Seattle's 51-day City Council member
Kirsten Harris-Talley brought passion and activism to her short stint in public office
Public hearings that lasted five hours. Days packed with back-to-back events and meetings. Sleepless nights wrestling with homelessness solutions — even taking to the streets to spend the night in a tent outside City Hall.
Kirsten Harris-Talley may not have anticipated any of this earlier this year before she considered serving on the Seattle City Council. But it’s now her lived experience, one that continues to stoke an interest in local politics.
“One of the things that was interesting were messages I would get from some folks that they had assumed, coming in an interim, I was supposed to be some facsimile of Tim Burgess,” Harris-Talley explains. But her relatively short tenure — arguably the shortest ever served on the council — was anything but a rubber stamp of Burgess.
Harris-Talley arrived to the council after the notorious chain of events forced the resignation of Mayor Ed Murray. Bruce Harrell became interim mayor but when he didn’t want the job, it went to Councilmember Tim Burgess. Suddenly, his Position 8 seat stood vacant. A total of 16 people applied to fill that position short-term.
On a Friday afternoon in early October, Harris-Talley won the council’s vote over former Councilmember Nick Licata and former City Council candidate Abel Pacheco. Her appointment came as a surprise to some who follow city politics and who assumed a more well-known politician would nab the appointment.
“While I have a short timeline to contribute my expertise in consideration of this year’s budget, I plan to focus my priorities on the work that I’ve been working on for so many years,” Harris-Talley said after being quickly sworn in.
In her application letter, she had detailed her “commitment to movement building” and noted her nonprofit experience, activism and community leadership that brought people together and made change.
She is only the second African-American woman to serve on the Seattle City Council. Sherry D. Harris served from 1992 to 1995.
Like her predecessor, Harris-Talley has been a tireless civil rights advocate and activist around town, fighting for criminal justice reform with #NoNewYouthJail and #BlocktheBunker campaigns. The 38-year-old is the program director at local nonprofit Progress Alliance of Washington, which advocates on behalf of marginalized communities in Seattle. She’s also one of 47 owners of the Black & Tan Hall, a community performance venue and restaurant that’s a symbol of the fight against gentrification: a business built by the Rainier Valley community for the Rainier Valley community.
She lives in Hillman City with her husband, Jason, a program coordinator at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and their two children.
Harris-Talley strongly supported Nikkita Oliver and her Seattle Peoples Party campaign for mayor. After Oliver lost to Cary Moon in the primary, the grassroots party continued to fight for a voice at City Hall. It rallied the local activist communities and pushed for an open selection process in appointing an interim council member. It called for a public forum that allowed each candidate a chance to explain why they were best suited for the job. Harris-Talley had always been the Party’s preferred candidate, and, in the end, she got the job.
“The Peoples Party is continuing to open up opportunities for on-the-ground organizers or people who have very close ties to the community to step into roles of leadership,” says Jackie Mena, a member of the Seattle Peoples Party and a staffer on Oliver’s mayoral campaign who later became a legislative aide for Harris-Talley. “Kirsten identifies as someone who’s part of the community. She stands up for the folks who are giving public comment or who are in the audience. She’s like, ‘Yeah, take up space, make us listen.’”
Harris-Talley had one overarching goal during her 51-day tenure: Ensure that the city’s annual $5.6 billion budget adequately addressed Seattle’s ongoing homelessness epidemic. Her biggest legislative victory would be a $436,470 budget line that will fund four new positions in the City’s Human Services Department, which handles homelessness programs.
“I was not prepared to let the mayor-elect come in and not have [Human Services] in a really good position to do the quality work that it needed to do,” Harris-Talley says.
She officially relinquishes her seat from the City Council today (Nov. 28), which is when Teresa Mosqueda is sworn in as her replacement. Burgess will step down; Jenny Durkan will be the new Seattle Mayor.
Here’s a look back at Kirsten Harris-Talley’s 51 days in office.
Harris-Talley talks to a central staff team member behind-the-scenes at City Hall, standing in front of the city’s original seal.
Three views of the city’s “houselessness” epidemic
On Nov. 1, the City Council held a public comment session on how to allocate city funding for homelessness. Five hours of testimony ensued.
“150 people got two to three minutes to speak,” Harris-Talley says. “It was the most valuable five hours we had.”
Afterward, Harris-Talley joined Councilmember Kshama Sawant outside City Hall where dozens of people camped in tents and housing activists held workshops on how to draw public attention to the homelessness crisis.
Harris-Talley pitched a tent and slept in it overnight.
A week later, Harris-Talley took her family to St. James Cathedral to pay her respects at the ‘Mass for the Deceased Homeless.’ Toward the end of her term, she toured Nickelsville Othello, a city-sanctioned encampment that houses 60 people in Rainier Valley. With her 6-year-old daughter Cora at her side, they met various residents, at one point stepping into one of the tiny houses. Cora offered a gift to a young child.
Harris-Talley has adopted the vernacular of activists, making a point to refer to the city’s homeless population as “houseless.”
“The houselessness problem is growing faster than we can get folks off the street. Period. For every one person, two or three folks on average are displaced in our city right now. The problem is literally outpacing us.” she said.
Trying to allocate funds to address “houselessness” was not easy. But it was the one that presented itself as the Council took on negotiating the city’s annual budget.
Budget committee meetings dominated many of her days from early to mid-November.
“I found myself last night listening to the wind howl and rainfall, thinking what it must be like to find yourself outside, as I was warm in my bed lamenting that we don’t have a budget. It was a long night,” Harris-Talley told her council colleagues during the first of two consecutive days debating the budget.
She and Councilmember Mike O’Brien pushed in support of an Employee Hours Tax that could have potentially raised between $20-25 million in funding for homelessness, housing and criminal justice reform.
“We have a unique opportunity right now to walk our talk and make this decision,” she urged her colleagues.
But after a passionate debate, the proposed tax failed 5-4.
“I’m not going to say I’m not disappointed. I’m hugely disappointed. All we had to do was follow your lead,” Harris-Talley said to a group of dejected housing activists who had advocated for the tax. She vowed to keep pushing for the tax and hold the Council accountable even after she returned to life as a private citizen.
Harris-Talley, surrounded by her legislative staff, sits slumped in her chair, somewhat defeated after the first of two consecutive days debating the city’s budget with council members. Moments before, the Employee Hours Tax she proposed with Councilmember Mike O’Brien had failed.
A devoted staff, a supportive spouse
Behind the scenes, Harris-Talley relied on her all-female staff — Joselynn Tokashiki Engstrom, Sarah Mayes, Jackie Mena, Leslea Bowling and Shani Jones — to get her through her 51-days. But they were each hired because they had a background in social justice work and political activism — and they had all, at some point, crossed paths with the councilmember.
“I could not have assembled a better team, even if I had weeks and weeks to do it. All the people in this room agreed within 48 hours of getting the phone call from me, which was wonderful. And I feel amazingly lucky to have had all these women say ‘Yes’ when I asked.”
The amiable Harris-Talley always looked comfortable out in the community.
Among her staff’s work was making sure Harris-Talley had plenty of face time with her constituents — something Harris-Talley always looked like she enjoyed doing.
“I don’t think you can be in a position where you’re representing the people and not actually be with the people,” she said.
“Because I already come from community and activism circles, I think we were in a wonderfully unique position where more folks did reach out and we could respond very quickly to say ‘Yes, we’ll participate.’”
Harris-Talley balanced her council job with parenting duties. Before morning council briefings, she’d drop Cora off at elementary school in Columbia City then take Light Rail with two-year-old Malcolm to preschool on Beacon Hill.
“Jason (her husband of 17 years) had a lot more bedtime duty than usual just because some of my nights ran a little later,” she said. “The hardest times were when I was on the dais and our time would go over. I’d be texting Jason like ‘Hey, I’m sorry you’re picking up both kids tonight.’”
Before taking light rail to City Hall, Harris-Talley commutes with Malcolm to his daycare on Beacon Hill. A Seattle resident for 13 years, she often runs into people she knows.
Will she seek public office again?
Her steadfast belief in reforming the criminal justice system returned her squarely to her activist roots one Saturday morning when she joined police reform advocate Andre’ Taylor at an event at the Central Area Senior Center. Taylor, whose brother Che was killed by Seattle police in 2016, is working to pass I-940, a statewide initiative that would reform policing standards and change the use-of-force statute.
Some 20 people, almost all white, listened as Taylor lobbied attendees for signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Harris-Talley spoke about the value of organizations like Taylor’s De-Escalate Washington, which often gives a voice to the voiceless.
“The thing I love about De-Escalate Washington is that it’s a community-led coalition. It’s one of the largest black, brown and native-led coalitions that we’ve ever seen in our state to formulate the law. This didn’t come out of some fancy ivory tower elitism policy wonks somewhere — and trust me, a lot of our policy happens that way. It came from folks who are impacted. It came from these communities,” she said.
Harris-Talley returns to her nonprofit advocacy job at Progress Alliance next week. Whether she’ll seek political office again is up in the air, even though time and time again people she met at events urged her to run for Council Position 2, which is currently occupied by Council President Bruce Harrell. His term expires in 2019.
“People have told me, ‘When you run, your whole family runs,’” she said. “When the chaos is all over, my husband and I get to sit and have a conversation to see if it’s doable for our family for me to even consider that.”
In the meantime, Harris-Talley will literally leave her mark behind at City Hall — in the second-floor councilmember office that used to be hers for the past 51 days.
With the help of staff, she selected the artwork that hangs on the office walls. During a recent meeting with Mosqueda, she told Harris-Talley: I think the only thing I’ll change in here is the couch. But I’ll keep the art.
At her council office, Harris-Talley is visited by Teresa Mosqueda shortly after Mosqueda’s election to the City Council. On Nov. 28, Mosqueda will be sworn in, officially replacing Harris-Talley in Position 8.