The field is set… And the campaign contributions are flowing.
Fourteen people, including four incumbents, are diving into Olympia’s 2021 political arena, seeking election to a City Council that continues to wrestle 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; and pandemic-related difficulties experienced by small businesses and their employees, workers at a high risk due to COVID 19, landlords and renters, and others.
Council members are elected to 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. They earn nearly $22,000 a year (and a $3,800 benefit stipend) for preparing for and attending weekly council and council committee meetings, serving on regional boards such as Intercity Transit, taking constituent phone calls and other tasks. In all, that often amounts to more than 40 hours a week, typically on top of full- or part-time jobs.
The council is responsible for passing the annual city budget and directly oversees the city manager, who is in charge of day-to-day operations, including those of the Olympia Police Department.
The candidates vying for council seats are:
Postion 2 (unexpired two-year term):
- Yen Huynh was selected by the council from 28 applicants to fill the Position 2 seat, which was held by Jessica Bateman until she was elected to the Legislature. She lists her priorities as health and safety, economic recovery and stability and climate justice. She’s an equity and social justice consultant with a state agency and once served on the city’s Planning Commission.
- Robbi Kesler, an attorney who formerly worked for the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the state Legislature and who has a broad range of volunteer service in the community. She was a finalist for the Position 2 seat that was held by Jessica Bateman until she was elected to the Legislature. Among her priorities is to “shift the Olympia City Council’s focus from broad political ideology to community level, city government specific work … to improve livability by supporting policies and actions that take attainable steps toward progress on the goals set forth in the Comprehensive Plan and the priorities identified by the community.”
- Bruce Wilkinson is a long-time grassroots organizer and campaign manager for Power to the Public, an initiative that would replace Puget Sound Energy’s with a public utility district.
Position 4 (no primary, both move to general election):
- Clark Gilman is running for a second full term on the council, where he now serves as mayor pro-tem (he runs the meetings if the mayor is unavailable). He’s the only incumbent not facing a primary challenge. His key issues are a fair economy, the environment, and letting people be involved in the city’s budget process.
- Candy Mercer, an unrelenting critic of the city’s response to homelessness, has committed herself to the task of defeating all incumbents on the council and has strongly alluded that she and candidates Wendy Carlson, Spence Weigand, Robbi Kesler, and Corey Gauny are collaborating to do that. She’s excited that she’s moving on to the general election and had this to say on social media post: “You guys, its real, I am going to be on the November ballot with no primary, this may be proof of me dominating the field, no one felt confident going up against me. My dream is becoming a reality due to two years of casting spells and making magic and building name recognition and endless relationship building.”
- Wendy Carlson is a former community corrections officer and volunteers at her sons’ schools and sports teams. Her priorities are to revitalize the city by helping “the unhoused without sacrificing the welfare our downtown and neighborhoods,” using the community, mental health and drugs courts and to “help create a police force every member of our community can trust and believe in.”
- Lisa Parshley is running for a second term on the council. She was first elected in 2017 and was the council member who introduced the idea of creating the city’s first Social Justice and Equity Commission, which is now underway. She also chairs the council’s new Public Safety Committee. Other priorities include climate change and the environment, housing and homelessness, and COVID 19 recovery. She owns two veterinary businesses, a cancer center & a 24-hour emergency room, both located in downtown Olympia.
- Talauna Reed is a community activist, organizer, and outspoken critic of how the City of Olympia and its police department handled the investigation of the death of her aunt. She’s a founding member of Black Leaders in Action and Solidarity Thurston. Her platform is focused on public safety, housing, police reform, the environment, community engagement and COVID 19 recovery.
Position 6 (incumbent Renata Rollins is not running for re-election)
- Sarah DeStasio, co-chair of the Olympia Democratic Socialists of America. She has experience as a caregiver for elders and people with disabilities. She has a master’s degree in public administration from The Evergreen State College and is now is a student working on her second master’s in mental health counseling at another higher education institution. Her priorities are related to labor issues, housing, COVID 19 recovery, climate, government transparency and racial justice and equity.
- Corey Gauny also was an applicant for the Position 2 seat. His website says the “council needs to lead the way to making Olympia a healthier and safer community, with a plan to insure our community is livable for decades to come.” He’s a military veteran and a Management Analyst with a state agency and has volunteered with a range of local organizations.
- Dontae Payne is the deputy district director to U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland. Payne was a finalist earlier this year for the Position 2 seat. His priorities are affordable housing, equity, economic recovery, homelessness, public safety and the environment and climate. He’s a military veteran and is on the board of directors for the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia.
- Jim Cooper, a council member since 2011, lists his priorities as race, gender, housing, childcare and income equity; climate and open spaces, and public safety. He’s the President & CEO of the United Ways of the Pacific Northwest, a member of the state Poverty Reduction Work Group, and chairs the recently formed Regional Housing Council, a coalition of local cities and the county working to promote equitable access to safe and affordable housing.
- Spence Weigand, a long-time Olympia resident, Realtor and current board member of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, who lists his top priorities as creating more affordable housing, improving the vitality of Olympia’s small businesses and addressing root causes of homelessness.
- Tyrone Brown also is an organizer for BLAST and an organizer for Tenants Union of Washington State, which is actively working on issues relating to the end of the eviction moratorium sometime this year.
While it is still early in the campaign season (the primary election is August 3 and the general election is 2) candidate’s signs already are popping up like dandelions all over the city. Kickoff events (held virtually, of course) have begun; it remains to be seen in Olympia’s time-honored tradition of door-belling will be another victim of the pandemic.
One thing does immediately stand out about candidate priorities so far: Only six of the 12 with an online presence have so far — Huynh, Parshley, Reed, Payne, DeStasio and Cooper – have mentioned the city’s equity and diversity and police reform work in some way.
The amount of money that’s flowing into campaigns, and who is donating, also is worth a look.
Joe Hyer, a political consultant, former council member, and long-time campaign number-cruncher, recently posted a year-by-year council contribution analysis on social media and predicted this year’s campaign donations are on a path to surpass the nearly $177,000 given to candidates in 2009.
That prediction is on track. So far, candidates for the five seats have raised nearly $150,000, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records. Weigand leads in fundraising with more than $28,000 in the bank as of April 30.
Here’s Hyer’s look at contributions since 2007:
- 2019: Three seats up, $159,502, (60% in the mayor’s race)
- 2017 – Four seats up, $155,959
- 2015: Three seats up, $95,018, (38% in the mayor’s race)
- 2013: Four seats up, $81,506
- 2011: Four seats up, $133,833, (53% in the mayor’s race)
- 2009: Four seats up, $176,659
- 2007: Three seats up, $106,304, (32% in the mayor’s race)
He notes that of the 21 contested races in those years, 17, or 80%, were won by the candidate with the most contributions.