Something is in the air in Tacoma. Lifelong community organizer and democratic socialist Jamika Scott soared through her August primary for Tacoma City Council. On top of that, the young Tacoma chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) collected almost double the number of signatures required to get their Tenants' Bill of Rights on the ballot. 

In both cases, a progressive front poses a direct threat to the establishment; Scott is up against an old-guard centrist, and the City wants to squash DSA’s initiative. In the face of a housing and homelessness crisis, in the wake of a historic movement for Black lives and police accountability, and ahead of new public infrastructure that will change their city forever, come November voters will decide whether the status quo in the City of Tacoma should live to see another day. 

The Tacoma election has statewide implications. As Seattle loses its socialist spokesperson and as progressives play defense against corporate forces aiming to take over the Seattle City Council, historically blue-collar Tacoma could challenge the long-held assumption that Seattle is the progressive leader in the state. And, who knows, maybe the conservatives will bestow Seattle's “socialist hellhole" title upon its southern neighbor. 

Meet Jamika Scott… If You Haven't Already

Many Tacomans first learned Scott’s name in 2020 when she organized against police brutality after the Tacoma Police Department killed Manuel Ellis by suffocation and restraint. Others remember her work with the Tacoma Action Collective, which she co-founded to fight for more complete representation at the Tacoma Art Museum in their “Stop Erasing Black People” campaign in 2015. 

But Hilltop has known Scott her whole life. Scott probably listened to more community members in Tacoma’s historically Black neighborhood before she hit double digits than many elected officials have in their entire lives. Born and raised in the underserved neighborhood, Scott spent her childhood listening to her mom, a prominent leader in her community, talk with neighbors about their needs, the shortcomings of elected officials, and ways to fill in those gaps and care for each other when no one in power would. 

As a community organizer, Scott has spent the last decade continuing those conversations. Now, she’s running for the open seat on Tacoma City Council to bring those voices into the halls of power while the community faces the continued threat of gentrification.

“Sometimes the only way to get a seat at the table is to take a seat at the table,” Scott told The Stranger.

In her office, Scott will prioritize building up police alternatives, addressing the root causes of crime, stimulating the creative economy, and supporting youth engagement programs. As far as style goes, Scott wants to shake up City Hall as the first open democratic socialist to serve on the city council and the leftmost representative among the sitting members. 

Tides Turning In Tacoma

It's pretty clear she’s not the establishment’s first choice. After all, her most politically similar opponent, minister Malando Redeemer, scored high-profile endorsers such as Congressional Representatives Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland, Washington House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, and, perhaps most tellingly, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and six of the sitting city council members.

Scott also caught heat in 2021 when she challenged the Mayor for her seat. She lost, earning 15% of the vote compared to Woodards’s 51%.

But this time, Scott secured 42% of the vote in the primary, beating third-place Redeemer by about 25 percentage points. She will advance to the general with criminal defense attorney Chris Van Vechten, who, based on his endorsements, represents Tacoma’s institutional players.

Tacoma local State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, who endorsed Scott early on, said the results of the primary plainly reveal the political climate in town. 

“You can have all the elite political power behind you, but I don't know that that's what people want right now,” she said. 

Tacomans are hungry for change as affordability concerns rise to the surface, Trudeau said. While the housing crisis has raged on in Washington for years, she saw prices pick up after she bought her home in 2019 as rising rents pushed people out of Seattle and into surrounding cities. According to various estimates, Tacoma landlords have jacked up rent by about 40% since before the pandemic in 2019. The rise in rents have left more than half of Tacomans “rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30% of their income to their landlord each month. 

Struggling Tacomans want a “rabble-rouser” like Scott to change things up, Trudeau said. Even the Tacoma News Tribune Editorial Board, who jointly endorsed Scott and her opponent Van Vechten, wrote that “injecting a bit of tension in council deliberations wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Consensus Conshmensus

Scott’s election would not only serve as a sign of political dissatisfaction, her presence on council could dramatically change the tenor of the conversations in City Hall.

The Tacoma City Council historically reaches consensus before taking legislation to a vote to avoid fighting in the public eye. The City started especially avoiding conflict under Mayor Woodard, who stresses the importance of maintaining civility and unity on the council dais, Tacoma politicos told The Stranger. 

Scott cannot operate like that in good conscience. Although Tacoma weighs in as the city with the third-highest population in the state, Scott said City Hall remains stuck in a “small town mindset.” The city council is not just proclaiming spirit weeks, they steward a $4.3 billion biennium budget, manage one of the most notoriously violent police departments in the country, and make critical zoning decisions that determine the housing security of more than 200,000 people. Scott said it’s time the City started acting like there’s more than just their relationship with the Mayor and future job prospects on the line.

Scott and other progressive operatives in Tacoma have faith in at least some of the council members. Council Members Olgy Diaz and Kiara Daniels may be more progressive than their council votes would suggest, Scott said, but because they have limited power to meaningfully dissent on the kumbaya council, they keep quiet. If Scott sticks her neck out first, the other two could back her up. They still would not constitute a majority, but they would have better luck winning concessions. 

Tacoma for All

Separately, other lefties are fighting—and perhaps winning—against the Tacoma status quo in a very literal sense. 

The Tacoma DSA launched its Tacoma for All campaign earlier this year to put the party's Tenant Bill of Rights initiative on the ballot. If adopted, the measure would require landlords to give 180 days notice before raising rent, cap late fees at $10, and limit move-in fees to the cost of one month’s rent. For large property owners, the initiative would also force them to pay relocation assistance to the tenants they push out with rent increases. Seattle and other western Washington cities have enacted similar measures in recent years. 

Tacoma for All campaign manager and DSA leader Ty Moore said signature-gatherers heard almost all positive reactions from voters. In fact, they collected more than 7,500 signatures, almost double what they needed to get on the ballot. The verification process generally trims down those signatures substantially, but Tacoma for All still passed the threshold to get on the ballot by a few hundred names. 

City Hall noticed Tacoma for All’s success. Moore said it seemed to scare the Mayor, who met with them several times in the hopes of hashing out a compromise bill. Seeing that voters responded so positively, Tacoma for All decided not to budge. In response, the City proposed its own, more landlord-friendly renter protection package.

The council approved that package last month, but Diaz and Daniels attempted to tack on amendments to bring the bill closer into alignment with Tacoma for All’s initiative. The amendments failed, but their effort showed the power of lefty pressure.

Scaredy Cats in City Hall

While the Mayor says the City’s competing package, Measure 2, will give voters a “choice” on the ballot, the choice won’t be between two new measures. 

The council already passed its weaker package, which requires landlords to provide 120 days notice before raising rent, caps late fees at 1.5% of rent up to $75, adds additional protections for subletters, and limits move-in fees but allows more evictions and less aid to those displaced by rent hikes. 

The City will implement those changes regardless of how Tacomans vote, which may trick some voters who only want to vote for a little change, not realizing they'd just be voting to affirm legislation that had already passed. As Moore wrote on the Tacoma for All Substack, “The only real impact of voting for Measure 2 is to defeat Measure 1, our Tenant Bill of Rights.”

But Tacoma for All is still confident they will beat the City’s wimpy ballot measure one way or another. Earlier this month, the group filed a lawsuit against the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, and the County Auditor. The lawsuit alleges that the City does not have the authority to put a competing measure on the ballot. If the campaign wins the suit, the City’s Measure 2 could be wiped from the ballot altogether. 

Even if Tacoma for All does not win its lawsuit, Moore said the group will continue the fight on the ballot, and he’s confident the grassroots effort can win. The campaign saw about 100 volunteers in the early summer, and he thinks they can get twice as many people out knocking doors this fall. 

Democratic Socialist Utopia Incoming

While Tacoma embraces two lefty efforts simultaneously, Scott supporters such as Sen. Trudeau and 27th Legislative District Democrats Chair Justin Camarata said it's important to see the candidate and the DSA as two distinct entities. 

Scott may be a DSA member, Trudeau said, but her success does not belong to Tacoma DSA—or to any one organization for that matter. Scott’s been organizing outside of the relatively new local chapter for much longer than it’s been around. Sure, she’s an outsider to City Hall, which is filled with centrist Democrats, but she's a community insider, a quality Trudeau said Tacoma DSA has yet to demonstrate.

Fair or unfair, some Tacomans perceive DSA as a group largely composed of white, male transplants from Seattle. Despite this reputation, Trudeau said DSA found success in its initiative—with the help of labor and other progressive organizations—because they tapped into a very real and timely concern for Tacomans. Camarata also noted that the leftward trend has been in motion for years, with Council Member Daniels's election marking a huge win for progressives. 

If DSA wants to build long-term power in Tacoma, Trudeau said they will have to operate differently than Seattle DSA and Sawant’s party, Socialist Alternative. 

She noted that Seattle DSA and Socialist Alternative come off as purists. That won’t fly in Tacoma, she argued. The party will have to make a strong effort to collaborate with existing movement leaders, particularly ministerial leaders in the Black community, and diversify its membership to be more representative of Tacoma, she added. 

Tacoma DSA, who was able to secure endorsements for their project from just about every progressive organization in town, seems excited to keep up the momentum. If DSA’s initiative passes and Scott wins her election, it could open the door for lefties—DSA-affiliated or not—to enter the halls of power. And of course, to rouse rabbles.