Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in our series of interviews with the candidates- 5 Democrats and 1 Republican- who are vying to replace retiring State Senator Adam Kline in the 37th District. The top two candidates chosen in the primary election- held on August 5th- will continue on to the general- which takes place on November 4th. The winner of which will represent the 37th District in the Washington State Senate. The 37th currently comprises almost the entire South Seattle area.
You would think Louis Watanabe would have long ago tired of the role of educator. While he has held the official title of professor for only a little less than ten years, the erudite Beacon Hill native has spent nearly the entirety of his adult life, whether as engineer, social activist or entrepreneur, imparting lessons.
However, his passion for pedagogy appears in a state of constant revival, and can be found on full display whether in a classroom fertilizing the minds of the next generation of business leaders, on the dance floor for those eager to learn the foxtrot, or on South Seattle’s streets. A place where he freely lends advice to those youth that most have cast off as beyond hope. Watanabe now hopes to extend his talents for instruction all the way to Washington’s State Legislature, teaching new lessons to an institution he believes is in desperate need of them as the 37th District’s state senator.
Emerald: You’ve had great success in the private sector as the company you founded was Microsoft’s very first business acquisition. What made you want to step into the public realm and run for state senate?
Louis Watanabe: For the past ten years I’ve worked with students from various areas, including in and around South Seattle. What I’ve come to worry about is that you work so hard to get them prepared for the future, and then once their education is complete you worry about whether or not they’ll be able to find a job that pays well enough, allows them to raise a family, and allows them to do the things they set out to accomplish. I look at my job as a professor being about people achieving their dreams.
The other thing that worries me is education, mainly that we are still struggling to amply fund K-12 education while we’re also now seeing tution go sky high. If people have to go way into debt to have an education then they’re basically sacrificing some of their future in order to be able to have one. That doesn’t seem right.
A few weeks ago the governor was talking to different state agencies about 15 percent cuts across the board. They say it’s a planning scenario, however, it is pretty alarming. First of all there are some things that are a part of our budget, such as our food programs, where a 15 percent cut would be a pretty significant thing as food banks are closing down. Another is our homeless programs; their number has actually expanded. Transportation is also a concern. We’ve struggled for ten years to attempt to get a transportation package. After prop 1 failed we still find ourselves in a hole. I live in this neighborhood and I travel all over the place, and people depend on buses for jobs and to get to doctor’s appointments so this is a real problem that needs addressing.
Emerald: What’s your proposal for enticing more businesses – and the employment opportunities they bring- to the South Seattle area and larger 37th District?
Watanabe: First of all I have over twenty years of economic development experience – in addition to my having started a software company. I also teach statistical analysis, business research, and marketing courses at Bellevue College. I’ve also served as the business counselor for the college’s entrepreneurial center on the north campus at the old Microsoft Headquarters.
What I have in mind is that I’ve had experience in this area through sending student teams to work with businesses. I’m very familiar with the Southeast Effective Development, and so what I first took a look at was the County Business trends. That revealed what businesses are actually in the district. A lot of businesses in the 98118 zip code are actually fairly small, meaning 1 to 3 people. So we need to figure out of our existing businesses if we can help them hire more people, but you need to be a certain size in order to do that. It would be ideal to have people commute within the district as opposed to having to commute outside of it, which is what we have right now.
The areas where we really don’t have that kind of thing, we need to encourage businesses to come in. Columbia City is a great story, because what we’ve seen is it has taken twenty years to get to where they are. There has been some discussion in Othello, Rainier Beach, and Seward Park about food innovation centers, where you can tie in urban food courts. We should really take advantage of the fact that we have great culinary programs at South Seattle Community and Seattle Central Colleges. Manufacturing is something we should look at, and having a light rail that exist would allow us to take advantage of that in this district. There are also new technologies we can bring in such as LED (Light Emitting Devices), that’s become a big thing in terms of lighting. LED manufacturing might be a possibility here. If you look all around the region we have businesses involved in the production of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner bodies. The question is, can we actually take advantage of the land we have to the south?
Emerald: Education is obviously something near and dear to you. How would you make sure that our area schools are adequately funded?
Watanabe: Right now we’re in a budget crises because what revenue we have has been allocated towards other things. Personally I believe that when we have crisis we have to say that everything has to be on the table. The most obvious things are to look at tax loopholes, and businesses certainly have preferences of various sorts. The question is which ones pay their way, and which ones don’t? Is it right that Boeing got as much as it did (in its recent deal with the state) and they pay fewer taxes than they did before? While they are a major employer in the region, the fact is that they benefit from the improvements that the region makes, but they don’t pay their fair share. Quite frankly, I don’t like the idea of someone being able to come and just use up the resources in our area and then leave everyone else with the bill.
Emerald: What ideas do you have for Washington State to generate more revenue in order to fix its budget woes?
Watanabe: Revenue has not been keeping up with the growth of the state. We have the most regressive tax system in the country with the sales tax. It disproportionately impacts the people who can least afford to pay taxes. The reality is that Bill Gates Sr. made really great arguments as to why we should have an income tax on high income earners, however it didn’t carry the day in the last election. I firmly believe that this is an educational process. If people believe that it is for a good purpose they would consider a tax, but there’s a lot of skepticism that they’ll pay the tax and it won’t get used for the purpose it was intended. We have to be able to establish the trust of the people in order to do that. I’m a straight shooter. When people have worked with me as a negotiator I really tell it like it is. I would try to do as a state senator, in convincing others of the necessity of a state income tax. A compelling case needs to be made for it, and I believe that I can do that.
Emerald: With the rise in crime across South King County, public safety has been a huge weight on the minds of community members. What do you feel is the best way to address the issue?
Watanabe: When I went to the South Precinct a few weeks ago they had just picked up a 13 year old with a gun from Rainier Avenue. I think about that and I say: “A 13 year old having access to a gun!” This is really problematic. How do you prevent that kind of free access? People say: “Well you need to prosecute people who steal guns.” There’s more to it than that. People need to take on a certain amount of responsibility if they’re going to have a gun. We’ve unfortunately had all kinds of mishaps, even with a police officer’s family.
We know that it isn’t a perfect world out there. Criminals know that because juveniles are treated differently under our system, the juvenile can get away with more. So, they’ll often give them a gun, or drugs. As that’s the case, we have a revolving door before we can do something. This needs to be addressed. The core problem is why do people use guns? They use guns because they don’t feel that they have any other way to assert themselves. Many of them are disconnected from our community.
Prosperity really hasn’t benefited the ethnic communities here and we need to change that. People find ways of surviving, and you can either do it the right way or the wrong way. We have had a lack of investment, and attention paid to this area for a very long time. The stark symbolism is that we have properties that our boarded up and graffiti all over them. You don’t see that in Queen Anne, or in other areas of Seattle. People are left with a sense that people don’t care, so as a state senator I think that it is really important that the state invest in programs that are going to solve these problems. We have a need for basic services, whether it’s food programs, medical care or homelessness.
That’s why we need to bring in manufacturing jobs, because those are skill building. We need not only to bring in the income, but the abillity to go onto the next step. People talk about bringing training to this area, but it’s not training that drives jobs, it’s the other way around. I don’t want to just simply invest in an education center with no prospect of getting anything out of it. Economic development is the best crime prevention tool we have.
Emerald: Assuming you were elected, what would you want a constituent to be able to say about you once your term in office was over?
Watanabe: I’d like them to be able to say that I gave this district hope for a better future because I brought in the means for being able to achieve that through more jobs and skill building. I’d also want them to say that I was able to bring the entire community together in a way that it hadn’t been brought together before.
Emerald: What most distinguishes you from the other candidates running for the 37th District senate seat?
Watanabe: I have the skills that matter to people because I started off in engineering, and so I can see the big picture. I can see the tasks that need to be done and I can sequence them. The order of how you do things is very important. I’ve been an educator at the college level. I see the problems that are going on in K-12. I know first hand what it’s going to mean to be successful in our technologically driven future. I have been a community leader, serving on a number of boards. I think I bring that practical approach to problems with a lot of different skills. There’s a lot of legislation that has been written by people who don’t have a lot of time in the field, so to speak. I have that time.
Emerald: What is so special about the South Seattle area for you?
Watanabe: I’m proud of the fact that my family started out in this area, farming along the Green River and selling vegetables at Pike Place Market. I feel a personal history to this area.
I also like that it’s large enough to do significant things, but small enough that it is very personal. If you want to meet someone you can. I also love the range of humanity we have in this district, whether I go to Columbia City, Rainier Beach, or Seward Park.