It may surprise you to find out that the most serious reelection challenge to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray—the city's first gay mayor who is suing Donald Trump and supports safe consumption sites for drug users—is coming from the left.
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But if you've been paying attention to politics in Seattle in recent years, it shouldn't.
Elected in 2013, Murray has presided over a Seattle where revenues are up, unemployment is down, cranes dot the sky, and city officials set progressive milestones. During his time in office, the minimum wage rose to $15 and ride share drivers secured unionization. (Just how supportive Murray was of any of those milestones behind closed doors depends on who you ask.)
That's not all that's happened during Murray's tenure, though. Homelessness reached crisis levels, increased development flamed tensions over displacement, and the Seattle Police Department continues to operate under a 2012 Department of Justice consent decree. Plans to hire new cops and build a new police station in North Seattle drew protests that have shut down Seattle City Council meetings.
Now, 31-year-old teacher, lawyer, boxer, poet, and well-known Black Lives Matter activist Nikkita Oliver is challenging Murray. While Murray would like to focus on his role as a foil to President Trump, Oliver will force attention back to city issues.
Oliver, who moved to Seattle from Indianapolis in 2004, is running with the newly formed Seattle Peoples Party. On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people showed up at Washington Hall in the Central District to launch her campaign.
She's going to need all the help she can get. Murray has already raised more than $300,000 and racked up endorsements from some of the city's most prominent unions. Oliver's campaign said Sunday they'd raised $11,000 toward their initial $25,000 goal.
"I love it when people tell me that something is impossible," Oliver told the crowd at the kickoff, "and in a lot of ways this whole thing, to a lot of people, seems impossible. When I tell people I'm running for mayor, they always go, 'Oh, isn't Murray running?' and I just smile, 'Yeah.'"
Vegetable trays and crackers and cheese lined tables in the back of Washington Hall, perhaps the only detail at Sunday's kickoff resembling a typical political event. Otherwise, Oliver's rally was unlike probably any local campaign event you've been to. The crowd of young and nonwhite faces packed the building—capacity: 735—while more watched the live stream at The Station in Beacon Hill. Supporters brought their own t-shirts to have screen-printed on site with "Seattle Leads. Nikkita Oliver for Mayor." Indigenous women offered Oliver a symbolic bundle of cedar, water, lavender, rock, and sage and performed a song. DoNormaal, 2015 Youth Poet Laureate Leija Farr, and Garfield High School Drumline took the stage, too.
Council Member Kshama Sawant (who has not yet formally endorsed Oliver but is likely to) praised Oliver for challenging "corporate politician Ed Murray" and called her campaign "an independent challenge to Seattle's corporate political establishment."
When Oliver took the stage, the room exploded in applause.
“We live in a day and age when we are convinced that there’s not enough," she told the crowd. "We're living in one of the most wealthy cities in the United States, if not the world, and we know there’s enough. We see it every day. It’s growing around us every day. And it’s my belief and the belief of the Peoples Party that it’s time that we change the narrative of scarcity to knowing that there’s enough, if only we were willing to share it collectively.”
In other words: rich people need to pay their share.
(Watch video of the full event here.)
In her speech and in expanded explanations of her platform online—here's her take on the homelessness and housing crisis, housing and affordability, public safety, and education—Oliver draws distinct contrasts with Murray.
Specific on some issues and vague on others (not all that unusual for a first-time candidate), Oliver's platform focuses on criminal justice reform and gentrification. That aligns her with both housing and anti-police advocates on the left and, in some cases, conservative neighborhood types worried about development.
Oliver has been outspoken against the city's sweeps of homeless encampments, an issue that has dogged Murray in recent months. She promises to "ensure that people living unsheltered have access to shelters that recognize their individual circumstances, allow them daytime access and a place to store their belongings, and make them feel welcome." But how she would pay for a radical shift in the city's shelter system remains unclear. To fund affordable housing, the platform promises she will "create progressive tax structures and luxury taxes on corporations."
Oliver has also criticized Murray for one of his key pro-homeless moves: his plan to open a new 24-hour homeless shelter known as a navigation center. That shelter is meant to address the well-documented inadequacies with the city's current shelter system, which often forces people to line up at night, sleep on mats, and leave early the next morning. But Murray has faced pushback because he plans to locate that new shelter in the International District, where some say they weren't consulted and complain their neighborhood already bears a "heavy burden." It's easy to imagine how homeless advocates would respond to many other neighborhoods reacting this way to a new homeless shelter: Get the fuck over it. But Oliver says the city's communication failure has pit two marginalized communities against each other. Her platform says she supports navigation centers but would "reach out equitably to all communities, including Seattle’s communities to the North, as potential sites for these centers."
Development and gentrification:
Development is one of the thorniest issues for Seattle's left. While some people call for radical increases in density as the only way to increase housing and slow displacement, others say that push for density accelerates gentrification in historically nonwhite neighborhoods. That latter position, though, can align those advocates with NIMBYs who fight new development because it doesn't fit the "character" of their single-family neighborhoods or because they believe renters make worse neighbors than homeowners.
At an event last week, Oliver praised a Seattle Times opinion piece that was critical of growth and said the city should "put a pause" on new development. Oliver did not take that position during her kickoff Sunday and it is not included in the platform on her website.
"As much as we are pro-density and fight for density," Oliver said, "we must be anti-displacement."
Oliver's platform calls for more public housing and changes to the city's mandatory housing affordability program, which requires developers to build affordable housing in exchange for taller buildings.
Recently approved upzones in the University District and proposed zoning changes in downtown and in South Lake Union require developers to set aside between 2 and 11 percent of new buildings for affordable housing or pay fees instead. The mayor and most of the Seattle City Council say these percentages are the highest the city can require without discouraging development. Lefties like Council Members Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold and housing advocate/city council candidate Jon Grant don't buy that. In her platform, Oliver supports Grant's call for requiring 25 percent affordability set-asides instead. Like Grant and Sawant, Oliver also supports rent control, which is currently illegal in Washington state.
Elsewhere in the platform, she takes an unusual stance for Seattle's left: reducing taxes. In order to counteract displacement of communities of color, Oliver proposes "substantially reducing or freezing property taxes to protect long-time residents" while also "dramatically increase funding for existing senior home repair programs and creating a "stabilization voucher for long-time residents of low-income communities." It's unclear how those programs would be funded.
Police and justice:
Oliver believes the city should reduce its prosecutions of "quality of life crimes" like sex work, certain drug and driving offenses, and loitering. The city should also reform its bail system, expand access to pre-trial services, and "reassess" police use of gang databases, according to her comments and platform.
Well known for her opposition to King County's plans to build a new youth jail, Oliver also advocates for ending to youth incarceration. "We are dealing with a broken system, not broken children," Oliver said.
While Murray has said the county-led new youth jail, approved by voters in 2012, needs a "second look," lawyers in the city attorney's office also opposed an activist-led appeal to the permit necessary to build the new juvie. Oliver says the city should work toward
Supporters I spoke to after the event said they believed Oliver would tackle affordability and gentrification in the city more boldly than Murray has.
"We need somebody who's going to fight against the establishment," said Yolanda Matthews, a 36-year-old environmental justice advocate. "She seems like she is someone who has everybody in mind and is willing to fight the fight that we need to push bigotry and racism and corporate greed out of our city." Matthews said she voted for Murray in 2013, "an unfortunate mistake that I now see that I made."
Asked how Murray has failed, Matthews said, "I thought the homeless problem would be better by now."
"I thought gentrification might have slowed up a bit," she continued, "and in fact it seems like it's ramped up. I thought we would get more housing and yeah, we're getting more housing—for the rich."