Discussing the Nicole Thomas-Kennedy campaign with Riall Johnson
Release Date: 11/18/2021
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Riall Johnson, Principal Partner at Prism West consulting, joins Crystal to talk about Nicole Thomas-Kennedy's campaign for Seattle City Attorney, the funding mechanisms behind the scenes in Seattle politics, and the future of progressive candidates in Washington.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
"Where Urbanists and Progressives Go from Poor 2021 Showing" by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist https://www.theurbanist.org/2021/11/05/where-urbanists-and-progressives-go-from-poor-2021-showing/
"Abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy Announces Last-Minute Run for City Attorney" by Mark Van Streefkerk from The South Seattle Emerald: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/06/10/abolitionist-nicole-thomas-kennedy-announces-last-minute-run-for-city-attorney/
"Two Seattle candidates reflect rise of abolitionism in U.S. politics" by Lilly Ana Fowler from KNKX Public Radio: https://www.knkx.org/politics/2021-10-21/two-seattle-candidates-reflect-rise-of-abolitionism-in-u-s-politics
"Seattle's Choice: A Police Abolitionist or a Law-and-Order Republican?" by Mike Baker from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/30/us/seattle-city-attorney-election.html
Ann Davison's 2019 Homelessness Plan: https://twitter.com/ericacbarnett/status/1450516851503501314
"Abolitionist Candidates Are Running for Office Across the Country" by Gennette Cordova from Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/abolitionist-candidates-running-for-office
"Seattles Divide on Public Safety is Fueling a Fight Over Next Year's Police Budget" by Ben Adlin from The South Seattle Emerald: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/11/15/seattles-divide-on-public-safety-is-fueling-a-fight-over-next-years-police-budget/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at OfficialHacksAndWonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I'm thrilled to be welcoming back to the program Riall Johnson. Hello Riall.
[00:00:43] Riall Johnson: Hello.
[00:00:45] Crystal Fincher: Hey, so you have worked with a lot of candidates before and this cycle, including a candidate that lots of people were extremely excited about - unfortunately just shy of 50% it looks like - Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. How was it working with Nicole?
[00:01:05] Riall Johnson: Well, Nicole herself is awesome - she's great. I was sold on Day One when I met her - so, and lucky that Day One was the deadline of filing day. So, it's an interesting story how we met was when, I guess, Pete Holmes was about to not have a challenger, someone introduced me to Nicole, said, "This person wants to run and run on an abolition platform." I was already busy - we're down to the deadline for the filing and getting ready to do all the other stuff for the pamphlets - I actually took on two other clients that week, same week, actually three other clients. So, my whole staff was pretty mad at me already, like, "Why do you bring it on?" and it's like, Oh yeah, by the way, it's a citywide race we're going to take on. Because when the person introduced me, I was like, "Yeah, I'm pretty busy. I don't know, but I'm happy to give some advice." And then I met Nicole, I was like, "All right, we're going to do this." And we filed.
[00:02:02] Crystal Fincher: And turned it around really quick. I remember when that was coming up, people were wondering if Pete Holmes was going to be unopposed. I think that there was an article written shortly before that being like, "Pete Holmes is not going to have a challenger. Are, are people actually happy with him?" And everyone behind-the-scenes is like, "No, no, very much not." But trying to find someone who was capable of mounting a campaign - and then Nicole Thomas-Kennedy stepped forward, you got together with her, and rolled out a really exciting seeming campaign. And someone that had a message that was resonating with a lot of people, especially in the primary. So how did that unfold?
[00:02:50] Riall Johnson: It felt like - because it was actually the kind of campaign that I kind of exist for. I started this company to help really progressive clients have that advantage - to be able to start from scratch. So, almost all our candidates that we have - we had about 17 this year - and they all come from the community. They come from like almost nothing. A lot of them, they don't have this pre-backing. They can't really self-fund the campaigns. They don't get to loan the campaign $6,000 or put $20 grand of their own money - everything they do starts from scratch. And when you do that, it's really hard - you're at a disadvantage already, especially if you're challenging an establishment candidate - someone that already has the money, already has the foundation, they're in that structure already.
Almost all of our candidates were first-time candidates. We had one incumbent this year. And it's just amazing to watch, I think, these people decide that they have the power to do that. And they've been advocating all these issues at an activist level - protesting, marching, lobbying, all these stuff, organizing mutual aid. And then all of the sudden they actually see an avenue that's like, "Well, if we run for office we can actually do more." And then they do it. And then sometimes they win.
And so we've had that history. And so this is kind of what we exist for - Nicole to be able to say, "There was an opportunity to actually bring abolition into the conversation, into the political sphere in Seattle." And I had to jump at that chance 'cause I actually like Pete Holmes, I'm actually friends with him, and I think he's-
[00:04:40] Crystal Fincher: Really?
[00:04:41] Riall Johnson: Yeah. Actually, Pete Holmes actually supported - he was more emotional support, I guess. He always liked what I was doing - we used to - I've interacted with him. So, it was nothing against, for me personally, about going against Pete Holmes. I just couldn't turn this client down - it's a business thing. No one's - also, Pete Holmes wasn't paying me to stay out the race either. So, no one pays me to stay out of these races. So, if you're worried about me messing things up and bringing people all these challenges from the left, it's kind of an F you, pay me situation, that's what I say - I'm censoring myself. But also it's like no one pays me and my company to stay out and that's not what would keep us out anyway. The thing is people hire us to give them a voice and help them build that - build their platforms, build their campaigns, and give them a chance to win. And that's led to historic wins, like Varisha Kahn or Carolina Mejia. We just got the first Black woman elected up in Whatcom County in county history. We got the youngest-
[00:05:44] Crystal Fincher: That was a big win and that came through late in the count. I'm excited about that.
[00:05:48] Riall Johnson: Yes, Kristina Michele is dope as hell, and can't wait to see what she's going to do there.
But, I guess, back to Nicole - you want to hear about Nicole. This was a dream come true, in a way, for me to say, "Here's a chance to actually insert, talk about real, real reform, not just these moderate incremental reforms - really talk about overhauling the justice system with abolitionist mindset." And the platform to say, "We can have a better world. We can have a better city. We don't have to be going down this path that we're doing, where it's just recycling the same things. Recycling people in and out of the justice system without services, and putting the people constantly in worse situations." The narrative that we wanted to fight was that this - it's funny how Pete Holmes was facing a battle on the right who were saying that he's not punishing people enough. And we're saying you're actually punishing people too much, and you're not getting to the root of the problem. If you just keep putting people in jail and then just let them out, when they get out of jail they're in a worse situation than they were before.
[00:07:00] Crystal Fincher: Right.
[00:07:00] Riall Johnson: A lot of people who are arrested - they have jobs, they have maybe a place they're couch-surfing, or they might have an apartment, or they have a car. And all that is gone when they get out.
[00:07:09] Crystal Fincher: Particularly when we're talking about misdemeanors, yeah.
[00:07:11] Riall Johnson: Exactly. And the thing is the trial rate in Seattle - the prosecution only wins about 37-38% of the time. So Nicole's undefeated - she's never lost a trial because these charges are so arbitrary - what you're arresting people for, a lot of them just fall apart and they usually end up just pleading out because they get threat of a felony, or threat of a - people just want to get out of jail so they can get back to their work, get back to living. So, a lot of people just plead out even when they're not guilty. And it's just the thing is - the problem I saw - this was a chance to fight, to actually highlight what's actually wrong with it. In the way, from the left perspective, an abolitionist perspective, to say, "This is actually what's wrong with what we're doing. And if we actually just put people in homes, it's a win-win for everybody." Less people in jail - rich NIMBYs would see less homeless people, because that's their biggest gripe - I have to see these homeless people in the park. And I was like, "Well, then give them housing. Pay your taxes and give them housing and you won't have to worry about it."
[00:08:23] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, do the things that actually make us more safe. And it turns out that meeting people's basic needs, that addressing the issues that put people in positions where they're making some of those choices is much more effective at stopping that behavior than punishing someone or just throwing them in jail and doing nothing to address any of the underlying issues.
So and I think people appreciate - I think some people have a misconception about political consultants sometimes. That this is just for the money and it is just because - we don't actually care about these issues. And I know that you typically get involved with candidates and campaigns that you do care about. And who oftentimes are - those candidates may have a hard time finding many people who are willing to lend their professional backing and actually spend their time and resources on those campaigns. Because a lot of people don't know that sometimes a lot of the non-marquee races that are not in the City of Seattle and in other places are not where - a lot of other consultants are not there. There's not a ton of money to be made working with some of those candidates, and so there's just the absence of people able to help in those races - willing and able to help in those races. And you have taken those on for a long time.
So, you take on Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, you are rolling along in the primary and lots of people start asking, "Okay, is this just to make a point about Pete Holmes or are you actually trying to win?" When did you start putting together, Okay, we're not just a thorn in Pete Holmes's side, we actually have a shot to get through this primary and to maybe win this race?
[00:10:19] Riall Johnson: Yeah. We saw that probably in July when - one, when the Seattle Times endorsed Ann Davison. That actually - it was more so not that we were worried about - we were thinking we were going to win - we were actually almost worried we weren't going to make it through. Because at first, when we filed, Ann Davison hadn't filed yet. She filed an hour after us. So, 10 minutes, literally, right after we did. So, it became a three-way race. And if Ann Davison didn't file it would have gone straight to the general.
[00:10:55] Crystal Fincher: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
[00:10:57] Riall Johnson: So we had to fight to get through the primary, which essentially ended up putting us at a disadvantage in the general because we had to spend all our money to get into the primary. Meanwhile, Ann Davison didn't spend anything - she didn't have to, she didn't have the money to spend. She spent $35,000, we spent $187,000.
And when we saw - okay, well, we had to get about - we were shooting for about 30%. We thought we needed about 30% to get through the primary. We ended up getting 36% and that was shocking. That was actually shocking to us, pleasantly shocking. We were going for 30% - we think if we get under 25% we're not going to make it through, because we didn't think Ann was going to get more than 15-20%. But then the Times endorsement happened and that kind of changed the scenario - sadly, that's how it is. And then Ann Davison actually got more votes in the primary than Scott Lindsay did in the general of 2017.
So, that whole thing is - when you look at the whole narrative that was built up against Pete Holmes from the right, with the Seattle is Dying, the Soul of Seattle - just constant bombardment he was facing on the right, it was mostly - and then when you see why, it wasn't so much they don't give a crap about the homeless - was that censored enough? It's ironic - we talk about this campaign, I got to censor myself. It's not like the rich give a **** about the homeless, they only care about their taxes. The main thing, the reason they were opposed to Pete Holmes is they saw it - The Times and other corporations saw it as a chance to get someone in that's not going to defend the JumpStart Tax, or any taxation on the rich. And they took that opportunity, and we ended up squeezing Pete Holmes out.
So, yeah, we saw that around July - Pete might not actually make it. All three of us are scrambling to get through the primary. And it became an even three-way race. We saw that polling where so many people were undecided. So, it was kind of around July - early July, late June - we saw we might have a shot. Especially when we saw that. And when we were raising money - when we got the money raised and we saw the response, it just kept building and building. First, it was like you think we're going to challenge him, we're going to try to bring to light these issues. And then of course it just kept building, building, building - it was like, Oh, we have a chance. I would not have bet that Ann would have made it through. I thought it was going to be us and Pete, but that's how it worked out.
[00:13:37] Crystal Fincher: And that's at the stage - those would have been two very different races. A race that you would have run against Pete Holmes would have very different dimensions than a race that you ended up running against Ann Davison. Two very different candidates - Pete with a long record, who is a Democrat, and Ann Davison, who last year declared herself to be a Republican in Trump's Republican Party, running for Lieutenant Governor with the state. Very different candidates.
So, you wind up making it through the general election. Pete Holmes doesn't make it through. And so now you're facing this person who previously ran as a Republican, who I think you correctly saw that - fundamentally for the big money behind this race, this was about them not wanting - it was about the hoarding of money. It's them not wanting to be taxed. It was them not wanting to pay what I would consider, and a lot of Seattleites consider, their fair share in giving back to the City that they are profiting so handsomely off of. And wanting to have Seattle residents and Washington residents bear the brunt of the social costs that are a result of us not funding services for the residents who live here, and continue to give tax breaks, and continue to do the things that have allowed them to have record-breaking profits, including throughout the pandemic. And defending the JumpStart Tax, which is going to help a lot of people, is near the top of that list.
As well as continuing talk - if people are concerned about crime, there's almost no bigger more frequent crime than wage theft here in the City of Seattle and most places. So actually going after the types of crimes that are affecting the majority of the people was not going to wind up in their favor also. And so they certainly used a lot of scare tactics that we saw to get through. As you were laying out the plan for the general election, what was your plan in terms of message? What was your theory going into the general election, how you were going to get through it?
[00:16:08] Riall Johnson: Well, of course the general election was - we wanted to more highlight, shift into talking about the civil side - like the JumpStart Tax, wage theft, rental protections. Because the civil side is two-thirds of the department - it's twice as big as the criminal side. The funny thing is - it's funny how we're going up against a Republican and we're actually preaching - our policies are actually smaller government. And the stuff that Davison was talking about was actually big government. She wants to double the jail population, technically quintuple the jail population. She's literally talking about putting 2,000 homeless people in a concentration camp - that's their policy. That's what she wants to do. And it was just ironic how when you go against conservatives, and it's like this shouldn't even be a conversation - you think Seattle is aware of these things. But the thing is - people vote emotionally. And we wanted to focus on the policies and the platforms and stuff, highlight that our candidate was way more experienced, our platform was more solid, it actually saves everybody money, protects working class folks, working folks, protects renters, and actually helps homeless people on a more fundamental level because we want to divert things into the root causes of things.
But, of course, that all got derailed when old tweets came out. And that's what people - it ended up scaring them and I think made the difference. This race is going to be about 48-52 - we're at 47-53 right now - it's going to be 48-52 probably after today. And sadly that was the narrative - that was what we were hearing on the doors. That was what we were hearing. We ended up allowing them - gave them that ammo to use to scare a lot of moderate Democrats.
[00:18:16] Crystal Fincher: Well, that was an interesting thing - and certainly campaigns on the inside are a lot different than - there's a lot more going on than what we see from the outside. And so I think a lot of people are wondering about a number of things. Okay, so you have these tweets - seemingly these tweets have existed, people know these tweets exist. That's what ended up dominating so much of the conversation and what the opposition was determined to use against Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. I think most of us, especially those of us who are online, completely see that within context.
But there's a lot of Seattle, we're talking 250,000 voters total - most of whom are not very online, most of whom don't pay attention to politics. The majority of people can't name anyone on the City Council. Lots of people can't name who the mayor is. I think sometimes it's really easy to underestimate how many people are just not connected to anything happening politically, and just start tuning in once they see a ballot arrive in their mailbox. So, once they start getting bombarded by information and the $500,000 of spending that the Ann Davison campaign and the Independent Expenditures on their behalf are going, and once the media has started to focus and hyperfocus on the tweets as presented by your opponents, what was the game plan there?
[00:19:57] Riall Johnson: The game plan was to just shift as much as possible into talking about what I just - we had a plan to ramp up what we were planning on doing, actually, the general. Obviously you can't talk about abolition without - you've got to explain it, because everyone gets a kneejerk reaction. When people get a kneejerk reaction to defunding the police, but then when you talk to them about it - so if we actually had other programs that would actually cost less, so there would be less of the need for police, then people are like, "Oh yeah, that sounds great." Well, that's really what defunding is or that's what abolition is - is creating other systems, building better platforms and services so we don't have to depend on police and prisons and jails. And actually saves us money.
But the thing is - this is a national problem we have, where if you don't really educate people on what you're talking about constantly, the other side will do it for you. So, people already had what abolition was in their mind before we even talked to them. It was anarchy, it was chaos, it was riots.
[00:21:00] Crystal Fincher: And because of the bombardment of communications from your opponent. They took it upon themselves to beat people over the head with mail and commercials and digital ads painting chaos. And all of these images of, like you said, trying to paint Nicole Thomas-Kennedy as basically an anarchist, violent chaos candidate. And they used several of those words. So, how did you see the possibility - one, it seems like we were on that tweet conversation for a long time, which certainly your opponents loved and perpetuated. And just the amount of communication from the other side was enormous. Were you trying to counter that?
[00:21:54] Riall Johnson: Of course we did, it's just hard to because you're outspent. We did the vouchers - the voucher cap is $375,000 for both primary and general combined. And that's supposed to even - I won't say the voucher evens the playing field - another candidate client of mine said it best a couple of years ago - it gets you on the playing field. So, it allowed Nicole to - and we actually out-fundraised everybody in the primary. But we had to spend it all, because it's malpractice to not spend all your money in the primary if you don't know you're going to get through. If you're not 100% sure you're going to get through, you spend it all.
The thing is we spent $187,000, and had $187,500 to the dime. Ann spent all her money, but it was only $35,000. Ann didn't even qualify for the vouchers in the primary. Pete qualified at the very end, so Pete didn't - Pete didn't take us serious, didn't take any of it serious to his own detriment. So, the thing is - when you get through, Ann getting through without having to spend - not even qualifying - she ended up qualifying in the general, and then gets to raise up to $375,000 in the general. It's pretty easy once you get there. The vouchers come in naturally, as they come. People just throw vouchers at you. So, she got to raise and spend $340,000 before the cap got lifted, so she even got really $400,000 to spend. We only can spend $200,000, because we already spent to get through the primary. So, that was a disadvantage.
Then, of course, you count the other $400,000 of independent money that came in, and we probably had, what? $9,000-$10,000 spent for us, I think. I can't remember what it was. Someone started a PAC somewhere and threw $5,000 for us and $5,000 against Ann. Meanwhile they had $400,000 to spend, mostly against us. So, we were outspent not just two-to-one - roughly, in the general, we were outspent three-to-one.
[00:24:02] Crystal Fincher: Just from the campaign, not even considering the external - other PACs who were aligned.
[00:24:09] Riall Johnson: Two-to-one on the campaign side and then double that. So, yeah, three- or four-to-one. We were at a spending disadvantage. The thing is, I'm used to that - I'm used to being outspent. I am almost always outspent by campaigns because all my clients are progressives and they're always going up against moderate and established candidates that get that funding from big business. That's almost all my clients. So, we're used to that. We usually find a good way to counterpunch. We have to be extra savvy on our press and social media, which I think we were. We did everything possible to counter that. It's just hindsight is always 20/20. You think you're doing everything right, but no one's ever run a perfect election until you get 100% voter turnout. Until everyone in an election votes, no one's ever going to run a perfect campaign.
The thing is - I am extremely proud of the campaign that we ran, what Nicole put out. It just wasn't enough. And the thing is what we need to do is - obviously look at what we did wrong, but also we need to really support and amplify what we did right.
[00:25:27] Crystal Fincher: Right.
[00:25:27] Riall Johnson: There were two abolition candidates that got through the primary and were major contenders on the citywide race, not just a district race but a citywide race. If we brought that up, if we said two years ago this was going to happen, everyone would laugh at us.
[00:25:48] Crystal Fincher: If you would have said it a year ago - I was literally in a meeting just before this where we were talking. It was like - if you would have said a year ago that a candidate in a citywide race, leading with abolition, running for City Attorney. Or any candidate for a citywide position, talking about abolition loudly and proudly, would have gotten over 40%, over 45%, people just would have kicked you out of the room. There's no way they would have taken that seriously. That was not deemed as possible.
And you hear conversation about, well, was this just a repudiation of progressive messages? And one thing that I think people need to understand is that - absolutely not. One, the opposition had to parrot progressive messages in order to be included in this. They bent over backwards to avoid talking about being a Republican, to try and seem like they were in line with Seattle values, and had to spend half a million dollars to try and paint Nicole Thomas-Kennedy as some extremist. And just barely squeaked out the win. I think a lot of people sometimes - and this irritates me every time - look at Election Night, when we know returns are wildly incomplete, where we only have 30%-40% of returns in, and those are going to be the most conservative returns. And try and paint a narrative on that, which is always irresponsible and doesn't make any sense. When we look at what actually happened and that this is a close campaign - wow, the amount of voters in Seattle who don't even want incremental change, who understand that we need to fundamentally change the way we are doing business in Seattle and we're handling things in the criminal legal system is humongous. So, I definitely think there's a lot to celebrate.
And just structurally, I've talked about this before, but citywide races are really expensive to run. You can't advertise on Facebook - the avenues to spread your candidate's message are limited and the only way you are able to do that is by paying to communicate directly with candidates. So, it automatically out the gate favors big money interests. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy was unknown before this thing, and most candidates are not successful on their first run. Most candidates are not successful on a second run. To come up with this number, to come within a couple percentage points of winning, is really impressive for a first-time candidate.
And so just from the campaign perspective, from a consultant perspective, this is a better result than I think most people thought was possible when you were walking in this race, when you just look at the structural elements and what typically happens in this kind of situation. I hear questions, and again things can look different from inside a campaign than outside of it. Two big questions that I hear from people looking at this campaign, aside from questioning whether or not this was a repudiation of abolition or progressive values. It's the tweets, man. The tweets were such a big issue. Did you see that issue coming? And if you had to handle it over again, would there be anything that you would do differently?
[00:29:20] Riall Johnson: One, I would have probably scrubbed them from the start. But that wasn't my focus. When I met Nicole it was just go, go, go, let's get this campaign going. I probably would have - normally you make a campaign website, put the person on private or something. Even then, there's way to find tweets even if you delete them. So, there's really no way to cover it all up - you got the wayback machine. So, we just had to stand by them.
But also - I hope anyone that's listening to this - know that I agree with what she said. I think what she said to the police, they deserved it. The way they were behaving, what they were doing to people - they deserved every single word Nicole said to them. And that's the funny thing people forget. Oh, you used violent words. They were doing violent actions. They were literally abusing people on the streets and teargassing us. I was there and Nicole was there. So, I have no sympathy. And if people want her to apologize, I'm like, "Apologize to who?" The cops have never apologized for killing us, they don't apologize for beating us. They falsely arrested hundreds of people during that time. They didn't apologize for any of that. So, when they apologize, maybe Nicole might think about it. Nicole stood her ground. I asked her if she wanted to apologize. It was like, apologize to who? Edward56732567? MAGA2024? That's who she's responding to. I'm not worried if she's going to apologize to random named bunch of numbers on Twitter. If you saw those tweets and you think you owe them an apology, no. I'm sorry, she wasn't talking at you. She was talking at trolls and the abusive police - and they deserved every word. That's how I feel. That's how Nicole feels, and that's how a lot of people that support us feel.
Going back on that - how you campaign is how you govern. If Nicole walked back too much of that stuff, then you know that she would have done that on policy. So, I'm proud that she stood by how she felt. Obviously she regrets that - because she wasn't running for office, she wasn't even thinking about running for office. She was an activist that was angered by seeing what police were doing to her fellow residents and herself. And seeing nationwide about how police treat people of color and poor people across the country. And we ain't got time to be nice to them. We've been nice to them. We give them all the money in the world, all the money they want, and we have national holidays, we say thank a cop, we say all this stuff, and they still treat us like crap. I'm censoring myself, but -
[00:31:57] Crystal Fincher: I don't think there's anyone who saw what was actually happening who was not incensed by what was happening.
[00:32:07] Riall Johnson: Yeah, there are some people -
[00:32:13] Crystal Fincher: Who isn't happy and who doesn't feel like the police are serving them by keeping "those kinds of people" in their place and all of that. But they were literally, not only illegally and against what was supposed to be their policy, teargassing people on the street, but they just teargassed an entire neighborhood. People were inside their homes and were not able to escape teargas. And we're just seeing more research on the effects of teargas on pregnancy and on a variety - it is a poison. It's a poison. And that was just wildly irresponsible and violent to do.
In the campaign, as I'm looking at it, I think Nicole did an excellent job in a New York Times article that came out just talking about - that was in a whole different context. Would she do it again? Is she writing those kinds of tweets now that she's running for City Attorney? No. Would she do it again? No. But this race isn't about that, and then she talked about what she believed. I think more of that sooner could have been helpful, and I know that a lot of times in campaigns, your opposition is looking to inflame everything they can possibly inflame. They felt like talking about tweets was helpful to them, and obviously not talking about tweets would have been preferable at all - and to talk about substantive issues having to do with the office of City Attorney would have been preferable. So, something to be able to move off of that sooner or to - I understand exactly what went into saying that, and the police were wrong and I was articulating in a way that maybe I would articulate differently than today that they were wrong, running for City Attorney.
I think that when races are really close it puts you in a headspace of picking apart every little thing. You can go down that road forever, and I've been in that situation, and you can go down that road forever. But I think, to your early point, it's really important to also recognize what went right and what is right there to build upon. I think there's so much to build upon in this race.
So, as our time is getting shorter, as you look forward, what do you see as being next? Both in terms of, okay, so now Ann Davison is going to be in this office and what kind of accountability needs to happen? And in terms of the movement? And I don't know if you've talked with Nicole Thomas-Kennedy about potentially running again. Most candidates aren't successful on their first run, and, wow, she's poised for an exciting run if she would decide to do it again. And certainly there's other candidates who believe in abolition, or in addressing root causes rather than solely focused on punishment - should be seeing a bright future running for office in and around Seattle. What do you see moving forward?
[00:35:30] Riall Johnson: How much time you got? Because actually we've been on here for 35. Because I want to answer all that. For one, I don't envision Nicole running again. Nicole kind of ran on a whim in the first place. She ran to fill a void. She'll be the first person to tell you there's other people that can fill that void. This is one of the things I really love about Nicole - because being a white woman working in this space, she acknowledges all the disparities you see, acknowledges the privilege and those that - she's only able to run on an abolition platform because that whole narrative and conversation was built by Black and Brown folks that have been speaking on it beforehand. So, she was just more of a conduit.
If there's going to be someone to run on a platform like that again in the City Attorney's race it would most likely be someone who has been more involved in - not more, but been involved with the community from that space, more likely a person of color. Nicole would be happy to support that person. I don't envision her running again. I'm not saying she won't. She's not thinking about that right now.
[00:36:41] Crystal Fincher: That's not part of today's plan, but who knows what could happen in the future?
[00:36:46] Riall Johnson: So, the thing is, the most important part is, the movement behind it and what she can do. She would do what's best for the movement - to actually bring on the policy, bring abolition policies. It's funny because it's the same people. I say, if you're against abolition now, you would have been against it when Frederick Douglass was talking about it. All these arguments, well, what are we going to do without slaves? And people get offended with that. But knowing that same narrative, that same conflict was happening in the 1800s that is now, it's happening in the 1960s, you would have been tone policing Martin Luther King in the 60s if you're talking about, well, I don't agree with the protests and the riots and blah blah blah. I agree that police shouldn't be doing that stuff, but unless - we have to sit there and take an ass whooping in front of you on camera for you to get the empathy for it. We can't all be John Lewis. And so how many beatings and killings do we have to take before you actually get it that the system needs to be completely overhauled? And that's what the community is doing.
What Nicole Thomas-Kennedy did with the main focus of this campaign - what we established - was to bring the community along with it. All of the staffers in the general election were all Black women, all of the paid staff, it was all Black women. And all brand new organizers too. They've organized, but they were brand new to the political spectrum to run in an electoral campaign. All of them were new. So, we brought on a whole new crop of organizers for this campaign because - and that was the plan from the start. Obviously we weren't thinking we were going to be competing with Pete Holmes. If it was just us and Pete, Pete would have run 70%+ easily. Or he would have won over 60% of the votes, maybe 70%.
The thing is this campaign helped build a movement that's going to continue. And we won't sit there and say, "We should have done this, and this is a repudiation." It's not a repudiation. It was a buildup of even further narrative because the thing is it wasn't - you see the other candidates, like Bruce Harrell or Sara Nelson, adopting all these progressive talking points. The funny thing is they're not going to live up to it. I think they're going to - corporate Seattle has always run Seattle. The last two terms we've had a corporate-owned mayor, and now we have another. Hopefully Bruce realizes that and sees that, hopefully realizes what's actually controlling where his values lie, where his money comes from.
And the thing is now we have to make sure that - I'm at this point, let the conservatives have it. It's your mess now because you've been blaming on the few women of color in the City Council that don't have the power to do this stuff. They've literally given the mayor all the money in the world to deal with these problems, and the mayor just doesn't do it. And hopefully we were able to educate Seattle at some point and they're going to get educated further. Ann's going to get educated that her methods aren't going to work. But they've been doing this stuff, and they've been creating these problems, and now it's on them to fix it.
Hopefully what comes out of this is they can't be blaming the Council anymore. Because the Council doesn't have the power. All they do is write checks, write bills, and oversight. It's the executive branch. That's why it's called the executive branch, to execute the things that they said they were going to do. And Jenny Durkan didn't do any of that. She promised a thousand tiny homes. They built what, 100? She promised police accountability. They just let cops off the hook completely. She told me to my face that she'd hold police accountable. I was on Durkan's transition committee. She told me to my face multiple times-
[00:40:31] Crystal Fincher: You were on the transition?
[00:40:34] Riall Johnson: Yeah.
[00:40:37] Crystal Fincher: Wow, Riall.
[00:40:37] Riall Johnson: I know. I know. I just lost all my street cred.
[00:40:40] Crystal Fincher: I appreciate people who are willing to help in the process. So, that is a good thing, it is a positive thing - and then accountability is the conversation that follows. And you certainly have been working to hold Jenny Durkan and others accountable, which is the part that matters. And I think, to your point, this is what it's time for both with the new mayor who's been elected, Bruce Harrell, and with Ann Davison.
Ann Davison's campaign talked a whole lot about Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, not very much about Ann Davison. And there's not a lot of relevant experience. There's very, very little relevant experience, if any, that Ann brings to this position. So, certainly just a matter of competence and understanding. But then in terms of policy and actions, this is going to be where we have this conversation, it's absolutely true, where we hope people see that, no, the Council actually doesn't have the power to make these moves. They can allocate the money, they can set the general direction of policy, but it gets executed by people like the mayor, like the City Attorney, and it's really on them.
But community also has to pay attention and call this out because part of the reason why the narrative focused and landed on the Council is because we have these editorial boards of very large papers, we have these entrenched established interests, who are using those platforms to advance a narrative that may not be attached to reality - like this is all the mayor and we need a new direction. Well, what direction is that? Because there are actually two different directions and really there is no direction because the mayor won't actually do anything - so afraid of making people mad that we're just stuck in the same place, and you've got these supporting interests and editorial boards making the attempt to consistently blame that on the Council. So, it really is going to take a consistent effort from people calling out, okay, you promised this, where is it? You can't blame it on other people. Show me the money. Show me the action. Show me the substance behind your words and your promises. That's got to happen to a greater degree.
[00:43:05] Riall Johnson: Yeah, and the Seattle Times has done really journalistic malpractice on what they did - when they wrote, what, six op-eds against Nicole? And then of course they get to choose where they place it. So, it's literally the owners of the paper say, "Put it right front and center along with ads plastered," that they did without disclosure and saying, "Nicole is bad," all over. But also it's not just talking about - I expected that in the campaign. Like I said, I was on Tammy Morales's campaign, Shaun Scott's campaign, I'm used to that stuff. The problem is the years leading up to that, year round, they have the money to just fund this narrative constantly with documentaries, reports, op-eds, all that stuff in their favor. Meanwhile they've had the mayor they've wanted for the last eight years, and they're going to have the mayor they want for the next four years. They wanted Ed Murray in office. They wanted Jenny Durkan in office. They got that mayor and they have somehow absolved them. And the funny thing is somehow in the way they've painted this narrative, Lorena González has been mayor for the last decade apparently. Even though she's been City Council president for the last two years. The City Council president before that for six years was Bruce Harrell, who is now mayor. So, basically they had the City Council president and the mayor and now it's a problem of the Council.
The Downtown Seattle Association wrote a letter at the Council demanding - blaming them for the shoplifting that's going on because they say there's not enough police. The Seattle police are still on the biggest contract they've ever had - with raises, all that stuff. $400 million contract, they're still on that. They have not been defunded. And they don't control the police. The mayor controls the police and the police chief can control the police. But they literally - these are well educated, well connected people from Downtown Seattle Association disingenuously writing a letter, publicizing it, blaming the Council for their problems when really it's they want to have their own private security force. If they're getting shoplifted, why don't have they have security? Walgreen's, why don't they have security? But they want us, the people actually paying taxes, the working class, to pay for their own private security for us with cops down there.
So, I think that's the narrative that they've been pushing year round, year round, and we have to be able to push back. So, when you say it's on community to push that narrative, it is on us. We have to fight back. The thing is we are not resourced. We are fighting.
[00:45:26] Crystal Fincher: Right.
[00:45:27] Riall Johnson: These activists are broke. They're fighting, they're putting their own free time. They're not getting paid to do this and it's really hard to say, "We've got to push back." We are outspent not just in the race, we are outspent year round, 24/7, and that's hopefully what I'm trying to do from now on is push that narrative, bring resources to the community. And that's why Prism exists in the first place, trying to bring that bridge and give people a leg up and help be strategic at all times. So, we're just coming right back to fight. We're not going to go wait for the next election. Our job now is to get back to work right away and push this. And, like I said, we were closer than ever to bringing real community justice to the forefront. We're going to get even closer or hopefully win next time.
[00:46:10] Crystal Fincher: Agreed. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today to talk about these races. Like you said, the work continues.
[00:46:16] Riall Johnson: All right.
[00:46:16] Crystal Fincher: Thank you so much, Riall Johnson.
[00:46:19] Riall Johnson: Thank you.
[00:46:19] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at OfficialHacksAndWonks.com and in the episode notes.
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