Tukwila is super diverse.
Immigrant and refugee families have been resettling in the city over the past twenty years, and low-income minorities are moving south from Seattle in search of affordable housing.
At last count, 35.8 percent of Tukwila residents were foreign-born. The city boasts the most diverse school district in the nation, where only 13.8 percent of students identify themselves as white and about 40 percent are bilingual.
But this diversity goes depressingly unrepresented in Tukwila city politics.Five of seven city council members are white, as is the current mayor Jim Haggerton. The city council campaign this year suggests veteran politicians will all be returning to office.
But with Haggerton retiring at the end of the year after two terms as mayor and thirteen years on the city council, is this the chance for Tukwila to go in a new direction?
The race to replace him, between current council members De’Sean Quinn and Allan Ekberg, has been surprisingly lively, and there’s been hints of darkness on the edge of town.
The candidates’ campaign literature is filled with platitudes referring to serious demographic issues in vaguely coded language. These same platitudes were repeated at a candidate forum prepared by Foster High School civics students earlier this month.
As you might expect, the students’ questions were pretty safe, to the delight of candidates who responded in equally generic terms that everything was going to be fine.
To the students’ credit, issues of affordable housing, the environmental, minimum wage and public safety — all of which have an outsized effect on minorities — were raised. It was a typical class assignment and the students did pretty well in presenting the rehearsed questions.
But when I caught up one East African student after the forum she didn’t seem thrilled with the results. She said the main issue that concerns her in this particular election was representation, but it wasn’t a question she was able to ask.
“Tukwila is failing the kids,” NAACP Seattle/King County education chairwoman Rita Green told the Globalist in May, commenting on the the disproportionate level of teacher diversity in Tukwila schools.
In the Candidate Forum, Ekberg said he understands issues that affect immigrant families. He invoked his first generation immigrant parents — his father from Norway and mother from Great Britain. He said the best way to engage immigrants is to try to integrate them to American culture.
Afterward, I asked him if the comparison to his parents’ European immigrant experience was really helpful in informing policy given the “new” arrivals to Tukwila are mostly people of color with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.
“I think that in this generation with the multi-ethnic diversity we have in the city of Tukwila city, the color of the skin doesn’t matter,” Ekberg said. “What I do think that matters is people’s acceptance to those folks that come to this city.”
He added that once the language barrier is resolved, like it was for his father, immigrants will realize the color of their skin doesn’t matter.
“There is so much opportunity in the city of Tukwilla. Human Services has been enabled to prevent that [inequality] from happening,” he said. “You can’t govern based on individual choices. But on the whole, I think the resident of the city of Tukwila are very receptive.”
It may well be that long-time Tukwila residents are receptive. But how much voice can immigrants really have in policy decisions if they don’t have a single seat on the council?
It’s not for lack of trying on the part of foreign-born candidates.
In 2011, Somali American and Filipino American candidates sought seats on council, but both lost to veteran contenders. Othman Heibe, another Somali American who ran next door in SeaTac also lost his race that year.
Maybe it’s not just Tukwila. Maybe the U.S. has a broader problem with engaging new immigrants into the political process. Canadians just elected Ahmed Hussen, who was born and raised in Somalia, as the first Somali Canadian member of parliament.
I caught up with Heibe, who says he’s been following the mayoral race in Tukwila, via email.
“Simply put, minorities or communities of color, say whatever you want, do NOT have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice in local elections. That is the sad truth,” he wrote.
Does it matter? Can well-intentioned veteran politicians represent the needs of new immigrant groups, as Ekberg suggests.
Somali-born Faisa Farole, who was at the center of controversy in 2013 over women-only swim hours at the Tukwila pool, seems to think not. She describes candidates dropping in to immigrant and refugee communities during campaign season, then failing to deliver on issues that matter to them.
She emailed a laundry list of things she hoped would be addressed by city politicians:
“Rental prices increasing; very little diversity among school teachers; low minimum wage is a big problem because a parent from each house hold has a full time job or two and yet still qualifies for public assistance,” she said. “I think we should follow the $15 minimum wage example in order to give these communities a boot and enrich Tukwila’s growing economy.”
When pressed, she says Ekberg’s opponent De’Sean Quinn (who is a person of color) has a better record of addressing immigrant issues on the ground.
He’s also got the support of OneAmerica Votes, the political arm of the Seattle-based immigrant and refugee advocacy organization (where he’s a board member).
“De’Sean through his campaign has been engaging all of those [diverse] communities…whereas his opponent, I think, doesn’t have the same inclusive vision and sees who is a resident of Tukwila in a much more narrow way,” said Toby Guevin of OneAmerica Votes.
Quinn mentions access to services, public safety, and especially housing when he talks about how Tukwila’s immigrant and refugee families would be better served with him as mayor.
“Even for me as someone who lived in an apartment, I was always kinda scared to talk to the landlord about issues: molds, rats,” Quinn said. “We need to expand rental inspection programs for sure. Because there are barriers, right? And especially for immigrant and refugee families.”
But for the most part, both candidates seem more interested in talking about each other’s campaign tactics than on the core issues. They recently got in a Facebook fight accusing each other of stealing yard signs.
The skirmish reached high when a mailer from “Citizens Voting for Ekberg” went out saying “Tukwila is not for sale,” and “Tukwila needs a mayor not a puppet.” They framed Quinn, who grew up in Seattle, as an outsider, charging that 88 percent of his campaign finance comes from outside of Tukwila.
But neither candidate has the first hand experience of living in Tukwila as an immigrant, despite their apparent efforts to understanding those issues. The elephant in the room for Tukwila immigrant families is not so much understanding as it is representation.
“I do not think that minorities are well represented in Tukwila,” Farole said, “It’s not because of lack of qualified people. Rather, Tukwila natives might not be ready for them.”
This post has been updated since it was first published to clarify information about De’Sean Quinn: that he’s a board member of OneAmerica, a person of color, and that he lived in an apartment in the past, not currently.