by Phil Manzano
When talking about his run for Renton City Council, Joseph Todd’s voice breaks slightly and wavers. “I’m sorry, I get a little emotional here.”
He recalls George Floyd’s death a year ago, which sparked a worldwide racial reckoning.
“When we saw a man get murdered in daylight, it begins to bring home, for real, for real, that these systems are trying to kill you,” Todd said. “So that’s why when we created the Renton Residents for Change, it was really all about, ‘We have to get ahead of this.’”
The racial reckoning of 2020 as well as profound demographic changes in his city have pushed Todd, the deputy chief technology officer for King County, to run for a seat on Renton City Council.
He represents a movement from Renton to Federal Way, in which BIPOC and progressive candidates are emerging in south King County to run for a host of local political seats, including city council, county council, mayor, and school board offices. It’s part of an ongoing shift in local elected offices to better reflect a dramatic demographic change occurring in South King County. In addition, these municipalities are increasingly engaging on issues that have gripped the nation and region: policing, race, homelessness, mental health, and housing.
“We have to start making some changes within local government, so people won’t be afraid to drive, won’t be afraid to be policed,” Todd said. “And we have to start doing it before something like [what happened to] George Floyd happens here.”
Renton is now a majority People of Color city, along with Burien and Kent. Even more dramatic shifts are taking place in SeaTac and Tukwila — where close to 70% of those cities’ populations are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, according to census data compiled by researcher Joy Borkholder for the Emerald.
The BIPOC share of the population in most of the seven south King County cities (see bar chart) has grown more rapidly in the past 20 years than in King County overall — with the exception of SeaTac and Tukwila, since those cities were already markedly more diverse.
Take Auburn, for example: BIPOC residents are currently 45% of the population, having grown from 20% in 2000. That is an increase of 121%. In contrast, Seattle and King County overall have remained predominantly white with 36% of Seattle being BIPOC and 40% in King County overall.
Curtis Brown, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Senior Foundation, saw those changes play out at the Brighton Apartments, a predominantly BIPOC affordable senior housing complex which the foundation owns and runs on Rainier Avenue South.
“About 10 years ago, people moved to the Brighton to be closer to their families,” Brown said. “Now residents (and prospective residents) are considering moving south to be closer to family. It’s a huge game changer.”
Tony To, strategic advisor at Homesight in South Seattle, an organization that strives to “preserve and promote economically and culturally diverse communities through affordable homeownership,” said housing affordability and space for families are obvious drivers behind demographic change.
Last year, census data revealed widening disparities in home ownership between Black families and white families nationally, according to a Washington Post story — driven in part by discriminatory practices in real estate, mortgage companies, and the banking and credit industries.
To said a staff member left Seattle for Federal Way five years after her husband passed away. Though she was a longtime intergenerational resident of the Rainier Valley and her husband had a substantial network in the city, she left to be closer to her family and take advantage of schools for her special needs child.
“I think once people start moving, eventually families follow if they are close or dependent in some way.” To said in an email. “Also cultural groups tend to stay together because of access to goods, services, and worship.”
When Todd arrived in the region about 20 years ago from Mobile, Alabama to work at Boeing and then Alaska Airlines, he found the Puget Sound to be a place of opportunity and welcome.
“With the increase of the Somali population, with more Black Americans, finding out that the Northwest is a place where you can really have some opportunities, and then with the Indian population growing because of the tech industry that we have here; you have seen a huge increase of BIPOC folks in this community, and it's changed the landscape.”
This change needs to be acknowledged in representation and voice in public affairs, Todd said.
“I know there's people in the City of Renton that want it to stay the same. But now that demographics have changed, you have to listen to those voices and move in a direction that those community members want you to move in.”
Part of that change is a candidate like Shukri Olow, who, as a young child, was forced to flee war-torn Somalia to a refugee camp in Kenya and eventually to the United States 23 years ago.
“We were brand new to this country,” she said. “Every time I think about it, I just get emotional, but there's so much possibility here in this nation, and I want to make sure that that possibility is tapped for more of us.”
Olow announced her intention to run for the King County Council, District 5, in September and has since met with 700 individuals that led to her platform emphasizing mental health services, affordable housing, justice system reform, and support for small business.
In November’s general election, she will face incumbent Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who became the first openly LGBTQ state legislator outside of Seattle in 2001 before securing the District 5 council seat in 2013.
Whether the city councils, mayors’ offices, and other seats in south King County will tilt progressive or be filled by People of Color remains to be seen.
Democratic political advisor John Wyble says the emergence of diverse and progressive city council candidates in the south end of the county started about five years ago.
“The demographics are changing,” he said, “and I think eventually, diverse, progressive candidates will win pretty consistently. But we’re still moving in that direction.”
In recent even-year elections, Wyble said, there were significant south King County seats won by diverse and progressive candidates, including in 2016 when Kristine Reeves (D-Federal Way) became the first African American woman in Washington to win a state legislative seat in nearly 20 years. He also pointed to wins by Sen. Mona Das and Rep. Deborah Entenman in 2018 and others such as Rep. Jamila Taylor (D-Federal Way) in 2020.
And while the suburbs to the south of Seattle continue to experience dramatic demographic shifts, he acknowledges that this doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. A prime example, Wyble notes, was when SeaTac’s city council reverted back to a more conservative majority in 2019.
“It’s an uphill climb,” Wyble said. Especially, he notes, in odd-number years, which tend to favor established candidates, and where registered voter turnout can be as low as 30%, as opposed to general election years when many more voters turn out to vote.
Getting new voters to respond to the upcoming Aug. 3 primary election will be challenging.
“This is not [just] put your name on the ballot and send out a mail piece,” Wyble said. “This is intensive organizing and retail politics, and harder because we're still coming out of COVID.”
Kent City Councilmember Satwinder Kaur, whose parents are immigrants from India, knows about the grit progressive candidates will need to get elected as she did in 2016.
“I worked really hard during that year,” she said. “I doorbelled 13,000 doors; I was out there every day doorbelling with my sister, or my son, and any other person that we could find to help us. After work we’re out doorbelling; weekends, we’re doorbelling; just talking to people because that's what we needed to do.”
“Kent is right now the eighth most diverse city in the country,” said Kaur, who was encouraged to run for office after years of civic volunteering, an expression of selfless service through her Sikh faith. “We have individuals living from all over the world, but not all of them are voters.”
Kaur is running unopposed for reelection and in her first term, she’s worked to see that there are translation services on the City of Kent website, that key city documents are available in different languages, and advanced a pilot program that supports mental health and police professionals working together.
“My goal is to make sure that I hear from all different communities, all individuals living in the city,” she said. “And when making decisions, it's not my decision; it's not something I've made up my mind from before, it's something that my community wants. It's something Kent people, that's how they want to see it.”
Cliff Cawthon hopes to join Kaur on the Kent City Council and sees himself as representative of the city’s changing demographics.
“There are a lot of young families here like my own,” he said. “In my neighborhood there are multigenerational homes, there are young families here like my own who are diverse: My fiancé is Latina, I’m a Black man. And I can walk around my cul-de-sac and there are many families like that. There are, and more importantly, people that have moved here who have been displaced — from Seattle, Tacoma, from Bellevue, in different cities, not just from around the region, but from around the country — who've decided to settle here in Kent.”
A political science adjunct professor at Bellevue College, Cawthon said that turnout in off-year elections tends to be older, white, and more conservative. But in 2020, in Kent, 16,000 more people came out to vote overwhelmingly for President Biden and Vice President Harris.
Cawthon also hopes to bring out and represent younger voters.
“Many of our young folks are uncertain of their careers going forward in this hyper-competitive landscape,” Cawthon said. “Myself, as a millennial, I can tell you the millennial generation, or the delay generation, that for my Gen Z counterparts, and for even younger children: Their future in the kind of prosperity that previous generations had is not certain. We, as a community, can do better.”
Like Joseph Todd, Carmen Rivera found herself running for the Renton City Council in part because she feels local jurisdictions and cities need to enact police reform.
This may seem to be counterintuitive, given her area of study in criminal justice and forensic psychology and also being the daughter of a Seattle police officer.
“For a lot of my upbringing, I wanted to be a police officer,” said Rivera, a lifelong Renton resident and adjunct professor in juvenile justice at Seattle University. “I was raised around cops, I went to the Seattle Police Officer Guild’s picnics and banquets.”
Rivera says she’s begun to realize the need for police reform especially in the last five years — and she’s convinced that local decisions at the city and county levels are critical to that change.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions is if you love something, you can't be critical of it,” Rivera said. “And I don't agree with that at all. If you love something, you are going to be critical of it. That's how I was raised. You demand accountability, and you demand the best, if you love something …
“I want Renton to be the community that I grew up in. Every family should have the ability to thrive.”
To dive into city and county candidate profiles, go to the King County elections website.
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism in Portland, Ore. He is director of Southend Connect, a platform to support small business and build community in South Seattle, as well as the news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: From left to right: Shukri Olow, candidate for King County Council, District 5; Cliff Cawthon, candidate for Kent City Council, Position 4; Joe Todd, candidate for Renton City Council, Position 1; Carmen Rivera, candidate for Renton City Council, Position 2. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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