“I think I’m going to do this,” Nicole Thomas-Kennedy said to Public Defender Sadé Smith, a friend and former colleague, when she decided to run for Seattle city attorney as an abolitionist. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it?”
Thomas-Kennedy, who is white, wanted to double-check. She later told Real Change, “If there was a BIPOC abolitionist running for city attorney, I probably would never have entered the race.”
It was the day of the filing deadline for the 2021 primary when political newcomer Thomas-Kennedy decided to challenge 12-year incumbent Pete Holmes.
Thomas-Kennedy thought her campaign was a long shot even with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement bringing abolitionist ideology increasingly into the mainstream. Abolitionist candidates have tried and failed in Seattle: Shaun Scott missed the mark for Seattle City Council Position 4 in 2019 by 4.27 percentage points; Nikkita Oliver, now a force in council’s Position 9 race, barely came third in the 2017 mayoral primary; and Andrew Grant Houston, who was the closest to an abolitionist stance in the 2021 mayoral race with plans to defund the police by 50%, ended up with only 2.68% of votes. Abolitionists don’t tend to win in Seattle.
Thomas-Kennedy did. After claiming her 36.39% share of the vote in the August primary, Thomas-Kennedy is the frontrunner for city attorney.
“What’s the difference?” asked Riall Johnson, the director of political consulting and fundraising firm Prism Washington. Johnson says he loosely refers to the firm as “radical,” but he prefers the term “common sense.” “Process of elimination: Oh, she’s white.”
Prism Washington represents Thomas-Kennedy and other candidates who align with their politics, including Houston and Scott, without “watering down their messaging.” Johnson assures Real Change that he’s doing his best to turn Seattle into the “socialist hellhole FOX News thinks it is.” Right now, Johnson works with 16 candidates around Washington state. Four of them are white. He says it is the most white people the firm has ever worked with because Prism largely exists to surmount one of the largest barriers candidates of color face: money.
According to a 2021 Prosperity Now report, 41% of households of color in Seattle are in liquid-asset poverty, meaning these households wouldn’t have money to cover the basics for more than three months if faced with job loss. The median household income for white households in Seattle is $96,333, while for Seattle Black households that median income is $39,936 and for Native households even less, at $31,519.
Running for office is always a gamble. According to Seattle’s Ethics and Elections commission, mayoral candidates for the 2021 election spent nearly $3 million combined campaigning. That’s an average of $207,163 for the 14 campaigns that raised any money. No candidate below that average was able to score double digits in terms of percent of the vote. Arthur K. Langlie, whose campaign scored perhaps the biggest bang for his buck, spent $143,069 and earned 5.55% of the vote.
Research from the University of Washington in 2019 found that, historically in U.S. elections, the vast majority of campaign donations have come from white voters and posited that this is because the majority of candidates have been white. The study found that people of color are motivated to donate when candidates of color run for office.
Candidate for Lynnwood City Council Joshua Binda, a 21 year-old Black progressive who is a Prism client, is better funded than any primary candidate in Lynnwood’s three current council races who reported to the Public Disclosure Commision. His opponent in the general election, who used to sit on the council for many years, has only reported about $400. Binda is running a $16,000 campaign, which is more closely comparable to the funding of a Lynnwood mayoral candidate.
In Thomas-Kennedy’s race, there is also the unique barrier that a candidate must be an attorney. The American Bar Association reported in 2020 that 86% of lawyers are non-Hispanic white people.
According to Johnson, the odds are affected by more than just money. His client Houston raised over $400,000, the fifth most of any candidate, and received less than 3% of the vote in the 2021 mayoral primary. When asked what went wrong in that race, Johnson said, “How much time do you have?”
“My white candidates are just allowed to exist,” he said of the difference in representing white candidates and candidates of color.
There are certain questions white candidates never have to answer. Johnson said his client Varisha Khan of Redmond City Council, Washington’s first Muslim council member, is unfairly expected to field questions about her hijab and Shariah law.
“A Black man walking up to your porch can be perceived in a much different way than a middle-aged white lady walking onto your porch, you know?” Thomas-Kennedy said. “White privilege permeates everything I do.”
It’s not that people of color are not being elected in Seattle. They are. Four of nine City Council members are Latinx, making for an overrepresentation in proportion to the city’s racial makeup. However there are currently no Black councilmembers, and 7.8% of Seattleites are Black, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.
The 2021 mayoral race was dominated by people of color. The top five best-funded candidates were all people of color, except for Jessyn Farrell. After the primary, unless there is a surprise white write-in candidate, Seattle is all but guaranteed a person of color in the mayoral seat.
But the winners of the August primary, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González, are not talking about abolition. Tye Reed, who is the campaign manager for Thomas-Kennedy, said she cannot imagine Harrell pushing reparations for Black people — she also cannot imagine Seattle responding warmly to an official proposal for reparations.
“Seattle likes to perform wokeness, and there’s nothing better than like a Black or brown person who’s a centrist being elected to office,” said Reed, who is Black. “That makes Seattle look excellent.”
A 2015 study from West Virginia University found that white voters tend to perceive Black candidates as more liberal than white candidates who adopt similar policy positions.
Reed said that though Scott, who is Black, nailed the respectability politics that white supremacy unfairly expects, Black abolitionist candidates will always come off as “unplanned, unresearched, kind of out of nowhere, coming from a place of passion.”
Johnson said many of his clients of color report their ideology being watered down at other consulting firms — “Being a person of color, you already start out radical.”
“You don’t want to get too bogged down in identity politics — a lot of people who survive in Seattle politics who aren’t white do it because they are centrist or moderates,” Reed said, adding that Kshama Sawant is the only council member openly outside of the Democratic party.
Of the primary campaign for Thomas-Kennedy, Reed said, “Being on a white person’s campaign probably meant that I was able to be in a more radical campaign than if I was on a person of color’s campaign because they will always have to watch what they’re saying about things like abolition.”
Despite white candidates’ comparative success with abolitionist platforms, Black people have been the architects of abolitionist thought in the United States, from Frederick Douglass to Angela Davis. Thomas-Kennedy said the ideas she has built a campaign around are not original but rather learned from thinkers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariam Kaba and Davis. In an email, Thomas-Kennedy said she struggles with how to communicate that she is “standing on the shoulders of BIPOC giants,” the same she has studied. She named local movements like Block the Bunker, No New Youth Jail and Decrim Seattle as well as leaders like Oliver as champions of abolitionist work in Seattle.
“These leaders and movements have led Seattle to a place where so many are aware and ready for abolition, and I would not be anywhere close to where I am without their work. That is just a fact,” Thomas-Kennedy said in an email to Real Change. “It’s also a fact that my success is due in part to my whiteness. Truthfully this makes me uncomfortable, but I try to see that discomfort as an indicator that I should check in with/collaborate with community, not that I should use my agency to back less questioned/‘safer’ ideas.”
Read more of the Sept. 1-7, 2021 issue.