By Joy Geerkens
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
What the public may know is that two candidates in the running for Seattle’s Municipal Court are named Andrea Chin and Maureen McKee. What the public may not know is that they are two Asian American women with a lifetime of experience fighting for the rights of others.
These women are currently running for separate judge positions, with Chin currently running uncontested and McKee participating in the election held in November.
For how untouchable the position of a judge can seem, McKee is one of the most in-touch women one might have the pleasure of meeting.
McKee majored in piano performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but while studying abroad in Nairobi, she had a life changing experience, causing her to change her major to Africana Studies once she returned to the United States.
McKee says it made her realize that there are three categories of information as far as knowledge is concerned.
“There’s what we know, what we know we don’t know, and there’s the third category, what we don’t know, we don’t know.” McKee has pledged a lifetime of learning what’s in that third category, and how to best serve the populations who find themselves within it.
“She travelled by herself through Eastern Europe. She was always globe hopping by herself, going to places, seeing what it was like, and learning the language,” said McKee’s sister, Estelle McKee.
After graduating, McKee continued to dive deeper into that third category, working as a VISTA volunteer for AmeriCorps, and working with young adults with developmental disabilities, trying to help them get into the workforce.
In law school, Estelle McKee says, Maureen was known for her deep, booming voice, her activism, and her brightly colored hair.
“Maureen was attending Cornell Law School when I applied for a position as lecturer,” Estelle said. “In my interview with the Vice Dean, I mentioned that my sister was studying there and he immediately said she was quite the leader. She had a power to her that you wouldn’t expect.”
McKee has worked as a public defender for the past 15 years. One of her greatest motivations for wanting to be a judge, she says, is to help make the community a safer place, and to protect those who may be disadvantaged in the judicial system. As a judge, McKee explains, one needs humility and empathy.
“We’re taught to be aggressive in pursuing our goals, we’re taught to highlight what we know, we’re taught to sell ourselves, but what these experiences have taught me, is humility. This humility informed the kind of direction I took, the experiences I sought, and the professional goals I formulated,” says McKee.
McKee’s family themselves experienced great hardships. Her mother was born in what is now North Korea, and escaped northwards during the Japanese Occupation of the Korean Peninsula. When the Communist regime took over North Korea, her family had to flee a second time to South Korea, where McKee’s mother grew up.
Her family lost everything they owned and lived a life of poverty. Her father was raised in Tulsa, Okla. during the Great Depression, and he too was no stranger to poverty.
Maureen McKee was raised in Tulsa. She mentions that growing up in Oklahoma, there was only one other Asian American kid outside of her family at her elementary school, a stark contrast to Seattle’s greater diversity.
Having had the inspiration and support of her parents and mentors along the way, McKee wishes to play that part in other women’s lives now.
“I get really excited when I see women,” McKee said, “especially younger women who are interested in getting involved in social justice and I would love to continue, as a judge or to whatever capacity I have, to play a very strong role in mentoring women.”
Andrea Chin is the only person her best friend knows who flosses her teeth every day.
“That’s how she lives,” said best friend Hang Yee Chin in a phone interview. “It’s something I’ve always admired about her. Everything is right with her, she is always going to look at things the way they should be, and that’s how she is in her work as well. That’s why she would make a great judge.”
Andrea Chin is a prosecutor at the office of the Seattle City Attorney, the previous president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, and the current candidate for the open judge position at the Seattle Municipal Court.
So far, Chin is running uncontested for Position 2, but is prepared to move forward if challenged before the May 18 application deadline.
Her daughter, Lily Chin-Martin, recounts with wonder and pride how her mother’s family, friends, coworkers, old and current neighbors, and members of the Asian Bar Association all came out to see Chin at her campaign launch party.
“People from all facets of her life came together to support her,” Chin-Martin said. “Everyone was just so happy to be there. It was such an inspiring environment to be in.”
Chin’s motivation for becoming a judge stems from a desire to help the city she is so strongly rooted in, she says.
“My parents met and raised my brothers and I here in Seattle in the Mount Baker area,” Chin said. “We went to public schools and now I have two daughters who I raised here in Seattle, so we’re really a Seattle family and I think that’s one of the reasons why I care about the quality of life here.”
After attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, Chin spent three years working for the admissions department at the California Institute of Technology. In this position, as well as in law school in the late 1980s, she became frustrated with the lack of diversity. There were far more men than women, and not many people of color, she said.
“I think that a lot of barriers are self imposed. It goes back to the idea of having support. If you are feeling very alone, I think you tend to feel like you don’t have a lot of say or strength as you might in a group,” says Chin. “I always felt like I was the odd person out. Sometimes, I still attend different meetings or events where there’s a large group of attorneys and I might be the only Asian woman in the whole crowd.”
Twenty-six years as a prosecutor, and as a supervisor on the therapeutic, veterans, and mental health courts, have given Chin knowledge on how different components of the Municipal Court function, she says.
“She never wanted glory, or attention, or power,” Chin-Martin said. “I feel really proud of her for stepping up and running for the position everyone agrees she should have.”
Joy can be reached at email@example.com.