After the November 2016 election, Nikkita Oliver, a 31-year-old attorney, teacher and artist, was hosting a gathering for her poetry slam group in Seattle. Between conversation, Oliver said, “What if we ran someone for mayor?”
The national election hadn’t turned out like Oliver and her friends had envisioned. People were upset. There was a lot of political apathy. Her friends, many fellow artists, activists and community organizers, agreed it would be a good idea.
But, unlike many ideas mentioned in the moment, it didn’t fizzle out when Oliver’s house guests left.
Instead, they began to meet one-on-one and in small groups. They discussed what direction they wanted the City of Seattle to go in. By January, the group had started meeting formally. They spent hours discussing their shared principles and began writing a manifesto of sorts. Within a month, the group had gone from five people to 15, and eventually, they were ready to decide on a candidate for mayor to represent them. After getting input from community elders and aunties, they decided Oliver should represent their new political party, now called the Peoples Party of Seattle.
On Aug. 1, Oliver’s name was on the nonpartisan primary ballot along with 20 other candidates for mayor. The top two finishers in the primary will advance to the Nov. 7 general election. With approximately 29 percent of the vote, former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan will likely claim one spot. Oliver and urban planner Cary Moon are neck-and-neck for the second. The final results will be officially certified on Aug. 15.
Whoever wins the Seattle mayoral election will become the first woman to lead the city since 1926.
The Peoples Party’s platform focuses on core issues that drove much of the discussion throughout the primary battle, including housing and affordability in an increasingly expensive Seattle, homelessness, education and police accountability. The campaign committee is made up of mostly people of color who are under 30, and they regularly meet with elders who offer feedback. They also have a youth cohort led by a 16-year-old who helped develop the party’s principles.
The party is independent, and it does not accept corporate donations. It raised $135,094 with an average contribution of $74, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
Durkan, the top primary finisher so far, raised $491,108, with an average contribution of $231. Moon contributed around $90,500 to her own campaign, bringing her total to $151,999.
Oliver declared her candidacy on March 8, long before Seattle Mayor Ed Murray dropped his re-election bid after facing allegations of sexual abuse. Murray, who was favored to win, denies the accusations.
At first, Oliver wasn’t sold on being the Peoples Party’s candidate.
“It was a hard decision, not because of feeling incapable but because of caution,” she said. “I know what happens from history when strong organizers who a community trusts get into office. Sometimes that can squelch a movement. For me, it was really about trying to make a decision that really honors the vision our organizers have for our city.”
Eventually, young people drove her to run. In her, they might see a little bit of themselves, Oliver said. Recently, a mother told Oliver her daughter had been talking about “voting for Nikkita” all week.
“It starts to transform things in our community on such a deeper level,” Oliver added. “That’s what pushed me over the edge of caution.”
The Peoples Party has a vision for its future, and that includes getting candidates from marginalized communities elected to school boards and city and county councils. With Oliver’s run for mayor, the party is readying its supporters for the types of candidates it will have in other races.
She is a black queer woman who still rents her home and juggles several jobs: Oliver is an attorney, and she works as a case manager for the nonprofit Creative Justice, an arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people. She also teaches social practice art in Seattle Public Schools through an organization called Writers in the Schools while freelancing in various fields on the side.
The most challenging part of the race, Oliver said, has been finding time. Sometimes, for work reasons, she missed interviews or forums. Instead, members of her campaign committee showed up. Some people balked, but the Peoples Party and its community defended her.
“It has helped people to see that we’ve actually created a system that is inaccessible,” she added. “That says only people who are independently wealthy can afford to take off work and run for office. That’s not the promise that we’re given when we’re talked to about voting as a part of a government that’s for the people and by the people.”
Too often, movements come to a halt after a candidate is elected into office, Oliver said. Since the beginning, the party has been telling supporters, “winning this is actually a green light to organize more.” But a loss won’t stop the Peoples Party either.
“As grassroots organizers, we know and acknowledge consistently that every great thing that’s ever happened in Seattle when it comes to equity or justice has really been led by communities,” Oliver said, adding that the solutions those people bring to the table are the ones worth listening to.
A supporter recently asked Oliver how they could start a similar movement in Redmond, Wash. The answer was relatively simple: Organizing evolves. Build off what your elders have done, build relationships with them, stay committed and listen.