If Tarra Simmons wins next month, she will be the first formerly incarcerated person elected to public office in Washington, and one of just a handful nationwide going from lawbreaker to lawmaker.
“We are the most underrepresented group in our state, and I would say in the nation,” says Simmons, Democratic candidate for District 23-Position 1 which includes Northern Kitsap County and Bainbridge Island.
Her time behind bars is not the sole focus of Simmons’ quest for office, but it makes her stand out for advocating issues too often not on campaign agendas: support for inmates while behind bars and help when they come out and face challenges in employment, housing and parenting rights.
“It’s important because policies are being created every year around the criminal legal system,” Simmons, 42, told me in a recent phone interview. “Former police officers and former prosecutors and lawyers and survivors of crime are part of that policy making process represented in the legislature, but there are not any formerly incarcerated people represented in the legislature during those very important conversations.”
Simmons says she would bring to those legislative conversations the lived experience of being accused, going through criminal proceedings as a defendant, living inside a prison, and facing the multiple challenges of reentry.
“It’s a missing perspective that is really needed there on all of the committees that are trying to make Washington a more inclusive and just place for everybody,” says Simmons, who identifies as White and Hispanic and has two Black sons.
She shares her own story with practiced ease. It is a bio riddled with trauma and tragedy. She talks about being a survivor of child trafficking at 13 years old. Of being homeless. Of being in foster care. Of surviving abuse. Of going on to be the first in her family to graduate high school, of having a son, marrying, becoming a registered nurse, having a second son.
But then painkiller use for an injury led to opioid addiction. She began dealing drugs and was arrested on charges of theft, drugs and gun possession. A judge in 2011 sentenced Simmons to 20 months in prison.
While in prison, she started treatment for substance abuse. She also worked with legal volunteers on a motion to keep custody of her sons. She began thinking about becoming a lawyer herself and followed that dream after her 2013 release. She graduated with honors from Seattle University School of Law, won a Skadden Fellowship for working in public interest law, and co-founded the Civil Survival Project to advocate for and help formerly incarcerated people with reintegration into society.
But the stigma of having served time is always with her. She was not allowed to volunteer at her son’s school. When she applied to take the exam required to be a licensed lawyer, the Washington State Bar Association refused, citing issues with her application. Simmons went to the state Supreme Court and won.
Simmons credits a lot of “angels” for helping her get where she is today. There was the classmate’s mother who took her under her wings when Simmons at 15 gave birth to her first son. There was the pastoral counselor who was not paid and saw her for many years and visited her in prison. There were the volunteer law students who helped her and inspired her while in prison. There were the volunteer anonymous programs that came to the prison and helped her with reentry after her release, like her 12-step sponsor who took her in when she was homeless. That was just six years ago.
“Any problem that I had, I had these trusted people that I could go to and tell them, and they would help me navigate whatever barrier I was facing,” says Simmons. “So many different people have just shown up for me.”
After her release, Simmons received an order of discharge from the courts for her convictions. Her civil rights were restored including the right to register to vote and to run for office. Washington State is one of the few states that allows former felons to vote, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures. (In a previous PostAlley article I wrote about need to assure that this basic right is restored to the formerly incarcerated, or never taken away even while behind bars.)
In 2016, Governor Jay Inslee appointed Simmons to the Washington State Reentry Council and later to the Public Defense Advisory Board. Through her advocacy in Olympia, she was spurred to run for office and filed when longtime Rep. Sherry Appleton announced her retirement.
Simmons won the August primary with 45 percent of the vote, beating out three other Democrats including Bremerton City Council member Leslie Daugs. She now faces Republican April Ferguson in the November election and is widely favored to win. PDC filings show Simmons has raised $237,760.48 compared to $6,648.08 for Ferguson.
The progressive agenda outlined on Simmons’ campaign website focuses on the economy, climate change, civil rights, education and healthcare. Key goals include affordable housing and affordable daycare, increased funding for mental health treatment and substance use disorder, protecting women’s reproductive healthcare, increasing incentives for producing cleaner fuels and energy efficient construction.
Her agenda, more than other progressives, includes the commitment to being a voice for formerly incarcerated people to get them more services while behind bars and working to find solutions to ease their recovery and re-entry (like being able to volunteer at a child’s school). These are issues also embraced by the handful of former felons currently running for office in other states.
Simmons’ past, what she calls the “permanent stigma” of incarceration, not surprisingly has led to social media vitriol calling her a criminal, saying she’s not fit for office and is untrustworthy.
“That is the one that probably hurts the most, that I’m not trustworthy,” says Simmons. “That couldn’t be further from truth. I have a lot of insight into my past. I take responsibility for it and I know why it happened and I am committed to combating the root cause. That’s why I am celebrating nine years of recovery.”
She says Rep. Appleton had advised her to grow a thick skin. She’s working on it. “When I am determined to accomplish a goal, I won’t give up. I’m resilient beyond what I previously thought.”
Today, Simmons lives in Tracyton with her husband Eric, her teenage son Dominic and with visits from Eric’s 13-year-old daughter Madyson. Her older son, Dévon, lives a few miles away. (She is divorced from first husband). Like other candidates in this time of pandemic, she is in remote mode. She juggles her day job with zoom meetings, fundraising calls and overseeing Dominic’s school work. Her self-care routine includes crocheting blankets and hats, gardening, practicing mindfulness and going for hikes with the family dog Anna.
“People who have never lost their liberty, who are asked to stay home and stay healthy, say oh my gosh, this is like prison,” says Simmons. “No, it’s not. You can order take out. You have a nice pillow and bed. You have your family next to you. For me, having been in prison, where you can’t go any lower than that, it helps me to maintain an attitude of gratitude every day.
“I can always say this isn’t as worse as prison.”