2021 Olympia City Council Position 2 Candidates

Incumbent Yến Huỳnh vs. Robbi Kessler vs. Bruce Wilkinson

Heard around Olympia:

“I don’t know anything about these people.”

What people? These people: The 14 who are running for five seats on the Olympia City Council. Of the five races, four have primary races involving three candidates. In each of the four, two will advance based on the August 3 primary election results.

That’s a lot of candidates, and it is unusual for five seats to be up for grabs in a single year. The races are non-partisan and despite the fact that council candidates run for a position, all are elected “at-large,” meaning city residents may vote in all five races. 

Also in the large number category, and sure to grow exponentially leading up to the November general election, is the amount of money the 14 have raised – a total of nearly $225,000. 

Ballots hit mailboxes this week, along with glossy campaign literature touting candidates’ credentials, accomplishments and endorsements.

It’s a lot to sort through and digest. So The Olympia Tribune decided to let the candidates tell you about themselves in answers to eight questions that delve into their knowledge of the council, their priorities and specific things they hope to accomplish if elected. 

Council members earn $22,000 and a $3,800 benefit stipend per year and serve four-year terms, unless they are filling the remainder of a term for a seat left vacant by a resignation, as is the case this year. The council is responsible for passing the annual city budget and appoints and directly oversees the city manager, who is in charge of day-to-day operations, including those of the Olympia Police Department. Members prepare for and attend weekly council and council committee meetings, serving on regional boards such as Intercity Transit and take constituent phone calls, among their many tasks. In all, that often amounts to more than 40 hours a week, typically on top of their full- or part-time jobs. 

In the past four years, and especially in the recent past, council members have wrestled with the incredibly thorny issues of police reform; public safety; incorporating equity and diversity and inclusion into how the city does its daily business; homelessness and housing; neighborhood zoning; property purchases and use; pandemic-related issues experienced by small businesses and their employees, workers at a high risk due to COVID 19, landlords and renters, and others; and how the city communicates what it is doing. 

These issues, and others that certainly can’t be anticipated now (who, after all, could have predicted the pandemic and its fallout), will be before the council in 2022 and beyond. Who gets elected to the council really does matter – it’s where issues vitally important to our community are debated and decided. 

Also, The Tribune encourages you to vote!

The Thurston County Auditor’s Elections Division has mailed more than 187,000 ballots for the Aug. 3 primary.  
If you are registered and have not received a ballot by Wednesday, July 21, please contact the Auditor’s Office at (360) 786-5408 or elections@co.thurston.wa.us.

You may vote by mail (no stamp required) or return your ballot at one of the 29 secure ballot drop boxes available throughout the county. A list of locations and addresses is included in the mailed ballot materials and online at ThurstonVotes.org.
Ballots must be postmarked by August 3. Please check mailboxes for pickup times to make sure your ballot will be postmarked by Election Day. If you miss your household’s mail pickup time, ballot drop boxes are open until 8 p.m. on Aug. 3. 
You can register to vote, get a replacement ballot and vote using an accessibility voting device at the Voting Center located at 2400 Evergreen Park Dr. SW, Olympia, WA 98502.  Drive-through voter services are available at this location. The center is open:

  • July 14 through August 2, Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • On Election Day, Tuesday, August 3, 2021, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Any voter in line at the voting center at 8 p.m. on Election Day can vote. 

The Candidates

League of Women Voters candidate forum

Note: Campaign contributions and expenditures are the amounts reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission as of July 22.

Yến Huỳnh 

Occupation: Equity and social justice consultant, Washington state Department of Corrections

Raised: $22,858 – Find a full list of contributors here.

Spent: $9,875

Campaign informationWebsiteFacebook

Why do you want to be on the Olympia City Council?

I care deeply about our City’s future — its natural resources and residents. I believe wholeheartedly that government at the local level has the most impact on peoples’ daily lives and I feel a genuine civic responsibility to contribute my skills and experiences to Olympia’s long-term growth and success.

What does an Olympia City Council Member do?

 City Council Members are responsible for representing the interests and concerns of community members in City decision-making. Key areas of decision making include: public safety, environment, land use planning and zoning, transportation, economic vitality, utilities, parks and recreation, and cultural opportunities. In addition to meeting as a full council, each council member serves on a number of council committees, inter-jurisdictional boards and commissions, and other committees as needed. City Council Members regularly meet with individuals and community groups. 

Why did you choose to run for the position you selected (if you are an incumbent, why are you running again)?

I was appointed to Olympia City Council, Position 2 in January 2021 and am now running to retain my seat. As stated in question #1, I care deeply about our City’s future — its natural resources and residents. I believe wholeheartedly that government at the local level has the most impact on peoples’ daily lives and I feel a genuine civic responsibility to contribute my skills and experiences to Olympia’s long-term growth and success.

What sets you apart from your competition (if you’re running against an incumbent, why do you feel you would do a better job than them)?

I have business experience and have done extensive equity work with marginalized communities. I am an Equity & Social Justice Consultant at the Department of Corrections. Prior to this role, I worked at the Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises, working to increase equity in public contracting for small, minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses in our State. I am well prepared educationally. I have an Associates in Business from South Puget Sound Community College, a Bachelors of Arts with an emphasis in Entrepreneurship & Business Management and a Masters in Public Administration with an emphasis in Public Policy from The Evergreen State College. I am a long time Olympian, a young person, a State employee, a woman of color, a first generation college graduate in my family, a proud daughter of refugees and Olympia small business owners. These are among the identities and perspectives that I bring with me to inform my decision making. Since my appointment, I have worked with my colleagues to bring more people into the City’s planning processes, supported public safety bills in our State legislature, approved a hazard pay ordinance for grocery store workers, supported the Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan, and more.

What is the ONE issue you are most passionate about? What are three action items you would push for on that issue, if elected? Be as specific as possible.

 I am most passionate about supporting the creation of an equity framework in all that we do. The three action items that I would push for are: strengthening community connection, embracing diverse perspectives, and creating long-term plans for continuing this work. Even as race and social justice issues leave the forefront of peoples’ minds, I see many challenges arising and increasing if these actions are not executed thoughtfully. This past year has brought more awareness to issues of race and social justice, public health, economic hardship, and it has also created increasingly divided communities. At a time when people could not physically gather, greater effort was put into finding creative ways to connect with the community and bring people together. Converting public meetings to a virtual platform has already helped with accessibility. 

The City must explore more ways to improve accessibility and community participation. Embracing diverse perspectives will help create more informed plans, policies, and processes. Olympia needs to be thoughtful about the way people are being included and elevate diverse voices early on, before decisions are made. It is important to recognize that we have a lack of diverse representation in positions of leadership throughout our City, creating uneven power dynamics and making it challenging and uncomfortable for people to share their perspectives. Steps must be taken towards inclusion and diverse representation at all levels of City government including: workforce, public contracting, arts and cultures, and other forms of City partnerships. 

Opportunities must be expanded to all members of our community. Everyone must be empowered to share their experiences and leaders should be vigilant about not burdening marginalized community members to do all of the emotional labor in these situations. We must also educate ourselves and our peers on these topics. We need to promote appreciation of the need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, having humility, embracing learning opportunities, and truly welcoming diversity and dissenting voices as essential to maintaining forward progress. The work must continue. Race and social justice issues are a response to historically exclusive and institutionally racist systems. Incremental progress should be celebrated while remaining cognizant of the bigger picture to reforming these systems. Long lasting change will not happen quickly or easily. This work must be embedded into the City’s long-term strategic plan. We must keep engaging and learning more about our limitations and biases. It is only through a sustained and deliberate effort that we will ever see forward movement on issues so deeply entrenched in our society. 6. What is one thing the existing council has done really well, and one thing you’d do differently? I commend the existing Council’s creation of a community-led public engagement process to re-imagine Olympia’s public safety system and initiating the first ever Social Justice and Equity Commission. One thing I would do differently is to separate the Crisis Response Unit and Familiar Faces program from the Police Department and make them a more independent entity within City government. I believe this would increase trust and credibility with the community. 

On a scale of 1-10, how important is the diversity and equity work the city now is engaged in? Please explain why you feel that way. 

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most, I choose 10. The diversity and equity work that the City is engaged in is foundational to the success of our overall City business in ensuring we are meeting the needs of all of our community members.

Say three nice things about downtown Olympia.

The location of downtown Olympia is distinctive with views of the mountains, water, and capital campus. Olympia’s small businesses are part of what makes our city delightfully unique. They are a source of employment for many, enjoyment and convenience for residents, and they help keep money circulating in the community. Olympia is a vibrant arts center including visual arts, performing arts, displayed art, participatory arts, arts education, parades, processions, festivals, and special events.

Robbi Kesler

Occupation: Attorney

Raised: $21,053. Find a full list of contributors here.

Spent: $11,996

Campaign informationWebsiteFacebook

Why do you want to be on the Olympia City Council?

My education and experience have enabled me to develop skills that are well suited to a position on the Olympia City Council. I want to serve on City Council because I truly believe I am the best person for the job. I am community minded and am at a point in my life where I can commit to serving on City Council. I feel compelled to offer my time and expertise when I look at the issues facing Olympia and know that I can help. 

What does an Olympia City Council Member do?

Listens, thinks, and leads. The City Council is the legislative body and controls the executive functions of Olympia by having oversight of the City Manager and department leaders. A City Council Member must be able to: communicate with constituents and city staff; critically analyze a broad range of issues, information, and ideas; delegate tasks to proper personnel; and set measurable policy objectives.

I know how ideas become policies, how policies are written into law, and how the law is implemented through the allocation of resources and with good management. I have the legal background to know what issues are appropriate for a city government to address versus what issues must legally be handled by a different level of government. I will not spend time focusing on issues that are better handled at a different level of government, except to support efforts to bring issues important to Olympia before other levels of governing bodies. A City Council Member must spend their time on tasks and/or issues that have the potential to lead to productive output as opposed to debating policies that are academic from the standpoint of what a City Council is designed to do.

Further, I have experience leading and participating in meetings like City Council meetings and City Committee meetings. I know how the meetings should be run from a rules and efficiency standpoint, I know how to create and follow agendas, and I know how to prepare for meetings. 

Why did you choose to run for the position you selected (if you are an incumbent, why are you running again)?

I made the choice to run for Position No. 2 in early January 2021. I was the first candidate to file with the PDC for this position. The position was vacant at the time I filed, and I was one of the finalists the City Council was interviewing to fill the position. I chose to stick with my decision to run for Position 2 even after the City Council selected another applicant.

Position 2 is a half-term, which term will end in 2023. I believe two years is the perfect amount of time for me to determine if City Council is the best way for me to serve my community, and to find out if the voters approve of the job that they will hopefully elect me to do. 

What sets you apart from your competition (if you’re running against an incumbent, why do you feel you would do a better job than them)?

My education and professional experience. Participating in governance is a part-time role for many of the other candidates, including current Council Members. But for me, governance has been a major piece of my full-time professional life. 

I have experience from my time as general counsel for the Chehalis Tribe working with and advising a governing body. I have experience from my time with the Tribe and as non-partisan staff counsel in the State Legislature drafting laws. I have professional experience and personal experience, from my involvement with community organizations, communicating with stakeholders to turn ideas into action. I have experience leading and participating in meetings that are organized like how City Council meetings are organized.

My full-time professional work has included negotiating compacts between different local governments. My experience includes work on business development, tax regulations, community services (e.g. fire services), and employment matters. I am trained to analyze issues objectively and find solutions.

I am running against an incumbent, Yen Huynh, who was appointed by other City Council Members, but has not been elected. Ms. Huynh’s application for City Council indicated her most relevant government experience was approximately ten months on the Planning Commission. Participating for ten months during COVID with a part-time group is no comparison to my ten-plus years of legal experience directly related to governance. I am better suited to address the issues that we know will come before Olympia City Council and am better suited to analyze and address unanticipated issues.

What is the ONE issue you are most passionate about? What are three action items you would push for on that issue, if elected? Be as specific as possible.

I am passionate about developing relationships between the City of Olympia and other entities, including other local governments. The City of Olympia is part of a larger community that could be more integrated. The broader area obviously includes the cities of Lacey and Tumwater and Thurston County. The City of Olympia also has an obvious connection to the State government. 

We also have the Port, unincorporated Thurston County, various school corporations in our area, Intercity Transit, and multiple Tribal governments to name a few other entities. Olympia has some unique issues and specific interests, but most of the issues people in Olympia are concerned with are issues that extend beyond Olympia; e.g. the environment and homelessness. 

One goal I have as a City Council Member is to increase the City of Olympia’s presence during the State’s legislative session to advocate for laws that would benefit Olympia, while also advocating for appropriate funding in order to discourage unfunded mandates. I previously worked as non-partisan staff counsel for various committees in the House of Representatives of the State Legislature, and I noticed other cities (and not necessarily cities larger than Olympia) have more of a presence than Olympia—our council members and city staff rarely participate in legislative hearings. This makes little sense because the legislature is in our backyard. Olympia should advocate for laws that make it easier for local governments to take advantage of potential efficiencies by working together. Olympia’s advocacy efforts would be more effective if council members were more knowledgeable about the legislative process and more involved.

Another goal I have is to build upon existing agreements, such as the Regional Housing Council, to expand the reach of existing agreements and create other inter-governmental groups to address a broader array of issues. It is obvious the community needs to ensure that homelessness issues are handled regionally. No single city in the area should be the base of operations for services and no single city should expect its residents and businesses to pay a disproportionate share for services. Housing is just one example of an issue that calls for problem solving at a regional level.

Third, I plan to push for a system that allows the public to more easily track government progress. We need objective criteria and a more user-friendly interface between the public and government officials. This is relevant to developing relationships because the public needs to know how various entities are working together—or, if we are not working together. Transparent government should play a role in solving all the issues facing Olympia and surrounding areas.

What is one thing the existing council has done really well, and one thing you’d do differently?

The council has done well to start the process of reimagining public safety. Olympia has a good Crisis Response Unit program that I strongly support.  However, an area where I would take a different approach is in organizing how we track and fund different government departments’ responses to various public safety issues and I think there should be additional clarity regarding the scope of the work: police reform is just one piece of criminal justice reform, and just one way to begin addressing all the systems at play that often result in desperate impacts to communities of color.

In addition, I think it is important to create a safe community and honor existing obligations (e.g. the public safety levy, passed in 2017, is meant to fund a certain level of police while supporting programs like neighborhood liaisons, walking patrols, community court, and crisis response) and continue to address the public’s concerns regarding safety while simultaneously looking at ways to appropriately serve the community.

Olympia has the potential to lead the way in reimaging policing and what that looks like, in order to create a more equitable community. To lead effectively we must be well organized, transparent, and inclusive.  To ensure all voices were at the table it’s important to meet people where they are and I would look at ways to increase participation from all people and communities – I would also like to create a better system for reporting and tracking progress. 

On a scale of 1-10, how important is the diversity and equity work the city now is engaged in? Please explain why you feel that way.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is very important and should be considered in almost all City work; do the goals and priorities reflect the diversity of the community and work to create a more equitable society? A well-balanced society will accept different opinions and work to be more inclusive.  I hope the work the city is now engaged in will help improve cultural competency in our community. 

I am Native American and am well aware of racism’s negative impacts. Native Americans are historically one of the most underrepresented groups in this country. We have made progress as a country and a community in recent times, but it was not very long ago that Native Americans were excluded from certain establishments and systemic racism continues to play a role in continued inequalities. 

My decision-making process as a City Councilmember will be objective and inclusive – I will strive to make sure we reach out, get a wide range of input, and truly listen. I pride myself on being very analytical and having the ability to view problems/issues from many angles. However, I will bring my background and personal experiences to the table that will undoubtedly help me better relate to and understand issues from the perspective of persons of color. I will not be afraid to ask questions and challenge the status quo.

Say three nice things about downtown Olympia.

One, it is a beautiful area. We have the natural beauty of the water, mountains, and pockets of forested areas. We also have the impressive structure of the Capitol as a backdrop for many views. We have a nice mixture right now of some great looking new buildings and older architecture that adds character. 

Two, we have motivated and creative entrepreneurs supplying shopping, activities, and restaurants. We also have several organizations/groups who put on events and/or provide activities. There are activities to suit many tastes, interests, and budgets.

Three, we have community amenities that are free to enjoy such as the playground at Percival Landing, the skateboard track, and places to walk or run. My family frequently eats and/or plays downtown. I could say so much more about downtown, but I will stick with just answering the question.

Bruce Wilkinson

Occupation: School bus driver

Raised: $2,323. Find a full list of contributors here.

Spent: $1,023

Campaign informationWebsiteFacebook

Why do you want to be on the Olympia City Council?

I’ve been a grassroots organizer and was encouraged by the rising of the Bernie Sanders movement to be working on local government. I feel like this is a period of turmoil and change and offers a chance for big ideas to move forward. I think I would be good at helping facilitate that movement. I’m a team player but I also would speak my mind more directly than many on the council. In my opinion there is a lot that can be done with modest resources on a host of small proposals. I’d like to facilitate deeper community involvement in governance.

What does an Olympia City Council Member do?

An Oly City Council member works on setting policy and approving the budget as well as hiring the City Manager and evaluating them. It’s a liaison between the city and the people and as a city council member you work on committees. The truth is that the city council is the only part of the city government that comes from democracy. The rest of the city therefore relies on the council for legitimacy. I think the city council can do more and I think the people expect more. When the people lead, the leaders follow.

Why did you choose to run for the position you selected (if you are an incumbent, why are you running again)?

I ran for position two because it was vacated last fall with an appointment put in. It is basically an open seat. Two people had entered the race and by my joining it forced a primary. I saw an opportunity to push the issues myself and others care about into a race that seemed potentially limited in what it was going to talk about because the two candidates held many similar positions on the surface. I support people in the other races, especially Sarah Destasio, who I think is coming into politics as a young person from an engaged and fiery change making perspective. It is also a chance for me to speak about public power, the potential for municipalization of our electric utility, which is currently 100% foreign owned. I felt my positions were sufficiently different that this was the race worth joining.

What sets you apart from your competition (if you’re running against an incumbent, why do you feel you would do a better job than them)?

I’m running clearly as the candidate who is against sweetheart deals for developers. I am also a strong union member and supporter. I am also a renter. While the candidates I am running against are impressive professionally, I offer a connection to the blue collar workers on the ground and the grassroots movements. While the other candidates seem poised to climb the political ladder, I am someone who is running unhindered by such political ambitions. In these ways I think I can bring a new voice to the city council and achieve down to earth goals. I’ve helped organize hundreds of community events and actions over the past 15 years, working with a wide array of people and groups. However, I’ve rarely been the one getting on the stage to speak, so this is new territory for me, but I’m going to do my best to speak from the heart about what matters.

What is the ONE issue you are most passionate about? What are three action items you would push for on that issue, if elected? Be as specific as possible.

My one issue is in bringing Olympia back to being a town for working class people. This is a town where making it was a job in government, which isn’t too pretentious. Surrounding that strong base of middle class jobs was a truly fantastic state college and an equally as impressive community college. Also we had the military base up the road. It was a beautiful, healthy mix of people with decent wages for workers along with home grown intellectuals and artists. I stayed here because as a working class guy I would be denied the art, culture, intellectual discussions and quality of life that this place so willingly engages people in.

It’s not like that anymore. The average home price has crossed $430k in Olympia. Rent has nearly doubled in five years. Some people like to say that this is simply supply and demand and that we need to expand the supply, which is partially true, however it is not okay for rent to increase by so much under any condition. We need to make being a landlord a less profitable leaching from workers than it currently is. We definitely need to do something to stop the major property owners and property management firms from using their outsized market share to inflate rent prices. We also need to ban all application fees. If a landlord wants to run credit checks, background checks and attach lots of outrageous fees, they can eat those costs themselves.

We need to stop giving subsidies to developers and the wealthy and instead direct that to the poor, the young and those that have the initiative but not the capital. That means no more sweetheart deals, like the one on 4th. Lemme get this straight, the city bought a burned out building in the heart of 4th Ave several years ago for $300k. Now it’s paying $308k to have it torn down and selling it to a developer for $50k, plus giving them 12 years tax relief? For the promise of some only moderately cheaper units for a period of years? That’s a terrible deal in a hot market for the core puzzle piece of downtown. 

Finally, Olympia needs an arts, music and culture boost after the pandemic. Venues have shuttered their doors permanently. The city needs to act like the cultural center of the south sound, because that’s what it is. We have a responsibility to the whole region to not let the arts die, and this is about the working class artists. The well known artists may end up in Seattle or Portland, but Olympia has been the place where artists get their start.

What is one thing the existing council has done really well, and one thing you’d do differently?

Well Renata Rollins has been the most inspiring City Council member I’ve ever seen here and I am impressed with what she and the others accomplished in terms of supporting the homeless, although it still isn’t enough. It feels like the projects in the works on homelessness may make a dent in the problem and I’d like to make sure that has the follow through it needs. As far as something I’d like to see done differently, well I think the city has done too much for developers. It’s no longer the time period of failed projects and no interest in Olympia. We act like we have to take the first offers we get in development. I think we can get better deals.

On a scale of 1-10, how important is the diversity and equity work the city now is engaged in? Please explain why you feel that way.

I’d give the work a 10 for what it is in importance but it feels performative. I think it fails at engaging our cities’ actual demographics and mimics, to a fault, the national conversation. The fact of the matter is that Latinos are the most invisible and oppressed demographic in Olympia, but you wouldn’t know that from the conversations. Also, and this gets me in trouble, but classism is not adequately dealt with under the system of intersectional thinking that guides this diversity and equity work. I grew up in more diversity. I’ve been actively against racism since I was fairly young, so I don’t brandish that sort of just woke fervor that turns every micro aggression into a Cuban missile crisis, and almost fetishizes people of color. In my understanding, systemic racism’s point is in dividing the working class, to keep them from effectively challenging the owners. In Olympia white people make up the majority of poor people, the percentage of white people who are poor is lower, but they are still the largest percentage of poor people. I feel like that is unrecognized because the weight of classism isn’t properly scaled in the model many use. This brews reactionary thinking, disempowerment and disillusionment of poor white communities and poor communities of color both as they realize that this diversity and equity work isn’t trickling down to them. 

Say three nice things about downtown Olympia.

Olympia’s downtown is extremely special as a port, a Capitol, and a cultural center! I didn’t appreciate this city like I should have until I spent some Sundays sailing. I’ve also enjoyed my time up at the capitol during all sorts of major protests, but, secretly, I will go there just to walk around. Finally, I’m a coffee shop sort of fella and I love spending a day working on some things at a coffee shop, then an evening seeing live music or getting into interesting fun!

By Mindy Chambers

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