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Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: City attorney candidate offers bold vision for legal reform

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Nicole Thomas-Kennedy — Photo courtesy of NTK For Justice
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy — Photo courtesy of NTK For Justice

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy is running for Seattle city attorney against Ann Davison in the general election on November 2. The pair defeated Pete Holmes, an incumbent who had held the job since 2010, in the August primary election.

However, unlike her opponent, who ran for Seattle City Council in 2019 and for lieutenant governor of Washington (as a Republican) in 2020, she is a newcomer to politics.

"I've definitely never considered running for any other office. I don't really think of myself as a politician, so, I like the specificity of what the city attorney does," explained Thomas-Kennedy. "I was a public defender and... I saw what the city attorney was doing for misdemeanors in the city, and I thought it was disturbing and that I could do a much better job on that."

Thomas-Kennedy spent four years in public defense before opening her own law firm, NTK Law LLC, which specializes in low-cost or pro bono criminal and eviction defense. She earned her Juris Doctor degree from Seattle University in 2016. She had previously attended the University of Washington, where she earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology in 2012. "I am an attorney and that's what I like to do," she said.

A study in contrasts
Unlike past years, the race for city attorney has been extremely competitive, and the platforms for the two candidates could not be more divergent. Davison, a practicing attorney and arbitrator, along with her supporters, have painted Thomas-Kennedy as too extreme for the post. Davison's campaign website features a list of prominent endorsements from establishment candidates and politicians, including every living governor of Washington state and two former Supreme Court justices, seeking to drive that message into the minds of voters.

However, Thomas-Kennedy is proud of being an outsider who would use her office to shake things up but says her campaign positions would ultimately deliver results and save the city money, something her campaign called "pragmatic and evidence-based solutions."

"We really need some commonsense solutions because... we can't prosecute our way out of poverty. We cannot jail our way into mental health. We can't punish our way out of addiction. So, we need to take some really commonsense steps toward solving those problems. That's what I'd like to do," Thomas-Kennedy said.

The Thomas-Kennedy campaign is supported by Seattle's Democratic district organizations and many local politicians, such as former Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda.

In a Tweet on October 7, Thomas-Kennedy challenged critics who say she is "inexperienced," noting that she is the "only" Seattle city attorney candidate with experience in the municipal courts:

"I have had over 200 cases in Seattle Municipal Court alone. My opponent? 0

"I have done over 400 criminal cases in three different courts. My opponent? 0

"I have litigated over 200 civil cases. My opponent? 6

"I have done a dozen jury trials and won every single one. My opponent? No wins because 0 trials."

Davison previously worked for the Seattle SuperSonics from 1996 to 2001 and was a law clerk in the Marion County district attorney's office in Salem, Oregon, before she began practicing law in Seattle in 2005. Currently, she is an attorney at Functional Legal Solutions PLLC, focusing on sports, business, employment, contracts, intellectual property, and other general civil areas.

Controversial tweets
Thomas-Kennedy's past tweets criticizing the actions of the Seattle Police Department and appearing to praise property destruction during the protests for racial justice have emerged as an issue in the city attorney race.

On July 11, 2020, she stated: "I'm way left but [at the moment] can only tweet about my rabid hatred of the police. I currently read like a single-issue law enforcement abolition anarchist." She followed that with a tweet on July 25, 2020, in which she thanked the "heroes that set the Children's Jail on fire." On August 25, 2020, she wrote: "Property destruction is a moral imperative."

Thomas-Kennedy has since sought to put those sentiments into context, noting that police tactics — including projectile weapons, chemical irritants, and explosive devices — clouded her judgement at the time. A federal judge has criticized the SPD for its use of these tactics against peaceful protesters in several instances.

In a tweet on July 28, 2021, she explained that her "moral imperative" tweet "was made at the height of last year's uprising when ppl [sic] were more concerned about broken windows than the continued murder and abuse of human beings." She also noted in recent public comments to the media that she was not a seasoned politician when she wrote those tweets.orey

Thomas-Kennedy has alleged on Twitter during multiple posts between Oct. 7 and 12 that her opponent is funded by conservative special interests and wealthy Republicans. The SGN spoke with Fernando Medina Corey, a software engineer by trade, on October 11 about his analysis of the campaign donations to each of the two candidates. He examined a subset of donors and their contributions to candidates and political action committees.

He concluded that Thomas-Kennedy's top donors mostly held occupations in software, teaching, law, and medicine. Davison on the other hand, according to Medina Corey, had a donor list that "reads like a roster of conservative politics: people in real estate, investors, CEOs or management who donated in federal elections to Republican politicians."

Although he no longer qualifies to vote in Seattle because he has moved out of the city, he concluded that "Davison's affiliation with the Republican party — along with her megadonors' support for it — disqualifies her" for the city attorney post in Seattle, which has long been dominated by Democratic Party politics.

He also pointed to at least two instances where Davison's donors had given to candidates who opposed marriage equality for same-sex couples and held transphobic political positions.

He said if he had to choose, he would vote for Thomas-Kennedy. "After researching policy positions and donors of both candidates, I would absolutely be voting for Thomas-Kennedy," said Medina Corey.

The SGN interviewed Thomas-Kennedy on September 24 about her positions on a variety of issues she would be likely to face if elected city attorney.

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy — Photo courtesy of NTK For Justice  

Scope of the office
Thomas-Kennedy pointed out that the City of Seattle only prosecutes misdemeanors, the lowest-level crimes. "Even though some misdemeanors have scary names like assault, it is the lowest. It's not that it doesn't matter, but it is the least serious assault that we're talking about.

"Most of the crimes that are in the city attorney's office are what they call 'civility crimes' — things like trespassing. There's a lot of low-level and petty theft," she said.

"Ultimately, I would like to live in a city and a world where we don't have to have this system of... lots of policing and prosecution for petty crime, things of that nature. We don't live there right now. So, while I think that there are some prosecutions that we don't need to be pursuing, there's just much, much, much better ways that are more efficient, cheaper, and will be more [of a] deterrent than prosecuting."

She pointed to some instances such as "repeat DUIs or domestic violence, where... prosecution has to remain an option until we can build a system that is effectively preventing those things and systems of accountability of dealing with those things" are in place.

"That is the goal of the office is to... not keep spending all this money prosecuting petty crimes that we could deal with in a much easier way. I would like to stop doing that pretty... immediately. ...I mean sleeping [under] an awning, jaywalking, stealing from Goodwill — things like that — there's just no point in spending the money on that. We could do it better, but... there are some things that will just have to remain for now. Ideally, I would like to prevent most of [that] stuff so we don't have to be dealing with things this way."

Bias crimes
Thomas-Kennedy pointed out that bias crimes in Seattle are considered felonies and, therefore, are outside the purview of the city attorney. The King County prosecutor handles all felonies.

However, she does believe that the more that is done to "build community" and "lessen desperation in our communities," the more that violent crime rates will decline overall.

"There's been lots of studies or there's been polls in other cities like Boston and Baltimore where they stopped pursuing a lot of low-level crimes. What they saw was an overall drop in crime, even the more serious violent crime," said Thomas-Kennedy. "I think the idea of community building and building up other supports and services would drop crime overall."

War on drugs
While Thomas-Kennedy acknowledged that Seattle is seeing a substance abuse crisis, she stated that it was a "healthcare issue" that required a new "health-based'' and "community-based" approach.

"I think the problem with the war on drugs is it's not addressing the problem. You know, we're funneling billions of dollars into police and prisons over the war on drugs, but addiction is a medical issue. It's a healthcare issue," she said.

"The war on drugs has been going on for most of the time that I've been alive. I think... it's not worked... We have more people addicted now to drugs than we did when the war on drugs started. We've spent all this money... [L]ocking people up and punishing people for it is not working.

"We really need to look toward other models, which is like a health-based model, a community-based model, where we foster a connection and healing and help people work through trauma.

"This is a medical problem that we need money and resources to deal with. Instead, we've been spending billions on cops and prisons, and it hasn't worked. Ending the war on drugs is not about ignoring our problems. It's about facing what they actually are and what is actually going to work."

Mental Health Court
When asked about Seattle's Mental Health Court, a voluntary program where defendants can seek deferred prosecution for crime stemming from any type of mental illness, Thomas-Kennedy said she believes the program is not "effective" and delivering its intended results.

"Very few people actually get through Mental Health Court. I think that if we're going to do diversionary programs where... someone's trying to get help and is volunteering to get help, I don't think we need to have a judge and a bunch of lawyers there to oversee that," she said.

"Again, it's a healthcare problem, and we're spending all this money on lawyers. Lawyers are not qualified for these problems, and it would be so much less expensive to have a diversionary program that's a pre-prosecution program. When people are voluntary and they want to engage with these services, we don't have to hold the charge over their head to get them to do that. We can provide those services. We can hook people up with those services without spending millions and millions on courts and lawyers for that."

Domestic violence
Thomas-Kennedy says she intends to use her office to help victims of domestic violence, but since the "maximum sentence is less than a year," the office needs to focus on the "healing of survivors" and what they "actually want."

"This is one of the most important questions, I think, because, first, there's a lot of domestic violence that's not reported... For a lot of reasons, people don't feel comfortable going to the police or that's not an option for them," she said.

"Some of the behaviors that are in a pattern of abuse or control for domestic violence aren't necessarily illegal. There's a whole pattern of isolation and... not getting access to money or things like that that have... formed this whole wheel of control around... domestic violence. What we're seeing is a lot of people that just don't have access to any sort of system that can help them. I think that's especially evident when we're talking about people where their financial circumstances aren't super easy to begin with. It's really hard for people to leave those situations when they don't have anywhere to go, when they... can't support themselves or their children for all kinds of reasons.

"So, I think if we're gonna really look at being able to assist as many people as possible... The criminal legal system, especially in the misdemeanor system, is not always the best system to deal with those things, because we're really talking about one incident as opposed to the whole cycle of abuse.

"While there are times when prosecution might be... the only option or the best option — it needs to remain an option for now — we need to be taking into account what [victims] have been saying for years that they want, which is access to resources... housing, transportation, [and] childcare.

"The maximum sentence is less than a year. What are we doing to ensure survivors' safety after that? I think that's what where we really need to be focusing the resources of the office on...when we're talking about domestic violence and wanting to actually be of assistance in generating safety and healing for survivors. We need to be talking about what they actually want. By and large, most of them don't want more incarceration."

Defunding the police
Thomas-Kennedy says "defunding the police" is a "short slogan" for reinvesting in community and public safety programs — a framework she hopes to establish in the city attorney's office. She does not favor expanding the police budget but admits that she wouldn't have oversight over that.

"I think that there are some things that I'm not going to prosecute. I'm not going to prosecute consensual sex work at all. So, we have a vice squad that spends untold thousands of dollars on sting operations. If there's not going to be an outcome for them, we don't need to spend that money anymore. You know?... There are things like that," she said.

"So, that's what I'm going to be looking to do... I mean, there [in] the criminal division... a few million dollars there... can be reinvested into the community to build up community safety and support programs."

Police accountability
Thomas-Kennedy supports the view of the Seattle Community Police Commission that the most critical police disciplinary reforms have yet to be implemented, and while "there are certain people that have more agency in that situation," she plans to do as "much as I possibly can."

"I think the most important thing that's coming up is there's going to be contract negotiations. The new police contract is going to be negotiated next year. I think when we're talking about the things that the Community Police Commission is asking for, they've been asking for those things for years. Those were things that were bargained away during the last negotiations, and they need to be... in the contract," she said.

"I think that we are in a different place as a city today than we were four years ago. I think it's extremely important having someone that's going to be serious about negotiating that contract and not going to give into everything that's been desired, because that's kind of what happened last time. There was a really big giveaway on a whole lot of things... and the Community Police Commission has been very vocal about what... didn't get in there — as was Judge Robart.

"I take those things very seriously. I think that measures that don't expand the budget — the budget has already expanded so much — and that can be very effective are the most important things to be focusing on. I 100% support efforts toward holding police accountable as we build up systems so we don't need them so much anymore."

Green New Deal
Thomas-Kennedy praised Holmes's defense of "progressive taxation" and noted that her opponent's campaign has failed to focus on "any sort of civil litigation." She states she would defend environmental policies passed by the Seattle City Council and "go after" fossil fuel companies who have "knowingly created this climate crisis."

"The other thing is the city attorney directs all of the litigation for the city, whether defense or proactive," she said. "We all [go] through the heat dome and the wildfires every summer now. [There are] already pieces of infrastructure that taxpayers are paying for just so we can survive. It shouldn't be taxpayers that are paying for those things. It should be the companies that knowingly caused the damage. Those are lawsuits that generally take a long time. In the meantime, we do need taxation to pay for those things, but we [also] need to be holding those companies accountable and making them pay for the things that we need to survive the climate crisis."

Wage theft
Thomas-Kennedy has worked as a server and bartender in the past and says that wage theft was "extremely common in the service industry" and "just sort of assumed... it really is...a part of... what happens there. She hopes to use her office to go after "really egregious companies" that commit wage theft.

"I think that people can really get help with those things [from] the Office of Labor Standards and [Department of Labor and Industry]. They do a great job, but those departments aren't as robust as they used to be.

"I think that there's a lot of people that don't understand that what happened to them is wage theft, like in the service industry," she said. "I've talked to a lot, especially in the construction industry, like general contractors that consistently work with subcontractors that don't pay their employees but they keep subcontracting with them because it's cheaper.

"There is a lot of proposed legislation and things around wage stuff that I would love to be able to help with. I also would love to help, because wage theft does hurt the city as a whole. Wage theft is usually committed against the lowest wage workers... When people are missing critical funds, it becomes a strain on already strained social services. Sometimes people become unsheltered. Then, there's an... erosion of the tax base. So, it really does hurt the city as a whole.

"I think there's huge potential for the city to litigate against companies that can make a huge amount off wage theft. Provide better access for legal counsel for smaller individuals that experienced that. Then, also to propose or defend any legislation that the city council can put forward that would curb that practice as much as humanly possible."

Eviction crisis
Thomas-Kennedy says she has a background in eviction defense and has gone up against corporate landlords. She says she also has had her own share of "nightmare landlords" as a renter herself. Therefore, she plans to use the city attorney's office to provide relief where possible.

"Some of the resources of the city attorney's office needs to go to fund programs like the Housing Justice Project that provide legal counsel — it's a clinic where you can go in and you talk to an attorney within a couple of days or maybe the same day. I worked for the Housing Justice Project and what I found a lot of the time was that I could just call a landlord and say: 'Hey, my name's Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. I'm with the Housing Justice Project.' Landlords were like, 'Okay, fine.'

"So, I think that's a really cost-effective way of doing things and that the Housing Justice Project is already up and running. We could just be funding them more.

"There is the issue too [of] so many corporate management companies in Seattle now and corporate landlords where these huge companies have bought up a lot of the housing stock... There is like this aggregate of things: like refusing to give deposits back, like consistently illegally evicting tenants or... overcharging them for things... That is something that hurts the city as a whole. The city attorney can undertake litigation against big landlords that are constantly hurting our city by causing this sort of instability."

In addition to supporting mutual aid efforts and removing legal obstacles those groups face, Thomas-Kennedy argues that jailing the homeless for petty crimes and overly burdensome court requirements on low-income individuals should come to an end.

"I had a lot of clients as a public defender that became homeless because they could not pay bail. There's just no excuse for that in my opinion," she said.

"We're seeing a huge poverty crisis, a crisis of people being unsheltered. Part of that is not focusing on the people who are most vulnerable [but] turning to focus on what we can do for people to become self-reliant, to be able to support themselves, to be able to address their own problems and to get the help that they need to flourish in their lives. I think that's the thing that's going to really push us forward as a city and be the city that we really want. ...I think sometimes it's what people think is already happening, but it's not."

"I think the other thing that the city attorney can do is [to] really work with the City Council to repeal exclusionary zoning laws that prevent us from building affordable housing. This really needs to be attacked from a lot of different sides.

"I think the sweeps [of homeless encampments] are really damaging, and I've talked to a lot of different community groups and I've done mutual aid myself. I've been to some of the sweeps. I think there's an idea that sweeps are happening and people are just refusing services. That's not really the case. A lot of times people aren't receiving offers for anything. Then, a lot of their things are just being thrown away. They kind of have to start over getting basic survival supplies. That's damaging and expensive, and it's already costing the city in litigation as well. There have been successful lawsuits over the sweeps.

"I think what we need to be doing is really focusing on what transitory housing can we build, whether that's tiny house villages [or] legalized encampments that are serviced by the city. Those are options until we can get people into permanent housing, because I really think this idea of just shuffling people... can't do right now... I think we need to get serious about the problem.

"The idea that we can jail our way out of it or sweep our way out of it is absurd. Even if we put every houseless person in jail right now, we do not have enough jail beds. We would need five or six times the jail capacity that we have right now. It's just simply an impossibility. So we really need to be attacking the roots of the problem, which are moving people into places where they can be until we can get them into permanent affordable housing."

Thomas-Kennedy says the daily grind of being a public defender led her to become an abolitionist, seeking to abolish laws and practices that she deems unjust.

"I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see... especially when I went to Seattle Municipal Court. It was such an eye-opening experience, because it was just so much more tragic than I thought," she said. "I really did not think that people in Seattle were being prosecuted for stealing flip-flops from Goodwill or a deodorant from Target, but that's what I was seeing. This is progressive Seattle, and we are prosecuting someone for flip-flops?... Even if someone can pay bail, the process is the punishment, coming back over and over and over again to court or being put on probation.

"It was just a lot of things that I saw in that court that were really horrifying. I saw a single mother come to court one time with her child, and she was required to get a drug and alcohol evaluation. This was her third court appearance. She finally had it done. She couldn't get it done before, because she couldn't afford it. She finally had it done, and the judge was angry because that hadn't been done earlier and took her into custody... in front of her child — for doing the thing that she was supposed to do. It was just so cruel and unnecessary, and it was sadly not uncommon.

"I support any reform that doesn't expand the system. Any sort of accountability we can get in there is better than what we have right now but... the system is rooted in racism. It is rooted in white supremacy and slavery. We are never going to make enough reforms to move it away from that — it's part of the foundation — which is why we need to move toward something else instead of constantly trying to tweak the system. We've been working on these sorts of reforms for a century, and we're still in a place and a city, a liberal city, where Black and Brown people are prosecuted 5—6 times more than white people."

Thomas-Kennedy said voters should consider her for city attorney because she has the "experience to right the ship" in terms of the criminal system.

"I think that's one of the best reasons to vote for me. It would be that experience that I have," she said. "I also think that what people really want in Seattle is a more equitable city. When we have policies and processes and litigation that focus on helping the most vulnerable, that's how we're going to get ourselves out of the crisis that we're in."

Malcontent News will air a video version of this interview online. Learn more at https://www.malcontentment.com/.