Emijah Smith emerged from the scrum of progressive candidates vying to replace the retiring Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley in Washington’s 37th legislative district, aiming to keep a progressive Black woman in the seat. Billing herself as a “daughter of the district,” she spent decades working in the medical field, first at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and, after getting a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Washington, at the NW Sickle Cell Collaborative. Later, she moved on to advocacy roles, giving her a taste of the legislative process. She was motivated to advocate on behalf of her community, she said, after seeing its devastation growing up.
“I kind of describe it as zombieland,” she said. “I feel like it was really a war zone in my community.”
When Harris-Talley vacated the seat, Emijah saw an opportunity to effect more change than she could as an advocate. Her challenge, as in many of our city or state-level races that feature only Democratic candidates, is differentiating herself from her fellow candidates. If everyone has the same policy goals, it really comes down to approach. She was more than happy to outline hers, sitting down for a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from racial equity to her Ezell’s order.
Real Change: Why do you think you’ll be better at this job than your opponent?
Emijah Smith: When I think about my advocacy, it’s really about transformation. It’s about breaking status quo. I understand we’re both Democratic. I feel a little more progressive than my opponent. But I think the way that some of us are moving into this is status quo. So I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care what base you say you’re from. We really need to change status quo. And status quo does not include those who are marginalized. Particularly [those] who are unhoused, particularly if you’re working poor, unemployed, you know? It doesn’t include our voices there at those tables.
That’s a really good segue into our next question. What are the biggest issues facing the 37th?
I think they’re the biggest issues really facing us all currently. If I think of a current context, we are still in COVID. We’re still trying to move ourselves out of COVID. So health equity is huge. Housing is truly huge. It’s been an issue before COVID, but, particularly, I’ve seen it here in the 37th. Our unhoused [population] has looked different over time in my community. A lot more homeowners and a lot more couch surfers. A lot more, ‘You can go stay with your cousin.’ But the way things are moving. And I’ve watched [us going from] to not see anybody sleeping outside in the Central District, South End or Skyway to we have tents everywhere. People at bus stops. Our unhoused issue is huge, and I believe that our unhoused voices are very important and very valued.
What tactics can you use in Olympia would you use to effect change in those areas?
Being a community voice, going to the Washington State Housing and Finance Commission two sessions ago, really pushing them for equity. Because they weren’t going to give any money to Africatown Plaza in the city, Ethiopian Village, South Seattle, Elizabeth Thomas Homes in Rainer Beach, all in the 37th. It took community voice to pressure them to really see equity and center that because that wasn’t the normalized way of doing business. With regard to the Department of Commerce and really speaking with Lisa Brown it’s like, there needs to be more vouchers to get access. There needs to be the barriers removed of all the costs to even apply for a place to stay. Your background being an issue, just all the different fees. Other things that I’m doing is really trying to lean on those who have the lived experience of being unhoused.
We’re going to shift gears and ask about the kind of elephant in the room, which is like the seat is vacant because Rep. Harris-Talley vacated it. She talked about a toxic work environment, lack of support from leadership... lots of issues with working in the legislature. We’re wondering how you would handle that work environment presuming it hasn’t really changed.
I’ve seen it. I know that there’s a lot of weight placed on legislators, but because I’ve seen it, I expect it. So I can’t speak for Rep. Kristen Harris-Talley, I just have to respect her decision because some places are too toxic. And then you can be a greater influence. I thought before even taking this position, taking this opportunity, I was like, ‘Well, would I have more influence as a community organizer in Olympia than actually being a legislator?’ I believe having the power to vote would be more meaningful, to be honest.
Kind of, you know what you’re signing up for?
I do know what I’m signing up for. I think that what Kirsten Harris-Talley did was open up space really for me to come in, because I really wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, I want to become some elected official.’ And I think for me, having a clear understanding of the environment there, that definitely needs to be transformed. I think that I am a person who would be a really great change agent and bring some positive movement to help make that happen.
I’m not going to go there in one session and change it overnight because there’s a normalized way of business that’s handled there and also there’s a normalized way that community members want business to be handled in that space. So it’s really going to be a lot of seed planting that needs to happen and bringing people to meet each other where we are with respect. But also saying this is why it’s imperative that we do some transformation so that our policies — the way we do business — can move or catch up, at least, with the way we say our mindset is around advancing racial equity. Trying to bring more people to the table. Saying we value other people’s voices. Saying that we’re really about each other’s humanity. Well, if we’re really about that, I believe I’m that person who’s going to try to push that a little bit more forward.
State legislatures have taken a front line right now, given the state of national politics in some positive ways, in some very negative ways, especially around abortion rights, LGBTQIA+ protections. What is the work that you feel the Washington state legislature needs to do? Not just on those two issues, but in terms of protecting people here in Washington?
First of all, you have to stand firm. We have a majority. We can still keep a majority on the Democratic side moving forward. I think there’s some fear there with the tough on crime things and just like a lot of the rhetoric. We have to just hold firm. There are people out here in the community doing some harmful things, and they’re scaring people. They’re putting fear, they’re attacking legislators. I mean, in a sense of making threats and different things like that. And other people are watching that, so they are also kind of just being a little timid. We need to be a little bit more courageous, because the other side of the rhetoric, they are marching forward and I just think we have to just hold the line.
My value is that I do not support the [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] decision. I just want to say that. I will say I think with Roe v. Wade and the things that young people are in with, they are going to move this forward. Because I hear it in their voices right now and I just want to be a support and be in solidarity for our young people to keep moving that forward. They will hold you accountable. So I’m just saying my value system is to support the young people and stay in solidarity and open up space for their leadership. Because I was 17 when I had my “a-ha” to get me to where I am right now [on LGBTQIA+ rights]. I honor that 17-year-old.
The issue of policing has been front center since 2020. The state legislature has taken certain steps to rein in the police, like around the car chases, which have proved to be very unpopular with law enforcement groups and police unions. Do you agree with things like the car chase ban? What other things would you want to see happen? What will you do in terms of police accountability in Olympia?
I agree with whatever provides safety, and I think the car chase ban is an issue around safety. And too often it’s issues [where chases are being used] inappropriately, in my experience, right? I’m not a police officer, but in my experience as a resident. I also think what was rolled back was the Terry stops are back. And Terry stops have been problematic for decades, and they’ve been problematic particularly because they allow police officers to then have to engage unnecessarily if they just want to. I don’t think it’s always about safety or somebody particularly may have just done a crime. When you can just walk over — and I have two Black sons — so when you can just go ask them for some ID and be upset if they don’t have it or they don’t act a certain way, they could lose their life. Terry stops do not include probable cause, and I would like — if we’re going to have Terry stops to help police officers do their job well — I think probable cause needs to be included in that. When I watched the session, it was a long debate, and I think that I would want to go in there and be really a champion to get probable cause put in the language there.
You mentioned the War on Drugs and the negative impact that’s had in the community. What should the state do to address the harms that have already happened? And how does the state address overdoses or other drug related issues without re-creating those same harms going forward?
There are laws that have changed, particularly with the Robbery II, that’s been removed from the [three strikes] list; I was a fierce advocate and a catalyst to make sure that happened, making sure we were bringing community voices to Olympia to testify and getting statistics and data and all the things. In our legislature right now, they don’t want to make things retroactive. Even if you see that the data is clear, that it disproportionately has been impacting Black men in King County and Pierce County, specifically during a time when we knew the laws and policies were steeped in racism. And our legislature is saying we won’t do retroactive [amnesty]. I think that’s racist. That’s unfair and it’s unjust. People lost their jobs. They have records. If you have a record, you can’t get housing. I mean, it just puts you onto the situation that you’re either going to commit another crime for survival or you’re going to want to use drugs from the trauma of being unhoused. There should be some way to mitigate that.
And I think moving forward, we need more wraparound services, right? We’re not talking about crack anymore. We’re talking about some really harmful drugs like fentanyl where people are dying because it’s too much. We need more wraparound services. The mental health investments that we need in our state are real and they’re necessary. We are providing housing, but not enough. And then when you do provide the housing, if you don’t have the wraparound services to support those individuals, our fire department doesn’t want to go see them. The police department doesn’t want to go see them. So we can say that we’re trying to mitigate things around addiction, but if we’re not going to include wraparound services to really support people to be successful in their recovery, to be successful in their mental health, then we are lying and we’re falling short. And I say all this with passion, and I apologize for being so emotional, but I have family members with mental health issues right now.
Despite, as you pointed out, the War on Drugs criminalizing Black people at a higher rate and depriving of them of all these years of economic opportunity, they have not been enjoying any of the prosperity generated by the state’s legal cannabis industry. Do you think the social equity programs that we’re finally getting around to are enough? If not, what would you push for in Olympia to improve those and make that process go faster?
I was in, for last session, part of a group of community advocates really pushing for licensing equity to open up those licenses that would go back to the people who were most harmed by the War on Drugs. Blacks and Latinos and others. That did not pass, and it’s very disappointing. I remember when the legalization of marijuana was happening. In my mind, I’m like, “If the people who are most harm cannot get into the economic aspect or gain from this, this is going to fail us.” And I was always concerned about it to the point I wasn’t sure I wanted to vote for it. Ike’s is up on Union. I grew up in the area as well. I know people who live around there right now who have felonies on their background from just trying to survive, and now you have somebody pushing the same stuff. It’s very disrespectful.
Right now, enough is not happening. There’s great ideas. There’s great recommendations. But there’s blockages in the legislature. Which is being stated [as], “Well, you can’t direct it to the Black community or to Latino community,”but you could put language in there and say, “To those who are most harmed. To those who are historically marginalized.” You could have put that in language, and then you’ll better understand that it makes sense because people can build a case to say, “Well, I’m historically marginalized in this community.”
But the legislature still didn’t move that. And I’m disappointed again because it makes Washington State look like a hypocrite in terms of its quote unquote progressive values. So I definitely will continue to bring in that racial justice lens and try to center around that and figure out the language, because that language of “historically marginalized” or “historically harmed” has been used and been successful in other legislative wins.
On homelessness — it’s a big question and I don’t expect you to answer it in its totality — but essentially why do you feel that people become homeless? And what are the maybe top three ways that the state legislature can impact that in the foreseeable future?
I know the housing issue is a complex one, right? So I’m not going to say I have all the answers. I do think that people are homeless by design. I truly believe that. An example that I want to share is in my community, the historical Black community, [homelessness got worse] when they started moving gentrification to start taking people’s homes, because as a community we will bring you in. We’re going to be intergenerational, we’re going to share bedrooms, we’re going to keep you from outside. But when the drugs came in and gentrification is happening, there’s federal policy that I can take your home if somebody is using drugs in your house. That’s how I lost my childhood home. Somebody was in there, they battle rammed it, took it from my grandfather. You sell it off to somebody else. Who’s going to house our unhoused? You don’t have a place to do that [anymore]. I believe it’s by design
Of course, there’s personal circumstances where people have mental health issues and addiction and people are focused on that. I’ve studied what it does to the brain. I needed to do that. So people aren’t thinking about that until they’re ready, right? Until they’re ready to deal with that addiction and get a hold of it. So they’ll do anything and they’ll lose everything and they let things go. So people can be unhoused that way as well.
But I will tell you, of the people I know who have addiction issues, if they can go into a place that’s warm, they will. I haven’t met too many people with addictions that just want to be in the elements. They want to be warm, they want to have housing, they want to have shelter. It’s just that our policies, again, make it challenging.
We want to ask about the tax code, the upside down tax code. What’s your opinion on the current tax code in the state? And, if you are not satisfied with it, what parts of it would you like to change?
I think it’s a regressive tax code. I’m not satisfied with it. Most of my life, I have been a low-income single mom trying to make ends meet, and I really dislike the fact that we have so many millionaires and even billionaires in our region and the burden of a [regressive] tax. I think about really low-income folks working, those who aren’t really working, making ends meet. I think about undocumented folks who work and pay taxes and that tax burden that falls on them. It’s not necessary for Washington to have such a regressive tax code. And the fight to change it, watching over the years the different initiatives to try to make change and how they fail. It’s been us as citizens who are not moving it forward.
I personally think we can make it to the other side. That’s just me. And I think that I would love to stay part of a community that wants to keep trying to educate us and to champion that. We have to. So of course we’ve got to do capital gains tax. Of course we’ve got to do all the things on the state level to bring in more revenue. Corporations need to pay. I think that the billion-dollar tax and the estate tax should happen. I’m in support of all those progressive choices that we’ve been moving forward thus far, to be honest, and I just think it’s time to keep bringing it forward. I think the people are ready now.
A related question: As you pointed out, those fights to change the tax code have been lost. At the initiative level and because of the lack of popular support. And so for issues like that, where maybe you as one state representative can’t change it that much with just your vote or just the way you write something in the bill, what do you see as the role of doing messaging and being vocal? How do you see your role as a lawmaker in that regard? Is that something you intend to do, to be loud, to be in the media a lot?
Yes. I think you have to tell this story, and media advocacy would be really huge. I definitely would play a role in the media to talk about it where a person can really understand. I do not go to the average person talking and using the word policy. It doesn’t work. I’ve worked with families. You have to talk about a program or support or resource that people are benefiting from right now and rely on. I take that as the issue. Apple Health for Kids, for example. And then I talk about how that happened on the state level and how that is state money and how I’m connected to the state. I bring it that way.
I don’t jump into people’s faces about policy. It’s not the everyday language of the everyday person. I would love to educate more community members and neighbors about it so that they can vote in their own interest. We don’t vote. We don’t get engaged because we don’t believe that it’s going to change for us. And so I would like to use my voice — as I do — to help people understand that this is why we have to stay engaged. Even in my run, people are like, ”I’m done. Oh, but you’re going to do it. I’ll vote for you.” But there’s still a lack of interest there: “Let me just pay my taxes. I’m just going to pay my taxes. There’s always going to be a tax.” I’m like, “No.”
You should get something for it!
We definitely should!
So we save the most controversial question for last. What’s your favorite place in your district?
There is not one favorite place.
A politician already!
Well, I took my picture down at Seward Park because there’s a loop. It is a very healing place for me. It’s a place where I get to go grieve and cry and do all the things that I need to do. It’s in nature. It’s very peaceful. It’s very joyful. I’m emotional a little bit because I’m still processing my father’s passing last year. So that’s really a sanctuary place for me. There’s Garfield High School. Because as a 17-year-old, it was a prominent place for me to really get engaged around the issues that bring me here to this conversation now. And then there’s Douglass-Truth Library on Yesler because it’s always been a happy place where I went as a child and played, went to the library, looked at the books. Those are really some of the best places for me that keep me going when there’s joyful space.
As a Garfield alumni, what’s your Ezell’s order? Did you go to Ezell’s in high school?
Of course. You gotta get the Snack Pack!
Okay, so, spicy or regular? That’s my question.
Regular. I don’t do spicy. What’s your order?
Three piece dark snack pack, spicy. I like the spicy!
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Oct. 5-11, 2022 issue.