Last summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, activist and attorney Nikkita Oliver brought Mayor Jenny Durkan onto the steps of Seattle City Hall in front of a crowd of protesters to ask questions about public safety and policing. Unsatisfied with Durkan's canned responses, the crowd drowned her out with chants of "Nikkita for Mayor."
But Oliver had no intention of running for mayor or for any public office, really. After placing third in the 2017 mayoral primary, coming in behind Durkan and urban planner Cary Moon, Oliver, the executive director of Creative Justice, focused on making changes from the ground up through community organizing and political education.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic "exacerbated pre-existing conditions of inequality," Oliver told The Stranger.
Earlier: #Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan listens to Nikkita Oliver read their demands to a protest of thousands at city hall demanding a defunding of Seattle Police, with investment in community solutions. #seattleprotests @reuterspictures pic.twitter.com/cBqohoMhHL
— Lindsey Wasson (@lindseywasson) June 4, 2020
Black and Latino communities fell ill and died at disproportionately high rates, spotty internet connectivity in low-income households prevented kids from joining Zoom school, families struggled to balance everything without childcare, vaccination rates in those hardest-hit communities lagged, and a historic social uprising against police brutality took to the streets.
In the face of all that, Oliver decided they needed to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council to create "transformational change."
They are competing against Fremont Brewing's Sara Nelson, Council President Lorena Gonzalez's chief of staff Brianna Thomas, and master's student Claire Grant for the at-large city council seat Gonzalez is vacating for her mayoral run.
As a Black, nonbinary renter, Oliver believes they will provide crucial representation that's lacking on the Seattle City Council, which only has one renter in Andrew Lewis and no Black or nonbinary members.
Oliver proposes many major systemic changes to city government, and divesting further from the Seattle Police Department while transitioning away from a "reactionary" form of public safety ranks highly among them. But changing policing means much more than just defunding the police, they said.
The council reduced SPD's budget by around 18% last year largely due to community organizing. Oliver wants to see that work continued by making the budget process more transparent and accessible so people can keep advocating for themselves. For Oliver, that means a continual investment in participatory budgeting. The council is currently spending $30 million to start the program this year.
"I think we have spent a lot of years talking about changing the culture of policing," Oliver said. "There is no reforming policing as we know it. There is dismantling and building the public health and public safety system."
They are advocating for changes to SPD, such as moving the 911 call center out of the police department and "growing the menu of responses" to give people non-cop options to call in case of emergency.
However, building more housing will do more to build safer communities than just trimming police budgets, Oliver said.
"Housing is such a determinant of health," Oliver said. Stable housing impacts peoples' worklife, their likelihood to interact with police, and their mental health, Oliver explained.
Right now, Seattle is only building density on 13% of its land. Oliver's opponent, Nelson, wants more housing and more density, too, but only along main transit lines such as the light rail. Oliver supports that strategy but said it won't be enough on its own. Oliver wants to change zoning laws to allow for building more dense, affordable housing throughout the whole city. Currently, over 80% of Seattle land only allows single-family homes.
According to a Seattle Times report, in Washington, "67% of white people own a home compared to 31% of Black people." Seattle could start to change that by investing in "social housing, co-ops, and land trusts" to allow lower-income families to build equity and create wealth in a way that white families have for generations, Oliver said.
Artists that have been hit particularly hard during COVID-19 are being priced out of the city, Oliver said. They want to grant Seattle artists a universal basic income so that artists can continue to live and create in the city.
To keep even more people housed, Oliver said they support a rent control measure, though the policy is still illegal at the state level. However, Oliver thinks that Seattle should pass policies regardless of the court battles the council may face from litigious critics.
The council could be bolder about progressive revenue options, too, Oliver said. Though they would need to run the policies through the legal department before proposing them, Oliver said they want to explore revenue options such as a progressive estate tax, raising the real estate excise tax, and augmenting the B&O tax to "be less impactful on small local businesses."
More progressive revenue options mean more ways to respond to homelessness in a "midterm and long-term" way, Oliver said. "We can focus on getting more hotel rooms, more transitional support, more tiny house villages, and more housing," Oliver said.
Speaking of homelessness strategies, Oliver is opposed to the proposed Compassion Seattle charter amendment, which would codify a homelessness response into Seattle's constitution. The amendment does not include a funding source and aims to build 2,000 units of emergency or permanent supportive housing within a year after voters approve the measure. Oliver said those priorities are not "commensurate" to the crisis at hand, since over 3,000 people are living unsheltered, according to the annual Seattle/King County Point-in-Time count.
"The fact that this is a charter amendment should give everyone pause, because it does not allow flexibility as things shift," Oliver said. "It would also put sweeps into our charter and require a consistent police presence and involvement as it relates to homelessness."
On transportation, Oliver said that they would examine the failures of the 2015 Move Seattle levy, which was supposed to build sidewalks, rapid bus lines, and bike lanes throughout the city. Seattle still hasn't fully implemented the levy, and Oliver said voters may need to vote on it again.
A robust transportation system is necessary as Seattle becomes serious about implementing its Green New Deal, Oliver said, lamenting the wildfire smoke that blotted out the sun last year.
They also want to incentivize transit use by creating universal free transit.
"All of these issues are deeply interconnected," Oliver said, citing access to housing, transportation, as well as good healthcare and affordable childcare. Together, Oliver's platform creates their ideal vision of true public safety, they added.
But is Seattle ready for the "transformational change" Oliver is proposing?
Will the voters turn out?
Back in 2017's mayoral primary, even though Oliver won more precincts than Moon, they received fewer votes mostly because new voters didn't turn out. Just about 40% of Seattleites voted in 2017, with younger voters only making up 23% of the electorate, according to the Seattle Times.
"Seattle has grown," Oliver said.
Largely because of COVID-19, the city's views around issues of housing affordability, affordable childcare, and universal health care are different than they were in 2017, Oliver said.
"That allows a candidate such as myself that reflects deep solutions for greater systemic change to have more traction, but also more nuanced conversations with those who are voting," they added.
Another development this year is that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce will no longer be endorsing or funding candidates. Oliver said they don't think this has "an impact one way or another."
Since "corporate-backed candidates were largely defeated in 2019," Oliver sees the Chamber's decision as "evidence that the city is ready for representation built more on people-powered campaigns."
Even though they entered the council race just over a month ago, Oliver is leading their opponents in funding with over $116,900 raised so far.