Tom Oliva has long been an advocate for preserving Tumwater’s history. His work to protect the historic, red brick brewhouse from further decay helped put him on the City Council, and Oliva is continuing that effort.
Now 56, Oliva has worked as a management analyst for state parks for 19 years and was appointed to the City Council to fill a vacancy in 2010.
Challenger Stephen Ssemaala, 52, brings a very different, and new, perspective to the city as an immigrant from Uganda. But although he expresses a deep commitment to the rule of law and to democracy, he has no history of local civic involvement.
We endorse Oliva because of he has acquired a good working knowledge of city and council operations. He’s represented Tumwater on the Thurston Regional Planning Council and regional LOTT Alliance (for sewage and stormwater management) and is now in a position to put those experiences to good use during a fresh four-year term.
He’s also been a progressive-leaning voice for diversity in city government and an advocate for smarter land use in a city where it’s often hard to get from point A to point B, due to the way the city grew after a freeway was built through its heart.
A key challenge facing Tumwater in the next few years is the redevelopment of the Olympia brewery complex, which is falling into disrepair along Capitol Boulevard and Custer Way. Oliva says it has potential for mixed-use development, and he thinks the city can also lend a hand in saving the iconic brewhouse on the banks of the Deschutes River.
That said, Ssemaala has perhaps the most compelling personal story of any local candidate running this fall. He served on Uganda’s Constituent Assembly, which drew up a constitution in the central African nation that had a history of bloody rule.
After members of an opposing party won elections, Ssemaala said he had to flee from persecution and emigrated as a political refugee to the U.S. in 1996. Here he earned citizenship and a law degree from the University of Washington, and his family, including four children (now adults), rejoined him later.
Along the way, Ssemaala went from working in a fast food restaurant to working as an attorney for the state. He now oversees contracts for the state Department of Social and Health Services. He also teaches at South Puget Sound Community College.
Ssemaala and Oliva both say they support environmental protection, and both support the city helping solve the regional problem of homelessness. Oliva noted that when extra funds were sought recently from the county’s three largest cities, only Tumwater offered to increase its contribution.
Both want to see more economic development, which Ssemaala calls the top challenge facing the city. He said he wants to minimize new regulations that hinder small businesses, but provides few details.
Oliva said port land next to Interstate 5 is a good place for an auto dealership or other similar business, while land along Tumwater Boulevard could be rezoned to encourage mixed-use development.
Both candidates think Tumwater should not go alone in increasing its minimum wage requirements. Both see value in a regional approach, which is both candidates’ preference in addressing many issues, including homelessness.
Oliva deserves another term. We hope Ssemaala will invest his time in another role helping the city embrace regional solutions to its problems.