The King County Council voted to appoint Puget Sound Sage executive director Rebecca Saldaña to the state senate yesterday to take former state senator Pramila Jayapal’s seat representing Southeast Seattle’s 37th Legislative District; Jayapal, who first took office in the 37th in 2015, ran for U.S. congress this fall to take retiring veteran U.S. representative Jim McDermott’s (D-WA, 7) seat in D.C., winning the race and creating the state-level vacancy.
After their own vote last week, the 37th District Democrat precinct committee officers—as the appointment process spells out—sent their three top picks to the county council to fill the vacancy. And the King County Council, after interviewing each candidate, is tasked with making the final decision; typically, the council goes with the district’s number one pick. (They overrode back in 2013, though, for an appointment in the 33rd Legislative District to seat a woman of color, now-state representative Mia Gregerson, over a white woman, Elizabeth Albertson. That vote was relevant yesterday as well.)
The unanimous 9-0 vote for Saldaña yesterday actually came after the council rejected the district’s first choice, lefty attorney and 37th LD chair, Rory O’Sullivan, the executive director of the Housing Justice Project. O’Sullivan, a longtime activist with the 37th LD, beat Saldaña (a high profile social justice leader with Puget Sound Sage, but not active with the 37th District Democrats) by 11 votes in last week’s LD vote. Saldaña noted, pointedly, that it was hard for working people to take up family time to attend the regular LD meetings.
The issue for the county council was race; the 37th LD is one of the only majority-minority districts in the state, and the three Democrats who voted against O’Sullivan—Claudia Balducci, Larry Gossett, and Dave Upthegrove, said they could not support having a white man like O’Sullivan representing such a diverse LD.
Why are you the best person to represent one of the few majority-minority districts in the state, Gossett, who’s African American, asked in his inimitable original vocal-fry-tone. (He flipped the question on Saldaña, asking her if she thought race— Saldaña is Latina—made her more qualified for the seat.)
O’Sullivan, whose lefty politics certainly match up with Saldaña’s, said he was glad Gossett had asked the question. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the support I was receiving from those folks in the community," he said, adding that his social justice work made him a popular ally with people of color. Later, he noted that he’d won the majority of votes from PCOs of color, female PCOs, and LGBTQ PCOs. “I will view all issues through a race and social justice lens,” he told Gossett.
Saldaña, who cried at one point during her testimony as she told the story of a childhood friend, a black male, who was victimized by a racist criminal justice system and sentenced to life in prison, answered Gossett’s curve ball question saying first and foremost the district needed a “qualified” candidate. But she added that minority representation “does make a difference.”
It made the difference in yesterday’s vote, anyway: Upthegrove, who is gay, said he came to understood the importance of identity politics after often finding himself as the only gay voice in the room during the fight for marriage equality when he was in the state legislature.
The other Democratic vote against O’Sullivan, Balducci, was perhaps the most eloquent. "It’s not just identity politics," she said, fleshing out what otherwise can seem like knee jerk liberal politics, going on to explain the basic democratic logic at play: "It’s about this increasingly diverse county we live in. The numbers of people who come to the table and bring that experience [and] bring that point of view in our legislature is really woefully lacking." With Jayapal’s departure there would be no people of color in the state senate. (By the way, there was a third candidate going for the spot, Shasti Conrad, a progressive political consultant, and also a woman of color.)
The Democrats who voted for O’Sullivan—Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Joe McDermott, and Rod Dembowski (who also choked up, by the way, getting emotional when he gladly cast his vote for Saldaña on the second round)—all reasoned that the LD vote should stand.
O’Sullivan would have won if the three Republicans on the council had shrugged and voted for the LD’s top pick, but they all voted ‘No’ on O’Sullivan before then all signing off on Saldaña.
The thing that was most noteworthy about the Republican input into yesterday’s discussion, was council member Kathy Lambert’s Trump-era reverse double back flip logic. Riffing off all the Democratic talk about minorities, she asked Saldaña if she would stand up for real minority in King County, rural voters.
Okay, for starters, the reason Saldaña got the nod was because she represented a majority in the 37th, non-whites—that was the whole point. The place where people of color are a minority is in the legislature—where despite majority status in some districts, they’re lacking a commensurate voice in Olympia.
If Lambert is worried that her rural district (she represents everything east of Sammamish) isn’t getting quality representation, she might want to look in the mirror.
Or, you know, start supporting things like getting rid of the property tax cap, so King County can raise more taxes and urban King County can start sending even a more disproportionate amount of money to her oppressed constituents. [I stand totally corrected, on that assumption; Lambert actually supports the King County legislative agenda to lift the Eyman cap. And she has said she will lobby GOP legislators in Olympia on the issue.]
U.S. representative-elect Jayapal sent out a statement after yesterday’s vote praising O’Sullivan and Conrad, but summarizing: “In choosing a strong, qualified woman of color with deep support in the community and the heart of an organizer, the council sent a loud and clear message that we need to build on the progress we’ve made and continue our fight for justice and equality. I am thrilled by the Council’s decision, and look forward to working with state senator Saldaña in the months and years to come.”
In other news: In case you missed yesterday's Afternoon Jolt, veteran city council member Tim Burgess confirmed he's not running for reelection. Tenants' rights advocate Jon Grant had announced late last month that he was running for Burgess's Position Eight citywide seat.