver wins unions’ support
Oliver scored a coup with the endorsement of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, representing 110,000 workers.
“People saw supporting Nikkita as a concrete way to be in action about their values of anti-racism,” said Katie Garrow, the labor council’s executive secretary-treasurer elect.
“Nikkita is a working-class person. We see ourselves in them,” said Garrow of Oliver, who uses they/them pronouns.
“Sara is a business owner. And sometimes it’s just sort of that simple … What is the lived experience that you’re bringing to the job?”
Now living in Rainier Beach, Oliver, 35, grew up in Indianapolis, and has said they saw the effect of homelessness and incarceration firsthand through their father, who spent time in jail after falling behind on child-support payments. Oliver was struck by the futility of what happened to him; he lost his job, his apartment and time with his kids.
Oliver moved to Washington to attend Seattle Pacific University, and went on to get a law degree and master’s in education at the University of Washington.
While in law school, the nonprofit Creative Justice launched with an arts-based diversion program for youths caught up in the court and detention system. Oliver, competing in poetry slam competitions, started working for the group as an artist mentor in 2015 after passing the bar.
A law degree, Oliver said, made it possible to meet with youth at the detention center, work closely with public defenders and write amicus briefs involving incarceration. Oliver now heads the organization.
“That work that they have done behind closed doors has just been amazing,” said KL Shannon, Seattle King County NAACP’s police accountability chair. “That’s the work that a lot of folks don’t know that they do.”
Oliver has also taught poetry classes in schools around Seattle. Zion Thomas encountered Oliver at Rainer Beach High.
As an activist, Oliver is a commanding presence who speaks in confident bursts and insisted, during the 2020 protests, on livestreaming a meeting with Mayor Jenny Durkan — Oliver’s rival as a 2017 mayoral candidate. In the classroom, Oliver commands attention, too, according to Thomas, but in a “chill,” nondominating way.
Thomas, 22, now works for Oliver’s campaign. He also serves with a consortium of young people helping to design a Youth Achievement Center that Creative Justice is developing with other community organizations to provide housing, job training and other services.
Oliver organized the consortium, said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who has been working on an effort to get Sound Transit to transfer surplus Columbia City properties for the project.
“That’s just the perfect example of what Nikkita’s leadership looks like,” said Zahilay, who has endorsed Oliver. “Bringing in those who have been most impacted, those who are closest to the pain, giving them a leadership role, and then bringing together the different coalitions and stakeholders that are needed to bring a project to life.”
Oliver said projects like this, using public land, are one way the city could stimulate housing for its poorest residents. An “apartment ban,” however, has kept much of Seattle’s land accessible to only the wealthy, the candidate said. But without a dedicated effort, Oliver acknowledged, lifting zoning restrictions will only bring more luxury housing.
The lack of affordable housing is at the root of homelessness, Oliver said. They advocate for a much bigger investment in building and acquiring such housing, in part through implementing a 1% city income tax if there is a way to give rebates to low-income residents. Without more affordable housing, Oliver said, people in encampments simply have nowhere to go.
This poses a central question for Nelson’s stance on encampments, which she calls unsafe for those in and around them.
“I am not denying that we may need more money for housing, but I don’t think that we can afford to wait to let people continue living in encampments,” Nelson said. Her solution, apart from working with the new Regional Homelessness Authority, is to start somewhere, and use the housing resources we have to make progress.
Helping small businesses Nelson’s goal
In her Green Lake home, Nelson, 55, described growing up in Sacramento, California, in a Democratic family surrounded by Republicans. Her parents split up when she was 12, and her mom struggled financially, Nelson said. Her dad, she added, was an alcoholic.
She said he didn’t stop drinking until decades later when visiting Nelson, then living in Seattle. Pulled over for drunken driving, he was court-ordered into an inpatient treatment program.
Nelson said she, too, has struggled with drinking, which increased after her dad died and the pandemic began. An outburst of anger at home, involving Nelson’s smashing a phone, prompted her in September 2020 to check herself into the same treatment facility her dad went to. She said she stayed for a month and has been sober since.
After getting her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Nelson came to Seattle to get a doctorate at the UW in cultural anthropology. She wrote her dissertation on Brazilian police stations staffed by women who respond to sexual and domestic violence.
She met her husband, with whom she founded the brewery, at World Trade Organization protests. She was rethinking academia when she heard about an opening in Conlin’s City Council office.
Nelson lacked governmental experience, Conlin recalled, but in the interview, she sparkled with intelligence. Conlin hired her in 2002 and said she proved skilled at identifying people’s core issues and balancing varying interests.
Nelson said she learned from Conlin, known for environmentalism, that the devil is in the details — a truism she maintains has been lost on the council following her boss’s 2013 defeat to socialist Kshama Sawant. In Nelson’s view, the council now rushes to respond to the loudest activist voices, as with its support for police defunding.
A shared dissatisfaction powers her campaign. “It is time to acknowledge that the current City Council’s approach has failed to effectively tackle homelessness, affordability, smart growth and density, modern environmentalism and more,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has endorsed Nelson.
“It’s been literally decades since the City Council has had a council member who has built a meaningful small business but who also understands policy,” Carlyle added.
Nelson said she would prioritize helping small businesses and overall economic recovery from the pandemic, in part through suspending B&O taxes on hard-hit sectors.
“I believe that Sara Nelson can be a unifier,” Walden said. She said she’s concerned about a bullying political climate that had protesters marching to the homes of city officials, and also about cuts the City Council made to the police budget. Though the cuts were much lower than 50%, staffing is down and response times are up.
Of police violence, Walden said, “We’re not letting that off the hook at all.” But she said she also wants someone addressing other kinds of violence harming Black people.
Oliver “has not addressed the sorrow,” Walden said, whereas Nelson showed up at Judkins Park a few weeks ago to support the CD Panthers, a South End youth football and cheerleading program, traumatized by a nearby shooting during a recent game.
“She came with her sleeves rolled up,” said Panthers coach Terrell Elmore, adding Nelson was eager to hear how she could help the program if elected. Police also came, with an ice cream truck, which Elmore said made the kids feel safe.
Oliver said they couldn’t attend the game because of other events, but sees young people affected by gun violence “literally in my classroom every day.”
The city is moving ahead with alternatives to police responses, Oliver pointed out, including an expanded firefighters program called Health One, in addition to a program proposed by the mayor that would handle some 911 calls differently. There are also various community programs (though most not directly providing 911 responses) that collectively are being awarded $10.4 million in city funds.
Still, an alternative public safety system is far from built out, so how does Oliver believe the city can manage with a Police Department cut by half?
“Responding to the basic needs in our city is key; getting people in homes is going to significantly decrease certain types of calls,” Oliver said, bringing the discussion back around to homelessness, as is so often the case these days in Seattle.