(This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission)
The pandemic and the last three years have been some of the most challenging, illuminating, and devastating years of my life. And I know I am not alone in that.
One of the bright spots was being asked by neighbors to run for state representative in the 37th LD. It was not the first time I had been asked; I have been asked over the years to run for everything from school board to city council to federal congress. One of the best pieces of advice I received and always took to heart: When you run, your entire family runs. It is true. Which means the triumphs and hurts you experience as an individual are also experienced by your partner and your children. It was not an easy decision to decide to run in 2020.
And it has been just as challenging to come to the decision that I will not run for a second term.
When folks first asked me to run for state representative in Position 2, my heart resonated with the ask because this time I could see the change so many of us have been pushing for in police accountability, climate justice, and reproductive justice. I had been pushing in progressive politics for 20 years to pass laws that center and uplift those of us oppressed the last 400+ years. I really believed policy could be a path toward our liberation. I saw an opportunity to work together for that change, in a system that was not built for us, but was itself changing. The State Legislature had more BIPOC members, more women, and more LGBTQIA members than at any point in our previous history. There was new leadership in place for the first time in two decades. My heart was full with the idea that we could come together and make some monumental change for those who have been pushed out before. So I said yes, and started the work of building a community campaign.
I love the 37th. I love our fortitude. I love our history. I love our diversity and embrace of that diversity. I love hearing so many different languages every day as people move through our community with their loved ones. I love how many small businesses there are, with neighbors who I know, who are building our future and economy in the place they call home. I love all the aunties and cousins who take care of each other. I love the unapologetic Blackness you can see in the art and culture here. I love how much we enjoy and embrace youth, and elevate their leadership. I love how we respect elders. I love how hard we fight for justice and to be heard, despite the fact that too often, our cries are ignored.
I have worked in politics for so many years. And no year was that work more important than in 2020 as we all marched, every day, because Black Lives Matter. The summer of 2020 demanded change. It meant something when our community campaign — with not one dime from corporations, fossil fuel, or police unions — won with an overwhelming 65% of the vote. I was humbled and ecstatic to do the work for and with the communities I love so deeply.
I went into the legislature with the hope, the resilience and the brilliance of the 37th with me.
And the experience started as it so often has for me as a Black, queer woman. People are excited. Lots of training and ground-setting, which is wonderful. And we as legislators and community partners were finding a way to connect, despite it all being online as we kept our neighbors safe from COVID-19. The caucus wants to make sure you know how much you are welcomed, that it is a place for inclusion and that your ideas and ways of being are just what is needed.
And yet, one feels othered. Or begins to witness it happening to other people. You find that when you ask an unpopular question: It is dismissed. Or ignored. When you do what you would do with the tools you have, you are cautioned that “we don’t do it that way here.” When you speak up against leadership or voice dissent — you are silenced or shamed into getting in line.
The environment of a caucus is a unique one that speaks of being a family and collaboration, but is also one of centralized control, consistency, and compliance. The legislature wasn’t the first toxic work environment I have ever worked in; I know the signs when leadership is propping you up or looking for a place to put you to shut you up. Those sorts of things started pretty early on. And I pushed through, like I always have before. Keep working, work harder, push harder, say it to more people, find allies. Push, push, push. Because in the legislature, to win on policy, you need the numbers. At the end of the day the legislative game is a math problem: Do you have 50 + 1 votes or not? Because if the answer is no, there is no time for do-overs. You just lost and have to start over again next time. So in a caucus — if you want to make meaningful change — the game is: Don’t get banished, but don’t become part of the group either.
But you know what was in short supply in my experience in the legislature? Integrity. To me, integrity is what one does when others aren’t watching, what happens behind closed doors. Integrity is authenticity to do what is right. Even when it is hard. Even when it is unpopular. I am someone who holds very deep truths and holds a great deal of integrity. People say I am the same everywhere, that they can trust what I say, even when it is hard to hear. Integrity is important to me.
While there are many individual representatives and senators who are some of the most principled people I know, what was forming was a question of whether the institution and the leadership were as well.
There are many tough days in the legislature. For me, the toughest was the day HB 2037 on modifying the standard for use of force by police officers was up for a vote. In 2021 I voted yes on HB 1310 and HB 1054, which I consider the two most transformative laws on police accountability out of the dozen we passed in my first year of service. These two laws took a clear stand against policing violence and limited everything from choke holds to military weapons usage to the way neighbors can be detained by police. The things that are about the daily interactions with community and neighbors in the work of policing. At the core of HB 2037 was the question of whether we would keep on the books the limited use of force by police officers to when they have probable cause to make an arrest or to prevent imminent injury.
Families who have lost loved ones to police killings were rightfully upset; if HB 2037 passed, this was a huge step backward. This decision had national impacts for the policing justice and abolition movements. And most importantly — it could mean more police killings without accountability. Washington Coalition for Police Accountability (WCPA) was doing a big push for visibility and organized testimony to shape the bill to be less harmful. And I was asked by neighbors to add two amendments to the bill. We knew the amendments would fail, as there was no way I had over 50 votes on the floor. Yet, by introducing the amendments, neighbors and advocates felt that the context of the discussion and what was at stake would be clear. And with that, could work on integration of those amendments in the Senate, even as they failed in the House.
But leadership was furious. They demanded I pull the amendments. I said neighbors asked me and that I would not. They demanded to know why I would waste floor time on amendments that will fail. I said it was not a waste of time to have discussions about people’s lives. Then they said that the only way to block an even more dangerous bill from the Senate, SB 5919 concerning authority to detain or pursue persons, from coming to the House floor was to pass HB 2037.
I will be honest: I didn’t know whether to take that as a threat or not. I am quite certain it was not intended as a threat, but rather a clarification of the politics between Democrats in the Senate and Democrats in the House. But it felt like a threat. I had to consider it a threat, at some level. And that is a lot to take in. Two amendments, that weren’t even going to pass, were somehow a threat to the order of the caucus and authority of leadership I was supposed to trust. So it seemed, a threat was leveraged in return. While I was working on policy and how to keep my neighbors safe, it seemed leadership was coming to me talking about ease in the process. And letting an even more awful bill come over from the Senate if I didn’t make it easier. As if an hour or two on the floor took more from them than passing this law took from all of us.
So with a heavy heart, I talked with the coalition, and we weren’t willing to risk SB 5919 coming to the House floor. So at least that was a small win, if this choice blocked that action. I withdrew the amendments in exchange for delivery of a three-minute dissenting floor speech. I cried all day that day.
But I worked to keep it together the 20 minutes it took to write and rise for my speech. I have so much gratitude to the families who reached out to thank me. Your time and kindness in doing that meant so much. I am so sorry for your loss. And so sorry for how hard you are pushing for just a little justice. Because it took us years to get a little bit of justice for police accountability, but they are willing to reverse it in less than a year of these laws being on the books. I am glad my words captured some of what you needed to hear to know we will keep pushing together until it happens.
At the heart of integrity, is trust. You have to believe what people say to trust them. And to be believed, they have to do what they say they will do. The next week, SB 5919 was being briefed in the House caucus for a floor vote. The law that was supposed to be blocked was slated for a yes vote and fast track. That was the day I learned that integrity was not part of the culture of this caucus.
There are many amazing individual legislators to collaborate with in this job. Serving as vice-chair beside our Legislative Black Caucus chair, Rep. Jamila Taylor, who is brilliant, is a highlight of my career. Our Majority Caucus chair, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, is leading important work on racial equity within our Democratic caucus and has a generous facilitation style I deeply appreciate. And my seatmate Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos is a strong advocate for members of color to be heard and our concerns taken seriously. She and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña are of great support to me on the issues we care about most in the 37th. Many individual members are pushing for changes to the culture in the legislature, and let me be clear — the people leading on that work are doing the thing and are women and People of Color who have one’s back. They had mine many a time.
I am not the only legislator leaving right now. This is a moment that Democrats will see huge changes that should be embraced as opportunities. And with that, leadership has some decisions to make to meet this moment and move forward. For the first time in over a decade, we will have a new majority leader with Rep. Pat Sullivan’s retirement. Having a leader of color elevated to that role could bring long-overdue transformation. Leadership needs to heed years of advocacy, and invest in Legislative Black Caucus staff and infrastructure. We are the largest assembly of Black legislators in Washington’s history and our presence strengthens the caucus as a whole.
Thank you for letting me answer the call of neighbors to serve the 37th as a state representative. While I am not running again, I am excited to embrace my true calling to do healing community work.
I feel blessed to have served during the most progressive moment in state politics I can remember. When I pray and sit with my ancestors, it is clear my calling is about clear vision, truth, and liberation. This experience of the last 18 months has taught me that for this legislature, the most we can push for is mitigation and slow progress. I have a great reverence for those who are called to be legislators and serve long periods of time; one gives up much to this work to do so.
Instead of campaigning this summer, I will serve the rest of the term through January 9, 2023, doing what I love most: dreaming and building change. Our office has helped invest millions into the 37th for Black and BIPOC-led work including the Tubman Center for Health and Freedom, Africatown Community Land Trust, Wa Na Wari, and Skyway Coalition. We passed HB 1881 #Doulas4All with Surge Reproductive Justice this year, so our office will support as voluntary doula certification is set up at the state level for Medicaid coverage of birth services. I am continuing my work in anti-racism and transformative justice consulting at In the Works. And will be present with my family and loved ones. My children have missed their mom and I have missed time with them as well. It feels good replanting my roots in community as I heal up. So when you see me at the farmers’ market or a poetry slam or art festival, come by and say hello neighbor.
Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley
37th LD, Position 2