What’s Next for Nikkita Oliver?

A narrow loss in the primary is the best possible outcome for the movement Oliver leads

Today marks nine days since the August 1 primary election. Only a few votes remain to be counted, and Nikkita Oliver’s mayoral campaign will then need to decide whether it wants to pay for a recount. But it’s nearly impossible for disputed ballots and a recount to help Oliver make up all of the more than a thousand votes she now trails Cary Moon by.

Four years ago, nine days after the general election in November, Kshama Sawant finally passed Richard Conlin in their city council race. Sawant trailed by several thousand votes on election night, and drew a lot of criticism for failing to concede on the spot, but she – we – knew the race was closer than that initial count, and as the days went by she narrowed the gap more and more quickly.

I helped run that campaign, and so I was with Sawant and dozens of supporters crowded into her campaign office as we waited for that ninth day’s ballot numbers to be released. When they were, it was utter euphoria. It also happened to be my birthday, so the whole room sang happy birthday to me while all of the assembled TV cameras waited patiently for Sawant to speak. It’s an awesome personal memory, made even sweeter by the very real improvements to the lives of thousands of Seattleites by Kshama’s presence on city council these past four years.

So quite aside from my opinion of Oliver and her campaign, I have very positive associations with the drama of a radical, grass roots campaign fighting back from an election night deficit to win. And I like underdogs. I should want Oliver to prevail for that reason alone.

Over the past months, I’ve talked with people involved in Nikkita’s campaign, but I haven’t played any direct role in it. But if I were helping to run her campaign, despite my personal preferences, I’d be quietly rooting against Nikkita catching Moon, not for it.

If Oliver had edged out Cary Moon, what people would remember next year is not that Oliver narrowly won in August, but that Mayor Jenny Durkan had beaten her, badly, in November. Large numbers of Seattle voters who might be willing this fall to take a chance on Moon would never give Oliver that same benefit – because Moon is older, more experienced, more moderate, less polarizing, and yes, wealthy and white. If Oliver had beaten Moon, a Durkan campaign flush with money would have had a field day scaring Seattle voters about the risks of an Oliver win. Those ads would work.

Now, instead of being a candidate soundly rejected by general election voters, Oliver is sitting pretty by nearly beating Moon. In doing so, she far exceeded most expectations. Her campaign has been a rallying point for a movement that is now much more experienced and organized. Oliver surged at the end, and so her movement has a ton of momentum going forward – momentum that would largely evaporate if she lost badly to Durkan. Instead, she’s sitting pretty.

So what’s next?

It’s hard to tell to what extent Oliver’s newly formed People’s Party is an independent vehicle that can continue to grow and organize over the next two years, or whether it’s simply a transitory vehicle for Oliver’s personal ambition. But whoever wins in November, Oliver and her movement will now be a force on a number of issues that her movement cares deeply about.

The first and most obvious of those issues is affordable housing. Seattle has done quite a bit on that issue already. Sawant has shepherded a number of tenants’ rights reforms through city council and into law. Seattle voters passed a record-setting housing levy last year, much of which is dedicated to creating more affordable housing. In this year’s city budget, Sawant’s proposal to redirect the $150 million now earmarked to a new police precinct building failed to attract other council support – but the pressure it generated led directly to the success of Lisa Herbold’s proposal to add $29 million in new housing to the budget.

Nothing done so far has led to a fundamental paradigm shift in the developer-friendly city policies that have helped create and exacerbate this crisis in the first place, but Sawant is now quietly working on a more sweeping set of reforms for this fall. Whatever Sawant proposes – or even if some compromise proposal emerges – Oliver’s movement will now potentially be a powerful grass roots asset in trying to force city council (and, eventually, a new mayor) to act.

Should Durkan win in November, you can count on Oliver and her followers to also be a strong counterweight to what will likely be the default pro-law enforcement bias of Durkan. If Moon wins in November, it will surely be with the implicit or explicit support of much of Oliver’s army – and that support should come at a price. One of the first demands will be that Moon take a tougher stance in the now-stalled city contract negotiations with its police unions. If Moon is smart, she’ll also offer Oliver herself a place in Moon’s administration, utilizing Oliver’s undeniable organizing skills in service of a more populist Moon agenda.

And then there’s the new youth jail – a proposal already confronted with noisy opposition, opposition that is now larger, more savvy, and can claim a mandate from Oliver’s unexpected primary success.

A lot will happen before then, but this city-wide primary outcome also leaves the Peoples’ Party better positioned to be a force in 2019’s campaigns for the seven city council district seats. In particular, Bruce Harrell (Southeast Seattle) and Rob Johnson (University District) – both of whom won only narrowly in 2015, and both of whom have been resistant to the council’s recent progressive bent – have to be looking over their shoulders at what Oliver’s having had her strongest showing in their districts means for their re-election prospects.

Oliver and the Peoples’ Party would survive a loss to Durkan, of course, and would continue community organizing anyway – and there’s also the possibility that Oliver would again exceed expectations in a general election race against Durkan. But we’ll never know, and that’s the point. If Durkan won big against Oliver, she could reject out of hand Oliver’s populist demands as having been resoundingly rejected already by Seattle voters. Now, as mayor, neither Durkan nor Moon can claim that.

Oliver and many of her supporters will likely paint this month’s narrow margin as a bitter, frustrating loss. But really, this is just about an ideal scenario. And the narrowness of this loss will just be more motivation going forward.

If she chooses to do so, Nikkita Oliver will now be a local political force for a long time to come. It could scarcely have turned out better.

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