When the Washington Legislature opens for business on January 8, my Kitsap County district will be represented by two lawmakers who talk openly about being former addicts and lawbreakers. That’s a good thing.
Drug addiction touches almost all of us in one way or another. Whether we know someone struggling or we walk by the unsheltered on streets or we see lives of potential shattered. But who speaks for the thousands of substance abusers when the Legislature makes laws and passes budgets?
This session, it will be District 23 Reps. Tarra Simmons and Greg Nance.
“We’ve overcome extremely hard and difficult things in our life, and that’s what gives us the motivation to serve our communities,” says Simmons, 46, who will be returning for her fourth session.
It will be the first session for her seatmate Nance who was appointed by the Kitsap County Democrats to fill Drew Hansen’s seat after he moved to the Senate following Christine Rolfes’ retirement.
“The first time I thought about maybe I can actually serve and help make a difference was hearing Tarra make a speech on the Capitol steps on Martin Luther King Day in 2020,” says Nance. “Seeing her share her story so openly and honestly was inspiring and really beautiful. It made me realize that maybe the challenges I’ve faced and overcome could actually be a source of great strength instead of shame, and my superpower.”
Simmons became the first formerly-incarcerated person elected to public office in Washington when she won her 2020 campaign. Since taking her seat, the Democrat has pushed for more resources to help those currently behind bars and those struggling to build new lives after their release and programs to address the often underlying issues of mental health and substance abuse – all issues Nance also embraces.
Both have made fraught personal histories touchstones of their political ambitions. Simmons talks openly about her traumatic and abusive childhood and how as a registered nurse she became addicted to opioids after an injury. She began dealing drugs and was arrested on charges of theft, drugs and gun possession. A judge in 2011 sentenced Simmons to 30 months in prison. After her release, she earned a law degree. When the Washington State Bar refused to admit her because of her past, she took the Bar all the way to the state Supreme Court winning a unanimous decision in her favor.
Nance was a top student and star athlete at Bainbridge High School who was 16 when his beloved grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke and then died. “I ended up coping with these feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and grief with alcohol, vodka, Percocet and Vicodin.
“I was living two lives,” he says. “Publicly and at school and on the sports field, you wouldn’t know. I was class president and state debate champion. Privately I was struggling and overwhelmed by the stresses of the day, and the only thing that would quiet that voice was malt liquor or percocet. I was living a parallel life.”
Nance says it’s only luck and probably his white privilege that kept him out of jail. “I made plenty of dumb decisions and mistakes, but I was given a lot of second chances despite breaking the law a number of times.”
He went on to the University of Chicago and then won a fellowship to Cambridge University. Multiple attempts to combat his addiction had failed, but in England he started running and step by step managed to stop the alcohol and drug abuse.
“The way I climbed my way back up was with a daily running ritual along with the love of my family, my friends, and a great church community,” says Nance. “Part of my job as a lawmaker is how do we help people proactively avoid all that? How do we equip social services, social workers, first responders, teachers and coaches to be there for young people when they fall down? That’s my nonprofit background, helping young people avoid the traps that I fell into. How do we create a more compassionate policy that helps people before they’re homeless, before they are incarcerated?”
Nance, 35, says he’s been sober for 11 years and has devoted his career to mentoring youth. In 2022, he completed a 3,156-mile run from the Atlantic to the Pacific to raise awareness for youth mental health. The run raised $108,000 for his RunFar Foundation to start funding youth-led volunteer projects across the country.
Simmons’ journey after prison also has been motivated by her own history. She co-founded the Civil Service Project to provide legal services and advocacy for formerly incarcerated people, and she served on the Washington State Reentry Council and the Public Defense Advisory Board. As a legislator, she has encouraged her colleagues to visit prisons and took several colleagues on a tour of the Washington State Penitentiary.
This session she serves on the Community Safety, Justice & Reentry, Appropriations, Rules, and Healthcare & Wellness committees, At the request of physicians, she introduced a bill for a program to help physicians struggling with substance use disorder. It’s similar to a program she got approved for nurses to allow them instead of losing their license to divert to a monitoring and support program.
“If we could incarcerate our way out of the substance use disorder, we could have done that by the amount of people we have arrested and incarcerated over the last 30 years,” says Simmons. “It hasn’t resulted in an end to this epidemic. We need new approaches to treat people humanely without the stigma, without shame and building trust.”
Both Simmons and Nance plan to push for approval of budget requests in support of the Kitsap Recovery Center (“a wonderful alternative on the peninsula to incarceration” says Nance) and to get opioid education prevention in schools.
“Because of where we come from, we can support each other on these things. We share the same values,” says Simmons.
Nance has been appointed to the Education, Postsecondary Education & Workforce, and Transportation committees. One of his top goals is to seek ways to get better mental health resources into schools and equip more teachers and coaches and mentors with mental health first aid training so they can identify and “actually treat mental health issues before they spiral into a crisis.
“So many people have a parent or a child or a partner or friend they care deeply for who has struggled. I think we’ve reached a critical mass where we want solutions and are tired of the stigma and tired of sweeping it under the rug,” adds Nance.
Besides helping each other with legislation, Simmons says serving together also means that she will have “a friend who can support me, and I can support him, when we’re going through a really difficult time because there’s still a lot of stigma and bias around people who have been addicted to drugs and or people who have been incarcerated. Sometimes I have felt very alone there. Now I know I’ll have Greg who can relate.”
“I’m deeply inspired by Tarra because she’s been doing this hard work,” agrees Nance. “Voices like ours are needed around the table where policy and choices are being made.”