Big win for Pramila, but diversity in WA politics at a standstill

Pramila Jayapal (left) and supporters wave signs at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr Way and Rainier Ave on Election Day. (Photo courtesy Jayapal for State Senate)
Pramila Jayapal (left) and supporters wave signs at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr Way and Rainier Ave on Election Day. (Photo courtesy Jayapal for State Senate)

Supporters of Pramila Jayapal cheered after the first election results streamed in last night — giving Jayapal 66.3% of the vote and effectively making her the first Indian immigrant elected to the Washington State Legislature. Depending on the final tally of the 30th District results and Shari Song’s race, this race will also make Jayapal the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate.

Before campaigning, Jayapal made history outside of the political arena as the founder of OneAmerica, Washington state’s largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization. OneAmerica was founded in the wake of September 11, 2001 to fight the targeting of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, and to form a broad-based coalition of organizations from different ethnic and religious communities.

Jayapal was born in India and came to the U.S. for college when she was 16 years old. She has been a community leader and resident of South Seattle and the 37th District for almost twenty years. Her campaign assembled the strength of more than 300 volunteers, including young women, people of color, immigrants, and many others from across the region. It was an inspiring effort, with triumphant results.

As I reported back in August, the 37th District, comprising of the area between Madrona and the northern parts of Renton, is the most economically and racially diverse district in the state.

Jayapal issued a statement this morning celebrating this reality, and appeared to understand the challenge ahead of her:

“Our district represents the future of this state and country. Our campaign registered and engaged new voters, including people of color and immigrants, and I will work to ensure their voices are heard in Olympia and that they have direct access to the legislative process. I am also committed to challenging policies that disproportionately disadvantage communities of color.”

If we follow Jayapal’s lead and view the election in the 37th District as a microcosm for politics in Washington state, the future looks encouraging. The roster of candidates who ran for the open 37th Senate seat represented the diversity of its constituency. The runner up in yesterday’s election was Louis Watanabe, a Japanese-American education activist. Other candidates from the primary included Sheley Secrest, African-American champion of fairness and economic opportunity and John Stafford, a Beacon Hill resident and proponent of a revenue neutral carbon emissions tax.

Beyond the 37th District race, several judicial candidates with immigrant backgrounds running for office in Seattle lead the polls. Damon Shadid will be the first person of Middle Eastern descent elected to the Municipal Court and Ketu Shah, will retain his position as the first Indian American judge to serve for the King County District Court.

The folks in Seattle who rely on public transit for their means of transportation are expressing relief on the passage of Seattle Transportation Proposition 1, with early returns at 59% in support. More funding translates into less eliminated bus routes and more reliable options for people getting around Seattle. Seattle’s communities of color and immigrant populations would have been the hardest hit if this proposition didn’t pass.

However, for those of us who want to see an elected body that equally represents Washington state’s range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages, Jayapal, Shadid, and Shah’s victories are small changes in a greater system of underrepresentation. Other first generation candidates such as Korean-born Shari Song in the 30th District and Indian-born Satpal Sidhu in the 42nd District currently trail behind their opponents. And one of only five women of color in the Washington State Legislature, Representative Monica Stonier, is currently losing to her Republican opponent. If she indeed loses and Jayapal begins to serve, the number of elected legislators of color in the House and Senate will remain the same.

Voting sign. (Photo from Flickr)
(Photo from Flickr)

Beyond the obvious appeal of having elected officials who actually look like you (and maybe even speak your language fluently), why is diversity so essential?

The foreign-born share of Washington state is the fastest growing segment of the population. In 2011, 45.9% of immigrants (or 417,019 people) in Washington state were naturalized U.S. citizens, and this number has grown significantly in the last three years. Yet, still only eight percent of legislators are of color, and an even a smaller percentage of them are from families of immigrants. This statistic is far too low for 2014. When these communities are under-represented in our elected bodies, we miss out on the perspectives of a huge and quickly growing segment of our population.

Hamdi Abdulle, Executive Director of the Somali Youth & Family Club and community leader for the Somali population in the King County area, affirms the impact of under-representation on her community.

“We are invited to the discussion table, but when it comes to the budget we do not get a say and this is where real change is achieved,” Adbulle said. “It’s like there are two tables: the discussion table and the budget table. Unless we connect those two than the status quo will remain the same.”

Because elected officials dictate control over budgetary issues such as housing, health and education, misrepresentation and faulty assumptions will prevail until a representative is at the table that truly understands the nature of a community’s concerns.

Washington state still has much work to do to achieve a fair and equally representative elected body. Despite names like Said, Sidhu, Baruso, and Song on ballots across the state, yesterday’s election did little more than retain the status quo.

Victories like Jayapal’s are a hopeful rally cry for change to come, but as she put it, “given the scale of the change we seek we have to prepare ourselves to what amounts to a permanent campaign. And this is just the beginning.”

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