The Race for the 37th Is Down to Three

by Cliff Cawthon

Updated 12/6/16 at 2:28pm

One thing was clear at 5:50pm last night: the 37th Legislative District is always exciting.

At the meeting to determine which of a deep bench would move forward in the nomination process to fill the seat vacated by Pramila Jayapal’s election to congress, Precinct Committee Officers (PCOs) rolled into the Rainier Arts Center five minutes before 6pm with a palpable frustration, anticipation, and ambition in the air.

It began with a was a small scuffle just to get in the door and continued to feel tense and emotional from there.

This meeting is the first step in seeking the appointment to the 37th, each candidate has the next 30 days to persuade members of the King County Council of their qualifications to hold the seat.

The LD was faced with a large and diverse range of candidates—some of whom would be groundbreaking for the Senate. The current chamber, excluding the outgoing Jayapal, has no Women of Color nor Black men, two points cited by the campaigns. Dr. Sheley Secrest, one of the well-known candidates in the race, characterized the potential of a victory by one of the people on this diverse range of candidates as, “opening the floodgates to those who have been disenfranchised, marginalized and told that they just don’t belong”.

The process was muddled, though, due to allegations beforehand that the County and local party conspired to suppress the votes of the appointed PCOs, many of whom were aligned with Former Rep. Jesse Wineberry. When the Emerald contacted the new King County Democrats Chair, Bailey Stober, he had this to say about the issue, “I’ve inherited the situation that my predecessor was involved in and I want what is the most fair and equitable solution for tonight’s appointment.”

In spite of the confusion and concern, the other campaigns came out in force.Candidates for the appointment were excited almost across the board—but five out of the seven candidates made early appearances, shaking hands and making their case with every PCO.

The process features a kind of run-off, wherein PCOs cast their ballots; the first round surprisingly yielded Rory O’Sullivan as the top-ballot candidate. Many of his supporters, who passed out stickers beforehand, came from outside the legislative district to lend their support. The surprise upset was not without its controversy given the fact that O’Sullivan doesn’t necessarily represent the demographics of the 37th, and neither did most of the PCO’s in the room last night who were white, relatively middle class and much older; a stark contrast to the 37th multiracial, young, and working-class population.

Other candidates, including Shasti Conrad, Juan Cotto, John Stafford; and a last minute entry, Bob Rosenberg, waited eagerly for the second round.

While waiting for the second round choice to be announced, the Emerald spoke to O’ Sullivan, whereas he declined to give an analysis of his results but talk about his agenda, “One of my biggest priorities has always been homelessness,” he said. “The federal government has had a huge disinvestment in housing over the last couple of decades” noted O’Sullivan.

The second round went firmly to Puget Sound Sage Executive Director Rebecca Saldaña, an early favorite in the race.

“I feel great,” she told the Emerald. When asked about her next steps before the King County Council selection process, Saldaña said, “I’m still considering what the best option is, but I’m definitely committed to running and representing the 37th because I do believe that I’m a strong candidate and that I have a lot of relationships and that I can do a lot to advance the values and priorities of the 37th.”

One of her supporters, Bre Wieder, said that “[PCOs] want to appoint someone who can hit the ground running, know the other legislators, know the other lobbyists.” She went on to say that Saldaña’s victory was a sign of the importance that state legislative politics has at this political moment and that “I hope this isn’t a blip, I hope that this is a movement.”

After two rounds of voting, Shasti Conrad was selected as the third pick, a surprising victory to some; Conrad, though experienced in Washington D.C., is a lesser-known name locally than others in the field.

According to Conrad, the last-minute win was a sign of the political climate being favorable to outsiders.

“We’re so thrilled. This is kind of proof that you stand up for what you believe in, you go for it and then good things happen,” she said. “I think that people are looking for energy, they’re looking for youth, a unifier, and they know that the status quo doesn’t work.”

According to observers, the common thread between O’Sullivan, Saldaña, Conrad was that all of them have a strong housing or homelessness message which resonated with the PCOs.

In the 37th legislative district, the rising rents and costs to purchase and maintain homes have been a daunting issue for voters. Due to dispalcement, shelter in the once overlooked and underserved Rainier Valley has been hard to find—as a result more and more low-income former residents of the area are being pushed into the suburbs and unincorporated areas, such as Skyway.

With the field narrowed considerably, the candidates now have until Monday, December 12th  to appeal to the King County Council. In addition to their positions on housing being important, the Councilmembers will judge each of the potential appointees by how much the represent the demographics and interests of the district. Another factor to their decision may also include how much support can a potential legislator muster in Olympia to bring much-needed funding back to the county in order to support unincorporated areas, such as Skyway, which the county provides services for.

In addition to an appeal of each of the candidates, the mobilization effort of each campaign reflected the energy that will be present in the district for days to come leading up to the King County Council’s decision on who will replace Congresswoman-Elect Jayapal.

Featured photo courtesy of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce

12 thoughts on “The Race for the 37th Is Down to Three”

    State Senator Pramila Jayapal, who is leaving this particular seat for the Congressional seat she just won, has been the lone woman of color in the Senate.

    Sheley Secrest is not a “Dr.”, but rather a lawyer. She may be unaware of the long and rich history of the 37th LD electing candidates of color. She is clearly unaware that the “floodgates” opened 65 years ago, when we elected our first African American to the legislature.

    The district elected Representative Charles Stokes, a Republican, back in 1950. Democrat Sam Smith defeated Stokes in 1958. Smith served in the legislature until 1966, when he won a seat on the City Council. The 37th District had Washington State’s first African American state senator, George Fleming. Fleming served in the Senate from 1970-92, after one term in the House of Representatives. Vivian Caver served one term in the House, 1992-94. Representative Dawn Mason was elected in 1994 and served 2 terms.We currently have the state’s only African American legislator, Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who has served since 2002.

    The 37th District has had, and still has, Asian Representatives, including Gary Locke, who was elected in 1982 and served 10 years (who went on to serve as County Executive, Governor, US Commerce Secretary, and Ambassador to China). Rep. Kip Tokuda replaced Gary Locke in 1993. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos has served since 1998.

    These historical factors are all the more important when we realize that the PCOs, as author Cliff Cawthon notes, do not reflect the diversity of the district.

    103 people took the time and effort to file last Spring for PCO – a shockingly low number when one considers the excitement following the Democratic caucuses. Of the 103 PCOs eligible to vote in this appointment recommendation, 82 showed up last night. To be fair, that 80% turnout is remarkable, especially when we consider that the day began with snow. Nevertheless, it only took 42 votes to “win” the top spot.

    So, in a majority-minority district, one that has elected people of color to the state legislature since 1950, a small majority of PCOs present chose a bland white male over some highly qualified women of color, to replace the ONLY woman of color in the Senate.

    It’s not over. Citizens can, and should, contact King County Council to voice their opinion on who might better serve our district, one of the most diverse in the entire United States. The choices remain:
    Rory O’Sullivan
    Rebecca Saldana
    Shasti Conrad

    Contact the City Councilmembers individually. Find more info about each one here, along with their phone numbers:
    Rod Dembowski, District 1:
    Larry Gossett, District 2 (representing all of the 37th and surrounding areas):
    Kathy Lambert, District 3:
    Jeanne Kohl-Welles, District 4:
    Dave Upthegrove, District 5:
    Claudia Balducci, District 6:
    Pete Von Reichbauer, District 7:
    Joe McDermott, District 8:
    Reagan Dunn, District 9:

    1. Hey Cindi,

      So you probably have noticed a typo in the article, I would like to clear things up before it’s updated:

      1) Pramila’s replacement will be the only Woman of Color in the entire Senate, if Rebecca or Shasti are elected.

      2) Sheley has a Juris Doctrate in Law and B.A. in political science. She is a doctor.

      Last but, not least actually electing a young activist and more women of color would inspire others to get involved is what I believe Sheley was referring to. Also, given the choices last night, politics is getting more diverse and increasingly female.

      Does this answer your concerns. As you said, facts matter.


      1. Thanks for your reply, Cliff. Regarding the “Dr.” designation, in common usage, it is very, very rare in the US for an attorney to be called “Dr.” merely because someone completed law school. It’s usage here seems excessively amplified. However, should you insist on applying that term, so fairly, since Rory O’Sullivan, who came out ahead last night, is also an attorney/”Dr.”

        I’m strongly advocating for a woman of color in the State Senate. It is indeed troubling that we would replace the lone individual in that notable body with yet another white male, especially in light of our unique history.

        IMO, it seemed Sheley may have been reaching toward the many Bernie Sanders supporters. The factual history of the 37th LD Democrats’ appointment races demonstrate that, at least here these past 25 years, the majority of candidates have been minorities. The gender split has been fairly even these past 20 years.

        Again, pointing out the sadness of the results of this particular vote.

  2. I have lived in the 37th for 50 years; my family lived here 90 years ago. I take offence at the comment in this article. “…the fact that O’Sullivan doesn’t represent the demographics of the 37th…(because he was white). The last data I saw did not show that whites are the majority in the 37th District or SE Seattle. The last data I saw showed no race was greater than 50% of our population in SE Seattle or the 37th. I believe our Representatives in Olympia are an Asian and an African-American. Is it that bad that one of the 3 might be white?

    I was told we do not want major brand stores in SE Seattle because they would attract whites. Should we add signs for each neighborhoods signs, “Whites must leave by sundown” “Whites not welcome”

    I have lived and practiced dentistry in SE Seattle for 50 years. My office staff has always represented the patients we served that were close to 1/3 African-American, 1/3 Asian and 1/3 white. The staff was Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Pilipino, Hispanic, African-American, African, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist. Often I was the only white face in the place.

    My wife and I moved to SE Seattle because we wanted to raise our family in a multiracial multiethnic community. At a previous meeting of the 37th concerning those who served in the military should not be police officers because Veterans are too militant. I served with the Seabees and Marines in Vietnam, because I felt I owed service to my country. Are you now suggesting that I should leave SE Seattle because of the color of my skin and the fact that I served in the military in the Vietnam?

    1. Fred, calm down. Don’t be so defensive.

      It’s a fact that the 37th is majority-non-white, the PCOs were older and whiter than the constituency. This is very common.

      The point is that this has nothing to do with skin color. This is about facts.



  3. Strangely, Cindi failed to note that the 37th was well represented by Senator Adam Kline (of European descent) for many years, before Pramilya. Also, Fred does have a valid point – that the ideal diversity for the 37th representatives would be one black, one Asian, and one white.

    That being said, my number one criterion is qualifications, not ethnic background. To me no one person stood out during the candidates forum last Friday, but certainly both Rory and Rebecca were among the top contenders, so I am not surprised by their selection for the top two last night. In this case, Rory had the big advantage of being well known to the 37th PCOs, being their recent chair.

    However we have a number of highly qualified people who could have run and didn’t, people like former deputy mayor Darryl Smith. What is discouraging good people from running, I am wondering?

    1. Adam Kline is Jewish. That’s “off-white” in some color schemes. In fact, they along with Italians of Rainier Valley and other immigrants from south and east Europe were not accepted as part of the “white” culture (primarily northern European and protestant) for much of the early Twentieth Century. Isn’t tribalism great?

  4. So a couple of things. One this is my last comment since: a) everyone is entitled to their opinion and this just seems like opinion; b) you two definitely need to educate yourselves on power dynamics revolving around race because, it’s clearly not about the color or hue of ones skin but, it about certain people in our society being heard, represented and seen in our society; c) I don’t argue that someone should/ shouldn’t be elected, I merely point out that Rory got first in a majority-non-white district; d) Dick, her name is Pramila, not Pramilya; e) If you see an error or typo feel free to email me, otherwise don’t troll; f) Lastly, I’m sorry guys, white comfort isn’t the center of my universe. If me highlighting there’s some importance of PoC folks getting elected is wrong? Why? It’s historically relevant as you point out, in this lily white state. Plain et simple.

    1. I think after living and working in SE Seattle for 50 years I am reasonably educated about the power dynamics revolving around race. I grew up in the Yakima Valley doing field work from 6th grade through high school. There was lots of discrimination. The town was 50% Hispanic. It was not fair. We were very critical of the Deep South during the 1950’s. But no one pointed out we were no better. It was just a different group that was being discriminated against. The same folks I worked with in the fields.

      My family is multiracial. My wife grew up in South American speaking Spanish. She came to the States as a Senior in high school. She quickly educated me. I testified before the School Board 45 years ago because SE Seattle schools were not being treated equal with the rest of the city.

      I had letters to the editor published pointing out that African-Americans did not get into Dental Hygiene schools. I initiated the formation of a Dental Hygiene school in Seattle Central College. I was the spark the ignited the fire it too 5 years to open the program due to a lot of hard work by many educators. The last class, #10, was over 50% minority. In the past there was 2 African-Americans graduated in all 5 Dental Hygiene school of the state every 5 years or so.

      This year 3 students were dropped from the school within 2 quarters of graduation after 12 quarters of college and a 3.5 overall GPA due to one class. Two were minorities. One was a single mom with 2 children and very limited finances. I interviewed all three and went to the College President in an attempt to get them readmitted. These were the students the program was designed to help. They were not readmitted. The President would not reverse the decision of her faculty, but I had tried. I was removed from the Technical Advisory Committee of the program because I had spoken to the former students. So be it.

      My dental office has reflected the population of SE Seattle since I opened the doors 50 years ago. I have excused patients who did not want minorities providing care. This is rarely a problem in SE Seattle. You do not liver here if you are a bigot. I helped and encourage several dental assistants to continue their educations and become dental hygienists. I took up the battle when an African-American and a Vietnamese did not get excepted to a hygiene school. The admission policy was clearly biased. I ran for political office with that as my cause. I did not get elected, but both were accepted and graduated. I defended my position before a meeting of the Washington State Dental Hygiene faculties. There was not one minority in the room of 100.

      I came back from Vietnam after treating the troops, serving on medical evacuations of wounded Marines, and doing dentistry on Vietnamese villagers who were badly infected. There were no dentists or physicians for 100 miles. When I came home, i was told it would be better if I did not tell anyone I had served. The war was very unpopular and anyone who had served was discounted. I learned to accept that although I had served my country it was nothing that should be mentioned.

      I volunteer and help teach STEM classes to underprivileged kids to expose them to the math and science of aviation. Get them hooked on science in the 5th-9th grade and they can do get into the programs they desire.

      I am not a minority, but I think I am reasonably sensitive to discrimination. I still take on causes where I see inequities. I now am semi retired. I still think that SE Seattle is a good place to live and to have my grandchildren grow up. After all my family had members living her 90 years ago.

  5. the appointment is less than 11 months and Republicans have the majority, there was no magic person running last night that would change that fact.

    Rory won because he campaigned longer and has worked in the district as chair, a PCO appointment favors someone who is involved in the legislative organization.

    Rebecca is involved with Puget Sound Sage which is a fantastic organization, but the PCO’s know Rory.

    If I had to predict the future, Rory takes the appointment and it’s irrelevant because the Republicans have the majority in the Senate and are hell bent on killing progressive legislation. Then if Rebecca runs in 2017 (yep there is an election in less than a year for the very same seat and another in 2018) She will likely win, because whomever wins the appointment won’t be able to raise money during session giving whomever comes in 2nd place a head start.

  6. First, I don’t know why there ought to be any controversy that commenters in these threads are stating their opinion. That’s the point of comments to articles, it seems to me.

    Second, a clarification to one of the comments. Larry Gossett isn’t the only county council member that represents the 37th Legislative District. Parts of the district are also in Jim McDermott’s District 8 and Dave Upthegrove’s District 5.

    I appreciate the article calling out the need for better local government support of Skyway. With the county’s recent removal of the Skyway/West Hill Action Plan from the 2016 Comprehensive Plan, we see an ongoing pattern of neglect and delay in even formally identifying the most pressing needs of the community in order to then plan for an appropriate level of response.