Tolson runs for 17th District House seat

Activist’s experience with homeless spurs effort to seek change at state level

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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James Tolson, an anti-poverty activist and volunteer, has announced that he will challenge state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver.

“This was a hard decision for me,” Tolson, 33, said of his decision to run as a Democrat. “I’m not really a politician. I’m an advocate. I’m an activist.”

Previously, Tolson has lobbied Vancouver to change the city’s camping ordinance to expand the hours people are allowed to camp. He said he also worked with people experiencing homelessness or poverty, where he heard stories from people living in shelters and tents or struggling to pay rent. Tolson said the experiences prompted him to seek change at the state level.

“Our state still has the capacity to be by and for the people,” he said. “Some people might call me a progressive Democrat. Some people might call me a socialist. But what I’m talking about is really practical.”

Kraft, who is in her first term, won her seat in 2016 with 52 percent of the vote. Tolson is reluctant to criticize Kraft, but said that the Legislature hasn’t done enough for the working class or the poor.

If elected, Tolson said he’ll push for investments and incentives in renewable energy, which he said will create jobs. He wants to repeal the state law that prohibits cities from enacting rent control. He wants Washington to pioneer the right to unionize. He supports the idea of creating a state bank, which he said will provide Washingtonians with lower mortgage interest rates and small business loans. He said he also wants to make sure that existing programs for education, affordable housing, mental health and others have adequate funding.

“Everything that I want to do, these are not Democratic or Republican issues — these are Washingtonian issues,” he said.

Tolson said his concern about those living in poverty comes from his own experience. A self-described “child of poverty,” Tolson said he was born in Washington, D.C., and lived in housing projects, a motel, a shelter and a foster home before his mother started a cleaning business allowing his family to escape poverty.

He said he that he served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army between 2002 and 2009, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan. He said that he moved to Vancouver in 2014 after his son’s mother moved here.

“It was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” he said.

Since moving, he got involved with issues concerning homelessness and poverty, lobbying the city council and organizing a unity march last year. He said he works as an independent contractor for an entertainment company, while volunteering 40 or more hours a week, much of it on Concerned Humans Against Poverty, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2016.

He said the group serves three meals a week, including its “Love Lunch” program. In 2016, he managed Kaitlyn Beck’s unsuccessful campaign for state representative.

“I love the work that I do; I’m blessed to do that work,” he said, but he added. “It’s going to be an uphill climb.”