Attorney and Former Convict Tarra Simmons Makes History with Washington Legislature Election

Simmons was imprisoned on drug charges before going to law school and graduating with honors: "I figured, running for office, maybe I can work more upstream and give people a first chance," she tells PEOPLE

Tarra Simmons
Tarra Simmons. Photo: Elect Tarra Simmons/Facebook

Last week, some seven years after being released from prison, attorney Tarra Simmons is believed to have made history as the first convicted felon elected to Washington's state legislature.

On Tuesday night, following a day of sign-waving and meeting with her closest volunteers, Simmons, 42, celebrated her victory on a Facebook Watch party. The day after her historic win, she and her husband headed to get tested for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) prior to an upcoming celebratory trip to Hawaii.

"We just want to go and recharge," Simmons told PEOPLE. "It's been a really, really hard year. I had a lot of people to sway to take a chance on a person who's been in prison. The narrative for people in prison is so hard to break through."

Break through she did — by making her arrest and incarceration a centerpiece of her campaign, which kicked off in October 2019.

Simmons' personal struggles began from a young age. After having her first child at age 15, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing and become a registered nurse. But she soon began abusing drugs as a means of coping with depression after the death of her father.

Her drug habit ultimately led to three arrests, one of which ended with a 20-month stint in prison.

While there, Simmons got to know a group of local law students who would visit inmates to help those dealing with family matters.

"I was going through a divorce at the time and was afraid to lose custody of my kids," she says.

A year after being released, she went to law school herself, ultimately graduating with honors, but she was denied admittance to the bar due to her record.

She fought the case, which eventually made its way to Washington's Supreme Court and was unanimously decided in her favor.

The case was highly-publicized in the state and Simmons developed a reputation for being a local activist for criminal justice reform. Still, launching her candidacy was a different kind of leap.

"I had never worked on a campaign, never ran for office ... I was well-known in my community because of the case, but I didn't know anything about campaigns or running for office," she says.

So she took a year to develop a core group of volunteers and a platform focused on giving those like her "a first chance, so they won’t need a second chance later on in life,” she says.

"I came to [politics] because I saw the inequities in our political and legal systems and have experienced them firsthand," Simmons says. "I figured, running for office, maybe I can work more upstream and give people a first chance."

"Some people approach politics as a profession," she says, but "for me, it was more bottom-up."

Her platform seeks to prevent the need for jails and prisons by investing in housing affordability, education and healthcare access and tax reform.

It was a message that resonated with local voters and national political names alike, including U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and former Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg, who endorsed Simmons in September.

On Tuesday, Simmons defeated her opponent, Republican April Ferguson, with nearly 65 percent of the votes cast in her race.

Today, the former nurse and mom of two sons (ages 17 and 27) touts a much more extensive resume than the one she had upon being released from prison. In addition to being a bar-certified attorney, Simmons will be the next representative for the state House's 23rd district seat.

She isn't leaving her past behind though. She acknowledged her journey, and what it represented, in a tweet sent out shortly after her race was called.

She wrote: "From the Big House to the State House...We Do Recover!"

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