Maya Leshikar / The Seattle Times
The 2021 legislative session has been memorable for Tarra Simmons.
When Simmons won a seat in the Washington House back in November, she was at home with her family, socially distanced due to COVID-19 — an odd, “anticlimactic” way to learn she had been elected, becoming what’s believed to be the first formerly incarcerated person to win a state election in Washington.
But Simmons — a Bremerton Democrat, lawyer, civil rights activist and freshman state representative — has been a leading figure in the national fight for criminal justice reform for years, breaking barriers in politics and law for people with felonies.
Her historic election comes eight years after she was released from prison, having served 30 months for low-level drug and theft crimes.
Legislators also just passed her first piece of legislation: a bill to automatically restore voting rights for Washingtonians convicted of a felony who have been released from prison. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law this month.
Legislators also just passed her first piece of legislation: a bill to automatically restore voting rights for Washingtonians convicted of a felony who have been released from prison. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law this month.
“It felt kind of like a full-circle moment,” said Simmons, 43. The bill, she said, is “my life’s work … removing stigmas and helping people succeed.”
Republican state Rep. Jesse Young, one of 40 House co-sponsors of the bill, said Simmons is bringing a much needed perspective to Olympia — “not just in terms of being a vivid voice for second chances, but also with regard to the power of redemption and what one can do with such an opportunity,” Young said.
Simmons says she has a focus on prison reform, but hopes to address the failings of multiple systems that she’s witnessed firsthand. She experienced a “broken health care system” as a nurse, struggled in foster care, and said it wasn’t until she became incarcerated that she was introduced to drug recovery programs.
Brought up in Bremerton, Simmons’ first experience of crime was as a victim. She was exposed to poverty, violence and substance use as a child, which she said led to issues as a preteen. She ran away from home, ended up in foster care, ran away again and began living on the streets. She said she experienced kidnapping and trafficking as a girl.
She became pregnant when she was 14 and unhoused, and had her first child. Supporting her son motivated her to finish her education, and at 16 she became the first in her family to graduate from high school.
She moved on to community college and then Pacific Lutheran University, where she became a registered nurse. Simmons said that things at the time were looking up, but she was still grappling emotionally with childhood post-traumatic stress.
She said she got involved in bad relationships, which gave way to domestic violence, sexual assault and off-and-on substance use.
“All of that leads to the conditions for becoming incarcerated,” she said.
It all culminated in three felony convictions for possession of controlled substances and retail theft in 2011. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison and a year of community custody by a Kitsap County judge.
Upon release, she couldn’t return to her job as a nurse, so she worked in fast food.
Her options, she said, were to settle for a low-paying job “that seemed like a life of no hope, no opportunity,” or go into law and try to change the system. Fortunately, she said, she had met attorneys while in prison who suggested she become a lawyer.
“That set my wheels in motion. If you give me a sliver of hope, I’m going to go for it,” she said.
She attended Seattle University School of Law, which she said was “a challenge in every way possible.” It was there that she began her work in Olympia, as she started a nonprofit to organize people with criminal histories to advocate in Olympia.
But despite stellar grades and a prestigious fellowship, she faced another hurdle: She was told she couldn’t sit for the bar exam after finishing law school because of her prior convictions.
The Washington State Bar Association denied her application to take the exam to become a licensed attorney, failing her in the moral character and fitness evaluation. They concluded she lacked the ability to “exercise good judgment” and “conduct oneself in a manner that engenders respect for the law.”
“It was just ironic that I was fighting for all of these changes and to remove the stigma for people that have a criminal history and finding a lot of success,” she said, “…Then the bar association told me I couldn’t sit for the exam because of my past.”
The bar thought that Simmons had not been sober long enough — she had been sober for six years then — and had a “sense of entitlement to privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others” because of her achievements.
Simmons disagreed. Although no one had successfully challenged that type of admission decision before, she says, she took it to the Washington Supreme Court, which unanimously sided with her.
In a laudatory 33-page opinion, Justice Mary Yu wrote that Simmons “changed her life to a degree that can only be deemed remarkable, both in terms of the efforts she has put forth and the positive results she has achieved,” adding that Simmons “attained privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others due to her hard work.”
“We affirm this court’s long history of recognizing that one’s past does not dictate one’s future,” Yu wrote.
On to the statehouse
Simmons quickly started working as a civil rights attorney with the Public Defender Association. She went on to become the director of the nonprofit Civil Survival, which helps those with felonies participate in civics and political advocacy.
In 2019, she helped pass legislation called the New Hope Act, making it easier for people with felonies to get certificates of discharge and vacate conviction records.
But Simmons never thought she would be working in the statehouse. She was not expressly interested in politics, though it was her “heart for service,” she says, that pushed her to run, as it pushed her to become a nurse and activist.
So when Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, was retiring, she asked Simmons about running for her seat.
Simmons’ campaign in the 23rd District gained momentum early on, with “humbling” endorsements by people like former presidential contender and now U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. In November, she won 61% of the vote, besting Republican April Ferguson.
Simmons said the support she has received from her peers and constituents has been “overwhelming.” But it hasn’t been universal.
Before Simmons even considered running for office, her Supreme Court case was used to attack Democratic state Sen. Emily Randall, who voiced her support for then private citizen Simmons’ fight to become a lawyer. A mailer from a conservative PAC called Randall an “extremist” who was soft on crime for supporting Simmons — a “drug-addicted ex-con.”
Simmons said she received an email recently that read, “We don’t need convicts representing good people.”
“That was a little painful,” she said.
Simmons said she was initially doubtful that she could have any success or support as a legislator because of her criminal record, and says she still deals with feeling like an impostor.
“I was afraid at first,” she said. “I didn’t know if my community was ready for that.”
But the question of whether voters are ready for a formerly incarcerated lawmaker has been answered in Simmons’ mind, since “obviously constituents overwhelmingly elected me,” she said.
“I know the truth that I was never an inherently bad person, that I made mistakes. Now I have developed a support system to make sure I will never make those mistakes again,” she said.
The state Democratic chair, Tina Podlodowski, said Simmons’ journey shows how one or two poor choices do not define a person, and added Simmons’ election brings an invaluable perspective to the Legislature.
“Having someone like Tarra who’s been in the system and is in a very powerful position to talk to other legislators about how very personally the system has affected her, makes her just critical in terms of fixing our criminal justice system to be more about justice,” Podlodowski said.
For her first legislative session — which Simmons says is like “Disneyland but for policy nerds” — she was appointed the vice chair of the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, and plans to continue to lead efforts in legal system reform.
Approved by the House and working its way through the Senate, her bill to allow people with certain convictions to work as paid caregivers for vulnerable people comes from her own experience as a former nurse who was prevented from caring for her dying father for compensation because of background checks.
“This barrier made it to where my father spent his last days in a nursing home because I couldn’t afford to stop working and care for him,” she said at a public hearing for the bill.
Another bill of hers has already passed the Legislature and is on its way to Inslee’s desk. House Bill 1086 creates a statewide Office of Behavioral Health Consumer Advocacy, which is intended to establish rules and procedures for mental-health services.
The intention, she said, is to “identify systemic issues that are going on in our behavioral health system.”
She also introduced a bill to reduce sentences for offenses committed by domestic violence victims.
Simmons said formerly incarcerated people’s voices are often missing in elected office, and hopes more people with convictions step up and lend their voice to politics.
“We need unique experiences represented in our government to make sure our systems are being implemented in a way that will help all people,” she said.
Deborah Idlett, a community sexual assault advocate in Kelso who has a drug-related felony, says she felt represented for the first time when Simmons was elected. She says that people tend to say “anyone can be anything except these people.” But Simmons shows people that there is life after prison.
Though Idlett considered running for city office in the past, she worried that her criminal record would be scrutinized, saying she never wanted that to be the reason people didn’t vote for her. Seeing the overwhelming number of votes Simmons received, she said, gave her hope.
“There is no glass ceiling — there is no ‘cement ceiling’ in her words — we can be anyone,” Idlett said.
“I don’t think that she intended to make history, but I really believe that she did.”