2021 Olympia City Council Races Begin to Take Shape

Although the Aug. 3 primary election is nearly six months away, the race is on for endorsements and cash by Olympia City Council candidates seeking to move on to the November general election.

Five seats are open this year, rather than the usual four because recently-appointed Councilmember Yen Huynh will have to run for election if she wishes to retain the seat. She has filed paperwork with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicating her plans to run. Incumbents Lisa Parshley and Jim Cooper also have filed, and Clark Gilman is expected to do so as well.

One-term council member Renata Rollins is not running again. In announcing her decision, she said in part: “I found myself at odds with certain interests when my proposals, statements, and tactics directly confronted our obscene “normal,” which protects wealth and property above the lives of everyday people. I often felt stymied by bureaucratic norms, and my relationships with most council members were tenuous at best. I’ve made my share of miscalculations, and I didn’t get to see everything to fruition I would have liked… At the same time, history shows transformative change is never comfortable or easy.”

Huynh, who has been on the council since mid-January, already has drawn an opponent, Robbi Kesler, who was among the finalists for the council seat. Kesler is an attorney who has worked for the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the state Legislature.

Another of the council finalists, Dontae Payne, is running for Rollins’ seat. He is the deputy district director to U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland. Previously, he worked as the South Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula Regional Representative to Gov. Jay Inslee.  

This campaign season is shaping up to be an expensive one, much like that of 2017, in which contributions totaled more than $150,000 for four council races whose results were not even close.  

Kesler already has donated $2,000 to her campaign, and Parshley has chipped in $5,000 of her own money to get hers underway. Cooper recently used a social media post to ask for $30,000 to get his re-election bid going, even though county records show he won with more than 78 percent of the vote in 2017 and state records indicate he raised and spent no money for that campaign. 

“In order to reach the voters necessary to win, during a pandemic, we will have to reinvent how it’s done,” Cooper said. And he is right. “Door-belling,” or in-person contacts at residents’ homes, and in-person fundraisers, have been the backbone of local campaigns for years. The pandemic has forced candidates to rethink how to get their messages to voters; the recent campaigns for Thurston County Commission relied almost exclusively on social media posts, virtual fundraisers, and “lit-drops” in which information on candidates is left at residents’ doorsteps. 

The 2021 races also are drawing at least one candidate who is deeply unhappy with the council. “It is readily apparent the current Council has failed to keep Olympia safe and family-friendly,” writes Candy Mercer, who declared on Feb. 6 she intends to run for the council, although she did not say which seat.

It’s been apparent that individuals associated with organizations such as ‘Olympia Looks Like Shit,’ ‘Olympia News Network’ and ‘Olympia Photography’ would likely run for office. These groups conduct most of their business through social media posts and focus on vilifying homeless people and denigrating attempts by the city and nonprofits to support homeless individuals and find solutions that would house their growing numbers. 

Mercer posted her intent on social media and in an interview taped at an event at the state Capitol Sunday whose attendees were mostly former President Donald Trump supporters. To comply with state law, she has 14 days from the announcement to file paperwork with the state PDC, which tracks campaign donations and expenditures and makes them available to the public. 

Her campaign, “Gynarchy Now! Coalition to Flip the Olympia City Council in 2021,” first met in mid-January. She alluded to a slate of candidates she believes will follow her onto the primary ballot in a statement.

Mercer says Gynarchy (defined as rule by women or a woman) Now! is just the working title for her campaign. “I am channeling my Riot Girl level anger into something prosocial. I believe that there are a lot of Riot Women out there who are feeling the same. My battle song is from Nirvana. Can you guess which one?” She says she is keeping a more mainstream branding idea for the actual campaign secret, for strategic reasons, but she may have given a hint in a lengthy social media post: 

“I think middle-aged women could be a key to victory. We have spine, are pragmatic, know how to get things done, and can manage a budget. We know how to parent have the fortitude to say no, this is not acceptable behavior. We have compassion but we also know that good boundaries are an important part of compassion. We are strong enough to stand up to bullies.”

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By Mindy Chambers

3 Comments

  • Avatar
    Candy Mercer -

    Thank you for the positive coverage of my entry in to the City Council race. I would not be running had the current council done its job.

    I do not vilify homeless. You did not say I did, but associated me w groups who report on the homeless issue. I am not affiliated with those groups in a formal way, but do post, and more importantly, I LISTEN to what is being said, unlike our current council.

    I am running as a true nonpartisan. I have no fealty to any party or group. I am independent.

    If you want to read more about my stance on homelessness, my work is on Medium.

    https://candacemercer.medium.com/the-real-crisis-in-olympia-is-not-homelessness-ad68199ab708

    I believe we need to send a message that it is possible to get out of the camps. I respect the human dignity of those living in encampments. I feel we can do much better and those people have been abandoned. I will run on a message of hope and inspiration. I am disabled w chronic pain, I know how hard it is to stay housed in Olympia. I have ideas that I think will be better than the current council, though I do think there is a lot of good in the current plan. Many of those items will be priorities for me, as well as some original ones.

    Thank you all.

    I am playing to win.

  • Avatar
    Candy Mercer -

    I believe you are being unfairly portraying OLLS, ONN & OP. While there may be individuals in OLLS with salty opinions, the group, as well as ONN & OP, do not vilify the homeless. The goal is to get people out of camps, not keep them in. ONN & OP document the camps for all to see.

    If you actually spent time on those pages, you would find that many members are formerly homeless, were substance abusers or have a loved one on the streets. Very few people hate the homeless, many are frustrated with their behavior. You have a duty to report accurately.

    We do denigrate the attempts of the council and service providers because they are failing people. Their solutions are not working. The Mitigation Site was shameful, when I took a group on a tour last year, and saw the conditions at the MS, I was appalled. I could no longer advocate for it. We need to try something else. People are dying and a subculture has formed around living rough, which in some cases is going to lead to chronic homelessness. If changes are not made, I am afraid what will be the end result of another four years of this council.

    You are correct in reporting OLLS is a political force. It has over 10K members, is growing and is a solid bloc of voters. The incumbents should ignore them at their peril. OLLS is transpolitical, members cross party lines. There are people like me from the hard left and there are conservatives, and there are many people who are politically homeless who are looking for something new. If anything, OLLS is setting the tone of people working together toward a common goal.

    It is simplistic and/or intellectually dishonest to paint OLLS, ONN or OP as hate groups of any sort.

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