Nikkita Oliver teaches public school students; works as an attorney; is an organizer in Seattle's No Youth Jail and Black Lives Matter movements; and performs as a spoken word poet. She said running for office was never part of the plan. And when she finally did decide to run, it had been after lots of discussions and votes in the Peoples Party.
"It's not like I sat down and charted out my employment goals," Oliver told PubliCola. "I do the work that I do. And then when there's a need, if I'm the one who's equipped to respond to it, I do."
After President Donald Trump won the election in November, members of the Peoples Party began having serious conversations about choosing candidates to run for "transformative" changes at the local level, Oliver said, and decided on backing a mayoral candidate. She said it was ultimately youth who inspired her to run: They told her they don't see people who look like them running for office.
Oliver grew up in a biracial household and said her awareness around social justice issues began young when in Indianapolis, where she grew up, she saw the way her father and stepfather (who were black) had been treated compared to her mother (who was white). She moved to Seattle as a college student at Seattle Pacific University, where she majored in sociology and said she began seeing her childhood more clearly through a social justice lens.
"You wake up a little bit at a time, you gain more language for it," she said.
She announced her campaign in early March, a month before sexual abuse allegations against Mayor Ed Murray surfaced—which prompted other high-profile candidates to throw their hats in the ring and Murray to end his reelection bid.
Oliver's campaign started with a crowd of energized young supporters. She's a queer woman of color; she's been homeless, for a quarter during her time in college; and she's the only high-profile candidate who is still a renter. She connects with disenfranchised voters, including millennials and those with low incomes—people also less inclined to vote in a primary election, but with their turnout, could potentially carry Oliver to November. She's raised $102,000 with an average campaign donation of $72, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
"The challenges and opportunities in front of the city of Seattle require a new type of leadership that only Nikkita Oliver can bring to our city," said Seattle council member Mike O'Brien, who endorsed Oliver. "We need a mayor who’s going to reject the status quo and bring a new vision to the city of Seattle.”
Oliver's campaign quickly grew momentum in the months leading up to the primary. She received endorsements from two city council members, O'Brien and Kshama Sawant, King County council member Larry Gossett, Transit Riders Union and Seattle Education Association, Socialist parties. She also received editorial endorsements from Seattle Weekly and the "dissent" endorsement from The Stranger, despite at times having been critical of media coverage and denounced a couple of unfavorable articles (Danny Westneat's column on her voting record, or Erica Barnett's question on whether she supports the city's housing levy).
"My goal is to be transparent and accountable, and that includes conversations with journalists," Oliver told PubliCola, in response to a question about her criticisms of media and whether she plans to remain accessible to journalists as mayor. "I do think having been a part of this election and seeing the way that some media outlets choose to identify or frame candidates sometimes lacks journalistic integrity because it doesn't tell a full story...How do you combat that? You call it out, and then you make yourself available for interviews and conversations."
Like other candidates, Oliver said her first priority as mayor would be affordable housing. She wants much more public housing and, if the city income tax passes legal muster, wants to use money coming in from the tax to build it. She wants the city to use its bonding capacity and implement impact fees to raise more money for affordable housing, and she told PubliCola one of her first priorities as mayor also would be a feasibility study for a speculator tax.
Oliver also said the city could do a better job of providing incentives for landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program for low-income tenants, and using surplus city property for transitional housing or shelters for homeless people.
Oliver has criticized the HALA process for not going far enough on affordable housing percentages but, unlike Jessyn Farrell or Cary Moon, doesn't have a hard-line approach to single-family zoning areas. She said she wants a "consensus-driven model" for those who own homes and have concerns about their neighborhood changing, and wants to focus on fighting displacement and gentrification.
"The culture and character of neighborhoods makes them good places to want to live, 'cause that neighborhood suits somebody's interests or who they are, and it's important to find ways to preserve that," Oliver said. "I think we could do density and preserve the character and culture of a neighborhood."
Shortly after the city council approved Seattle's income tax, Oliver said she thinks the city should go further to address the tax structure statewide and try to form a coalition of cities; she said she opposed the soda tax and other regressive taxes, and that Seattle should focus on a statewide vision.
"There's a whole state structure in place that makes it challenging for Seattle to really enact the change that we need in order to get revenue sources that are progressive," Oliver said. "As long as the state structure stays, low-income folks are going to continue to bear the weight of taxes in a way that's inequitable."
With her candidacy, Oliver brought to the forefront issues of equity in the mayor's race. She has been the most critical of the city's progress on police reform and wants the city to go further on civilian involvement in police investigations; she wants an independent body to investigate police, a discussion that's been taken more seriously since officers killed Charleena Lyles—a 30-year-old black mother of four—and was included as part of the new state initiative on police oversight, De-Escalate Washington.
Oliver was also one of two high-profile candidates during PubliCola interviews who suggested they wouldn't rehire police chief Kathleen O'Toole (along with Bob Hasegawa). Oliver said she would want a community review process, but that O'Toole's absence at Lyles's forum in June showed she's "not fully doing her job." (It's unclear whether O'Toole would stay if Oliver were to become mayor.)
"It's understandable that maybe at that time, she was not in a position to answer questions. But there is something powerful about showing up and listening," Oliver said. "Her performance, given the context of the Seattle Police Department and the changes that need to be made, has not been sufficient to build the sort of trust that is needed to believe that she's truly bringing that police force to where it needs be."
At the city council forum held on Lyles's death, Oliver's voice trembled as she spoke about the effect racism has on young black women and demanded to know why Murray wasn't there to listen to the crowd. (She asserted she wasn't there to campaign, and declined to answer questions about the mayor's race that night.) A member of the audience shouted, "Nikkita for mayor!"
Oliver has said the city also wastes money on unnecessary prosecutions of crimes that could be better spent elsewhere. She said she ultimately decided to go to law school after working with youth who often didn't receive legal counsel; and she takes a lot of pro-bono cases because she herself got a full ride to University of Washington's Law School, she said, and wanted to give back.
"I think at every step of the way, there have been barriers," Oliver said. "One of the things my mom has always just reinforced is, it might take you longer. But if you work hard at it, you can make it happen."
Updated July 25, 2017, at 10:58am: This post clarifies the question asked to Oliver about the media.