Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver doesn’t just want to run the system, she wants to transform it. The 31-year-old lawyer and activist proposes ideas rooted in her life story.

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Nikkita Oliver wasn’t buying it.

At an October conference of the regional NAACP, Kelly Harris, criminal-division chief for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, was encouraging young people to become lawyers and prosecutors. “You need to be there to be that gatekeeper,” he said from the audience during a panel discussion on criminal justice.

Oliver, a 31-year-old lawyer and increasingly prominent activist, was on the panel, and she cast doubt on how much discretion young black prosecutors receive.

2017 Seattle mayoral race

Tension cut through the room as she and Harris proceeded to spar over whether it made sense to work within what Oliver called a “white supremacist system.” Oliver argued no.

Eight months later, Oliver is running for the city’s highest office. Harris notes the irony. “You can’t be any more inside than the mayor,” he said.

Oliver knows it, and wrestles with it — an ambivalence that shapes her campaign, backed by a new Peoples Party of Seattle she helped found.

“When we choose to involve ourselves in the actual workings of a system that is so unjust, do we legitimize it with our presence?” she asked. Her resolution, she said, is to repeatedly ask herself: “Is this act transformative?”

Editor's note

Before the Aug. 1 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling leading candidates for Seattle mayor, selected based on civic involvement, endorsements, campaign activity and money raised.  Learn more about all 21 candidates in our interactive online voter's guide.

In other words, Oliver doesn’t just want to run the system, she wants to upend it. The long list of ways she suggests doing so includes demanding more of developers — like setting aside 25 percent of their projects for affordable housing — implementing city taxes that fall heaviest on corporations and the affluent, and working toward an “abolitionist” society that minimizes, or eliminates, policing and prisons.

Some find her positions too radical, although, in reality, aspects of her platform are not that different from her campaign rivals’ proposals. Former and would-be mayor Mike McGinn, for instance, talks about taxing corporations, too.

While a woman of many talents, including amateur boxing and spoken-word poetry, Oliver lacks the administrative experience of candidates such as former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.

But like socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who endorsed her — as did Councilmember Mike O’Brien, noting in a video that Seattle needs a mayor “who’s going to reject the status quo” — Oliver attracts ardent support from people who feel she offers something new, not least because she is a young, black, queer woman.

“For the first time, I felt like I could connect with a politician,” said Diana Mena, explaining why Oliver’s campaign launch, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, filled her with “hope in ways I never had hope before.” A 30-year-old social worker who identifies as “Latinx,” Mena said she felt “our voice” — and those of poor folks, refugees and other women of color — “would be represented.”

Mena was speaking at a Rainier Beach barbecue for Oliver on a sweltering June Sunday, which nevertheless drew several dozen people — and at least a few newcomers to politics.

“I’ve never actually backed a candidate,” said Laura Escalona-Flores, 33, a Seattle Public Schools counselor. Sensing that Oliver’s campaign was unusually grass-roots, she said, “I came to learn.”

Oliver, speaking to the crowd, said she also was learning. “It’s a struggle,” she said, of getting up to speed on the campaign trail while working full time. After graduating from the University of Washington Law School in 2015, she opted not to work as an attorney but to become a case manager for Creative Justice, a county-funded program that uses art projects as an alternative to youth incarceration.

Some of the lessons that inform her campaign, however, started years before.

Nikkita Oliver, a UW law-school graduate, works for Creative Justice, a county-funded program that uses art projects as an alternative to youth incarceration. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Nikkita Oliver, a UW law-school graduate, works for Creative Justice, a county-funded program that uses art projects as an alternative to youth incarceration. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

“I knew it was unjust”

When Oliver was a teenager in Indianapolis, Ind., she recalled on a recent day in the Central District’s Washington Hall, her father fell behind on child support. As a result, she said, he cycled in and out of jail, losing his job and his apartment. She used to visit him in an aunt’s basement.

Later, as a sociology student at Seattle Pacific University — her mother insisted she attend a Christian school, and she had visited SPU as a high-schooler for a Bible competition — she began to think more deeply about what happened to her dad.

“I knew it was unjust,” she said. And it didn’t solve anything. In jail, her father wasn’t able to pay child support. And his children missed out on time spent with their father.

In time, she got involved with movements aimed at reining in law enforcement, including Black Lives Matter, Block the Bunker (opposed to building an expensive North Precinct) and the No New Youth Jail Campaign. “Not allowing business as usual” has been part of these movements, she said, and activists have sometimes shut down City Council meetings.

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Oliver distinguished herself by her powerful speeches about racism and its history, said Councilmember Tim Burgess, vice chairman of the committee dealing with public safety.

Yet, he questions some of her ideas. “It’s just ludicrous on its face,” he said of her contention, expressed to KUOW last fall, that “we don’t need a separate institution to keep the peace or enforce the laws.”

At Washington Hall, Oliver elaborated: “When I talk about abolition, it’s not about getting rid of police today or tomorrow, it’s not about shutting down all the jails today or tomorrow, it’s about having a vision for what does it look like for us to be in a healthy society where human needs are met … and that would decrease a lot of the crime we see.”

Learning from others

On housing, Oliver’s proposals are also striking, if less ethereal. Take the 25 percent set-aside for affordable housing, which is more than double the percentage the City Council has been requiring in neighborhood upzone plans instigated by the “grand bargain” recommended by a citizens’ committee. Developers are also allowed to pay into a fund to create affordable housing, an out Oliver frowns upon.

She also promotes rent control, which would take a change in state law, and a bold program for building public housing.

Not unexpectedly, developers are critical, particularly of the 25 percent figure. Hal Ferris, principal of Spectrum Development Solutions, a company that has been building housing for middle-income buyers, said Oliver’s mandate would mean “There would be no value left in the land.”

“I am an attorney,” Oliver said, hinting at flexibility. “What I know is you go into a bargaining process with a number.”

She said she knows she needs to build coalitions across the city, and talk to all kinds of people, including developers. Learning from the “brilliance” of others is a cornerstone of her campaign, and she has conducted a series of “listening posts.”

At one such event with Open Seattle, drawing civic-minded tech workers, she asked open-ended questions about how to motivate companies to hire more people of color. She took copious notes.

At another, she met with neighborhood activists concerned about rapid growth. One attendee, Bill Bradburd, chairman of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, said he’s seen since that she has incorporated their concerns into her views.

“Part of the problem in the city is that we’ve allowed an extremist narrative,” Oliver said. “Everyone is either for density or everyone’s against density.”

In reality, she continued, “People are far more nuanced than that.” They see there’s an affordable-housing crisis, and recognize that more density is needed to solve it. “They just want to be consulted on what it looks like in their neighborhood. And I think that’s fair.”

We asked leading mayoral candidates to explain — in less than a minute — how they are a “typical Seattleite” and how they are “atypical.” (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)