Who Will Be The 37th District’s Next State Senator?

by Cliff Cawthon

(Updated 12/5/16 at 11:45am)

Despite what most in the left- leaning 37th District saw as a devastating and traumatic Presidential result, the 2016 election did bring some key wins down the ballot. Progressives such as State Senator Pramila Jayapal, representing the 37th Legislative District (LD), came away with a victory in the race for the 7th Congressional District position—leaving open her seat in the most diverse and progressive district in the state of Washington. Or, as we at the Emerald call it, the “most eclectic place on earth.”

Now, it’s time to determine who will take that seat.

For those unfamiliar with the electoral process, the appointment process is triggered when a seat is vacated by an incumbent legislator. In order to replace them the legislator’s district party’s elected Precinct Committee Officers (PCO) have a vote, facilitated by the county party, for a choice of three candidates who they want to replace the outgoing legislator. The top three candidates go to the King County Council, who then decide which candidate from the three choices will fill the vacant seat for the remainder of the legislator’s term. Usually, the nine members of the County Council select the top vote-winner out of the three recommendations.

This isn’t small potatoes. The 37th LD is a consequential seat in a divided and often divisive State Senate. LaKecia Farmer, the acting Chair of the 37th LD, considers this “[the district that], a lot of the time, [brings] the issues that affect all of us, but specifically People of Color to the forefront.”

One example of this is a recent Policing and Criminal Justice forum that focused “on the relationship between People of Color and the police.”

“[The forum] featured Lorena González on a panel that had all women, all People of Color and a [police accountability] activist, Kirsten Harris-Talley,” Farmer explained.

The 37th is composed of South Seattle, the Central District, the International District, and parts of Beacon Hill, Skyway, and Renton. According to the 2010 census, the population is 59.2% non-white with a Black population of 22.9%. And to boot, this LD has loads of what neither political party nor the state legislature has: Young people. The median age in the district is 38 years old.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, the last living member of the legendary “Gang of Four” civil rights leaders shared his perspective on how important this appointment is:

“In being an activist and a member of the 37th LD Democrats since 1973, I don’t see the major issues that confront the constituents of the 37th having changed much, but the constituencies of the 37th are changing…issues in the 80’s and 90’s are still going,” he noted.

“Whoever gets elected will have to deal with these issues, particularly the school to prison pipeline. According to Mayor Murray, 55% of Black youngsters under the age of 18 live below the poverty level. They are at extreme risk for being cannon fodder, expelled and jailed within the criminal justice system.”

The Candidates

This opening has already attracted nearly a dozen candidates—and the list is growing. As it stands now, eleven candidates are vying for the open seat. They span a multitude of genders, races, and backgrounds, something that is truly reflective of the 37th and its unique demographic.

The candidates will make their case to the constituents of the 37th Legislative District this Friday at 7:00pm, with the doors opening at 6:30pm at the Rainier Arts Center.

Prior to the debate, the Emerald connected with some of the candidates. They included policy advocates and organizers like Rebecca Saldaña and Sheley Secrest and actors from other institutions, Juan Cotto, Jesse Wineberry,  John Stafford and Rory O’Sullivan, the former chair of the LD.

Saldaña, a noted and very visible local organizer in her role as the Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage, told the Emerald that this race is a personal one for her.

“Representing the 37th would be a huge honor, as I have deep ties to the community, as an organizer, advocate, and parent of four children, including a second grader at Graham Hill elementary,” she explained.

In addition to being an active part of the community, she’s emphasized her pride in her work at Puget Sound Sage.

“I have advocated tirelessly to ensure that policy and investment decisions benefit local residents in the 37th and support community priorities for economic development and anti-displacement”.

She noted a list of specific achievements which included: successfully winning the $15 minimum wage campaign in Seatac and strong community enforcement for labor standards in Seattle; winning Metro’s reduced-fare program; guaranteeing funding for a Graham Street Station in both the Seattle Transportation Levy and Sound Transit 3, increased bus service; and winning $16 million for five People of Color-led economic development initiatives in the 37th

Another local activist, Dr. Sheley Secrest, the NAACP’s Vice Chair, reached out to the Emerald and explained why she was also seeking the appointment,”What began as a moment has lead to a movement. The moment of simply finding some body to fill a vacant seat has passed. This movement opens the floodgates to those who’ve been marginalized pushed aside and told they don’t belong. This movement tears down walls and removes barriers”.
She noted that her main priorities include education, equity and protecting the public’s interests. Dr. Secrest specifically pointed out that one of the focuses of the campaign is “the widening gaps between with the haves and have nots”. Dr. Secrest’s work around the minimum wage, her enforcement education work, and her day job as an attorney dealing with cases of police misconduct have not gone un-noticed locally and she stated that she “[wants] to bring state resources home so we can continue doing it”.

In addition to folks from grassroots circles, policy experts such as Juan Cotto have joined the race.

Cotto is a Seattle native who is the Director of Outreach, Inclusion and Diversity for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and, he’s also the President of the Board of El Centro De La Raza. More importantly, if you were active in party politics between 1992 and 2002 you knew Juan Cotto really well; he is a very seasoned campaigner, who aided Senator Patty Murray in her 1992 campaign.

Cotto expressed a familiar and warm enthusiasm for running in this race due to his “love” of politics, government, and our political system.

“It is time we stop fighting the battles of the last century! I am ready to lead the 37th and Washington state into the new millennia.”

Cotto enthusiastically suggests that his platform on funding education, creating a progressive tax structure, and protecting the Affordable Care Act and Washington’s Applecare will be more important than ever. 

Cotto isn’t the only person with legislative ties to run, though. Jesse Wineberry joined the race early after his failed bid for the 9th Congressional District seat against Rep. Adam Smith. When asked why he wanted to run, he laughed and said, “I’m drafted back into the fight.” The former Representative of the 43rd and 37th is a familiar face to statewide politics before he was unseated in 1994. According to former Representative Wineberry, coming back to fight for equity and funding education for the youth of the 37th are his major priorities.

Rory O’Sullivan, the Managing Attorney of the Housing Justice Project and the now former Chairman of the 37th LD has also declared his candidacy. Until recently, Rory was the Chair of the 37th LD, but stepped aside because, he said, he has a perspective on housing issues and justice that isn’t found in Olympia and being the chair and a candidate would be, of course, an egregious conflict of interest.

“The 37th district is changing a lot….As the managing Attorney for the Housing Justice Project I see [gentrification] a lot as people are priced out of their houses as costs rise and rise. It’s getting more difficult to find housing.”

John Stafford, a member of the 37th’s Executive Committee is also running against his fellow 37th LD members. John’s argument for him being given the appointment is “a directly knowledgeable, highly substantive, fact-based approach to policy”. John wishes to emerge as an “analytic thought leader” in the state legislature.

John goes onto reference working in every single one of the Seattle school district’s 100 schools. His career in education is where he says that he developed a perspective on equity, instead of lived experiences, by dealing with “issues on the ground” between having to function as a teacher and janitor to making sure children has the supplies they needed to be successful. 

In addition to his experience and passion for education and his commitment to funding Washington’s highly de-funded school system, he’s a proponent of taking immediate action to mitigate climate change and a progressive tax. John is a leading member of the Climate Action Network who lives on Beacon Hill and argues that action needs to be taken immediately. Though, he stands at odds with those who opposed I-732, which he supported, he says that he’s ready to work with those in the Climate Action Network and other groups to work forward. 

This race also includes newcomers to the community like, Shasti Conrad.

While much of Shasti’s career and work has been in D.C., she’s always represented her adopted home of Seattle.

“I got called away by my career, when I was 23 years old when I first started with the Obama campaign and I got to the White House when I was 24. I was away and yes, those relationships were built nationally though, whenever I was away from the district I was always very proud of saying ‘I’m from Seattle, I’m from Washington State, I’m from the other Washington.” In addition to holding a Masters in Public Policy from Princeton University, she went onto work for the Malala Fund and then after that worked as a staffer on the Bernie Sanders Campaign.

“I felt called, especially due to the November 8th election results. Like many, I was horrified. I said to myself, ‘you know what, it’s time for people to stand up, it’s time for People of Color to stand up’, and I felt really strongly that this is the way that I could put myself out there to fortify,” Shasti recalled.

Her main issues are police accountability, something she’s committed to tackling on day one; gentrification and housing affordability, as well as education- particularly for the disadvantaged.

She’s has previously lived in the 43rd but currently resides on Beacon Hill and shared with me that she would see her role as, “a ‘convener’. I love bringing people together, I do it in my personal life. I see people and recognize that they come from completely different backgrounds and then I bring these people together.”

Albeit new to the district and with national roots, she didn’t shy away from challenging other progressives in this very crowded race, “We have nothing left to lose. I have nothing left to lose. As a woman of color, I’m going all in for my family and my community.”

The petition and controversy

The process has recently attracted some controversy within the district. The district’s contentious relationship with County and State party leaders and internal ambitions of some has become very visible in reaction to the important vote for the group of three nominees. The scheduled date by the King County Democratic Party on December 5th have seen a petition from 33 PCO’s launched on the 22nd. It urged the King County Democratic Central Committee to hold a special meeting to vote on the three nominees today, November 30th.

The petition was rejected two days ago, however, and the concerns of the PCOs are expected to permeate throughout this process.

The contention with the December 5th date is due to current appointed and elected PCO terms expiring as of yesterday, November 30th. According to some inside sources, the petitioners stuck to their date in order to aim at stacking the composition of the PCOs who are voting on the appointment. The PCOs who are supporting the petition contest that a truly inclusive process would include appointed (those who are acting officers, not elected) and elected officers.

The signatories to the petition are largely, though not exclusively, African-American and African and they have called the December date an act to “disenfranchise” them. The County Party chair, Rich Irwin, a Mercer Island resident and veteran campaigner, disagreed, saying that the December 5th date was reasonable and, “in accordance with Washington State Law around PCO’s and the party re-organization.” He went on to explain that the election of PCOs during the August primary is the new PCOs that are meant to vote on any vacancies for the following year.

When asked if the vote could’ve been scheduled before November 30th, he explained that “anything is possible” and then reiterated that he made this decision in accordance with the law and the projected capacity that the LD and County Party organization had to organize the voting meeting.

Admittedly, the concerns of those PCOs (and some say their allegiances) have been tied largely to one of the candidates, Jesse Wineberry. When asked about the allegation, he rejected any connection to launching or organizing the petition, however, he has reiterated their concerns. That this seems like an “effort to divide Democrats and to exclude appointed PCOs” according to Wineberry.

Wineberry also took aim at former Chair Rory O’Sullivan, suggesting that Irwin and O’Sullivan may have been colluding.

Over the phone, Irwin firmly responded that “I have not made any endorsement, I have no feelings on this appointment, and I am with no individual camp. I feel that wouldn’t be legitimate and I am not even running the process on the 5th…State Committeeman, Javier Valdez (Seattle) will be running the process for the County Party”. Though this issue may not be a cause to disqualify the process taking place this has raised a problem of confidence in the level of leadership of the KCDCC reflects. The cultural friction wasn’t lost on Lakecia Farmer, either. As a young woman of color, she said, “when [I] go to King County meetings I am usually…the only person of color, and one of very few young people.”

Though this issue may not be a cause to disqualify the process taking place this has raised a problem of confidence in the level of leadership of the KCDCC reflects. The cultural friction wasn’t lost on Lakecia Farmer, either. As a young woman of color, she said, “when [I] go to King County meetings I am usually…the only person of color, and one of very few young people.”

“While we talk about representing disenfranchised people, [the leadership] certainly doesn’t reflect that…it’s only my opinion that in this new climate, it’s so important for our district to represent other values, the values that the Republicans and Trump, those who’ve explicitly said that [marginalized people] are not welcome…it’s crucial for us as a district to take a stance against that. This district is crucial to those values.”


One thought on “Who Will Be The 37th District’s Next State Senator?”

  1. 1) The petition had 33 signatories, but less than 30 were actually PCOs (either elected OR appointed) meaning it didn’t meet the threshed to convene a special meeting to change the rules.
    2) It would have been great to hear from other candidates like Shasti Conrad or John Stafford (who even blogs here regularly!)

    Other than that, thanks for covering this race!

    -Stephen Reed
    Secretary, 37th LD Democrats

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