Representation Matters: Why Politics Is Always a Matter of Life or Death

by Joe Nguyen and Rosa Mai

When I started campaigning on the idea that representation matters, I received pushback from people who felt that I was playing into identity politics. Some of these people argued that I needed a wider appeal or that I could not win on demographic votes alone. There seemed to be a lot of folks assuming that representation begins and ends with race. In the end, representation never seems a satisfactory reason for a candidate to run nor for us to vote for them.

I disrespectfully disagree. I look forward to the day when I can explain that I like a certain candidate simply because “representation matters” and not have to answer questions about whether that person is really qualified because of that. That should be qualification enough. Representation matters. End of story.

Until then, this is my explanation.

Representation matters because, for an unforgivably long time, it has not. Politics has leaned old, rich, and white, so the people on the opposite end of the spectrum—young, poor, and/or POC—have been the least likely to vote or even feel a connection to politics at all. Regrettably, this dynamic remains all too common.

I am someone whose parents were refugees. I grew up as a poor person of color in unincorporated territory that was deemed politically insignificant. I am the exception to the rule because I am someone who votes. Where I lived, candidates running for office did not listen when we tried to explain which issues matter to us. They did not court my vote because they don’t know that I—a voting person—exist. They did not care enough even to come to my neighborhood to find out.

The subtext is loud and clear, even if it’s unintentional: “Your problems don’t matter to me.”

This message plagued me growing up, plagued my political involvement, and continues to plague me to this day whenever I bring up issues about representation.

It feeds into the continuous cycle of political indifference. No one campaigns in POC-heavy areas like White Center because of its low voter turnout, so White Center does not vote much. POC are hard-pressed to find candidates who share their lived experiences and are ready to listen to their wants or give them a spot at the table beyond tokenism, so POC are not engaged. Campaigning focuses on money and fundraising, so poor people don’t matter.

Candidate Joe Nguyen meeting with members of the local Vietnamese community.

I know many people who grew up in circumstances like mine who simply have given up on the fight for political representation and have fallen into a deep cynicism about the process instead. I can’t blame them. As a person of color, at every political function I’ve gone to I have had to justify my existence, my taking up space. I’ve smiled and nodded as people spoke down to me about issues I’ve studied extensively, written policy recommendations on, and fought for. I’ve sat in meetings, tongue-tied from both utter disbelief and an overwhelming powerlessness as politicians told me to my face that issues that were matters of life or death for me may be important but were not priorities or politically viable.

That is absolutely ridiculous.

Conventional political wisdom thinks that White Center doesn’t matter? Fine. It says that young, working class people of color are unlikely to vote? Fine.

It’s wrong.

When I say that representation [in politics] is a matter of life or death, I am not exaggerating. Laws, budgets, and power determine who lives and who dies. Income inequality can determine whether or not my friend has to choose between buying groceries or paying rent. Trust in police has been declining, and public safety is at risk if you can’t even call the police because you’re terrified of the consequences. The homelessness crisis is called a crisis because there is a body count; people are dying on the streets. Our current healthcare system needs to be expanded, and this must be a priority because lives depend on it. Criminal justice reform determines the life of not just the person incarcerated but also the family they leave behind. It also determines whether we reinforce cycles of crime and poverty that last for generations or break them.

People of color and of low- and working-class status particularly have a lot to lose because they are disproportionately affected by these issues and are underrepresented in conversations about solutions. They get screwed and the body count grows.

Politics is a matter of life or death for politicians, who should be doing everything they can to help the people—their people—and yet the urgency is lost in talks about political viability. In the meantime, people in ignored communities are lost in the process as neither their lives nor their deaths have ever mattered.

This needs to end. It should have ended long ago. If these communities are ever going to be more than an awkward campaign photo-op pit stop, politicians and candidates need to start reaching out to these people and making it clear that they matter. More than that, politicians and candidates must start listening to these people who have too often been told—not asked—how the community should be fixed.

We’ve finally been seeing the start of it in this election cycle. Several candidates have campaigned actively in historically ignored areas like White Center, and the results give me a hope that drives me to continue. At one home in Burien, I gave a Vietnamese man a multilingual walk piece (an informational flyer) and spoke to him briefly before moving to the next home. However, after a few minutes, he ran down the street to speak to me again. He was so surprised that someone had doorbelled him because it had never happened in all previous decades he’d been living in that home. He pointed to some other Vietnamese households he wanted us to speak to, and we did. These are people who’ve never been reached before and likely never would have until we made that extra effort.

This is why I do what I do. This is why I’m fighting so hard within a system that only politely listens as a token gesture half of the time and outright condescends to me the other half. This is why I go to meetings I feel uncomfortable at because I know I do not look the part of the people who normally show up. This is why I put up with sleepless nights and hopeless days.

If someone feels like their voice matters, that makes all the difference. If they tell their friends, they can empower a community. If they vote and participate and fight, they create a space.

Together, in this space, we fight for the lives of those who’ve been ignored—until their lives and our lives matter in every way, to every person who has had the gall to ever make us believe otherwise.

Joe Nguyen is running for the State Senate in the 34th district, which includes Vashon Island, West Seattle, White Center, and Burien.