By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was an open secret that a candidate who had sought and received the endorsement of the late Ruth Woo, the most respected political guru of the Asian community, would be a priceless advantage. What did some candidates do to win her support?
In 2012, both Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee, gubernatorial candidates, fought hard for her support.
McKenna spent the day with Woo playing her favorite video game. McKenna thought he had her. For a long time, Woo didn’t say who she was going to endorse. But insiders who understood Woo knew who she had in mind. It was Inslee. The reason is simple — an Asian American, Joby Shimomura, was Inslee’s campaign manager. Woo was pleased that Inslee appointed Shimomura, who was in her late 20s, as a part of his congressional team in Washington, D.C. That was considered strong political capital for Inslee.
To woo Woo’s support, it was important for a candidate to appoint Asian Americans. The glass ceiling issue and political empowerment are dear to Woo’s heart.
Woo’s remarkable loyalty
Woo’s word was gold. Once she committed to a candidate, she never wavered. It didn’t matter whether the candidate was Asian or not. It didn’t matter if the candidate had a better or lesser chance at winning. When Gary Locke was running for governor, Woo wasn’t a part of his campaign initially. Locke said he wasn’t going to run, but changed his mind later.
However, Woo had already said yes to a lesser known candidate. The Asian community expected Woo to switch back to support Locke, since she was his mentor and had run his other campaigns, including his legislative and King County Executive race. But Woo refused. It was only when her candidate lost in the primary, and so many of Locke’s fans begged her to help Locke, that she joined Locke’s campaign.
Loyalty was in Woo’s blood. The same thing happened when Ron Sims and Cheryl Chow ran for King County Council in the 1980s. Sims asked Woo first for her support, so Chow didn’t get Woo’s support even though she’s Asian American. Sims won, and Woo became one of Sims’ closest allies. Nowadays, it is acceptable for Asian Americans to support non-Asian candidates they believe in. But in the 1980s, Woo received a lot of flak for not supporting her own people.
Woo was a champion to many Asian American elected officials. During former governor Christine Gregoire’s term, Woo strongly advocated for Mary Yu to be Washington State Supreme Court Justice. At the time, Yu was a King County Superior Court judge. Instead, Gregoire surprised many in the Asian community by appointing another person who was an attorney. I had never seen Woo so upset before.
Woo’s dream of seeing the first Asian American in the state’s Supreme Court came true when Inslee appointed Yu in 2014.
She was so happy when she witnessed Yu’s swearing-in ceremony in Olympia as one of the nine justices. During her speech, Yu acknowledged Woo as one of the four most important women in her life. I remember Woo beaming with joy and excitement.
Woo might roll her eyes in disbelief at this news — Gregoire is now a part of Yu’s re-election campaign. That’s right, she is one of the campaign co-chairs. Woo might jump up and down in heaven hearing of this new alliance between Yu and Gregoire.
Woo was one of the most generous people I have ever met. She supported many community organizations by sponsoring a table at their events, even if she could not show up. The guests at Woo’s tables were often mixed with community leaders, mainstream politicians and candidates. This would give exposure to the candidates and build bridges between the Asian community and government officials.
Over the years, Woo mentored, supported, and advised so many government and elected officials. If you were wondering if she had a favorite one, she did.
Whenever Locke’s name was mentioned, Woo’s eyes would light up. And she loved to talk about Locke all the time. Once, she said, “Can you imagine our Gary is now an Ambassador?”
She was so proud of Locke’s accomplishments. She often said that he was once a shy individual, and yet was able to transform himself to achieve great things — from King County Executive to two-term governor, from President Obama’s U.S. Commerce Secretary to U.S. Ambassador to China.
Many people talk about what the community can and should do to thank Woo for her contribution. That would be a tough one because Woo never liked to be in the spotlight.
I had asked Woo about that two years ago. She flatly said no towards the idea of naming a place or an award after her. What about a scholarship in her name? Although she didn’t object to the idea immediately, she didn’t say yes either.
For those who want to honor her, there are some obvious solutions. Her dream was to see more Asian Americans not only running for office, but higher office, and getting things done for the community and the country. Once, she said, “Do you think we would have another Gary (Locke)?” meaning another Asian American governor.
Support young people like she did. Encourage young people to get involved in politics and nurture their desire to serve. If you know someone who is thinking about running for office, convince him or her to run. And go out of your way to support that person.
Her internment experience taught her that it’s important for Asian Americans to have a voice at the table. We have to train our community to speak up so that horrible part of history won’t repeat itself.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.