By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It’s been an amazing year for Asian Americans in politics.
Bruce Harrell, Seattle City Council President, who ran for mayor four years ago, became Seattle’s first Asian American mayor for two days in September.
Hyeok Kim, former deputy mayor, was considered the best candidate to fill in Mayor Ed Murray’s seat, according to Murray before he resigned. That’s not just a compliment, but an accomplishment to have the endorsement of your boss.
For the first time in history, two Asian Americans — Mike Fong of Chinese descent and Shefali Ranganathan of Indian descent — will be deputy mayors for the City of Seattle.
The assumption is that Durkan, being female, would be more likely to appoint another guy as her deputy. To her credit, an Indian American and female is playing a key role for the first time in the mayor’s office. Durkan is more progressive and unconventional than anyone had guessed.
This is also a big year for Indian American women getting some top jobs: Senator-elect Manka Dhingra won the 45th District state Senate seat ensuring that the Senate will be controlled by Democrats, Ranganathan being Seattle’s deputy mayor, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal serving her first year as the first Indian in Congress.
Democrats and Republicans seek Asian candidates
Both Democrats and Republicans sought strong Asian American candidates to run for the 45th District state Senate seat. Both parties poured in millions of dollars to help their candidates get elected. It was the most expensive race this year in Washington state. The confidence the two parties had towards their Asian candidates, was unprecedented.
“As minorities, we should be wise and not put all of our political eggs in one basket,” said Jinyoung Englund, Republican candidate. “Having representation in both parties is important not only to represent the ideological diversity within our own community, but also to ensure that regardless of which party has the power at that time, we continue to have a voice.”
Dhingra defeated Englund, and she will be the second Asian American state senator in Olympia. Sen. Bob Hasegawa, who lost his bid for Seattle mayor, will retain his senate seat.
Winning versus succeeding
From city councils to big legislative districts, more Asian American women ran for small local offices, as well as prominent district-wide positions.
It didn’t matter that many candidates were novices. Fearless Jin-Ah Kim, 27, ran against a 12-year incumbent, a hairstylist, for a Shoreline City Council seat.
As a photographer in the legislature in Olympia, Kim witnessed the lack of representation of women and minorities. Of the 147 legislators, only 15 are women. Not only that, they were not being treated with respect.
Despite her loss, she has no regrets about running. A former opioid addict who got hooked when she was in high school after receiving prescribed painkillers, Kim’s goal was to remove society’s stigma towards drug addicts. She has stayed clean since 2013.
“Win or lose,” Kim said, “I made history” as the first long-term opioid recovering addict to run for office and hopefully, it will inspire other former addicts to come out and not be fearful.
She said she is clearer than ever about her purpose in life. “I am proud that I ran and my family is most proud… I will run again if I see that people are not doing a good job.”
Kim remained true to herself, her heritage, and community during the campaign. People advised her to change her look, to be “less Asian,” and to Westernize her name — she refused, an example for us all.
To me, Englund and Kim succeeded even though they didn’t win. They have grown not as candidates, but as future leaders. Their names are just getting out. And their journey has just begun. Please don’t quit. Learn from the pros like Conrad Lee.
A political veteran
I don’t always agree with Bellevue City Councilman Conrad Lee’s politics, but his resilient spirit should be emulated.
Lee has just won his sixth term, with an overwhelming majority, beating a challenger. He is the longest-serving Asian American elected official in Washington state. He has been a Bellevue City Councilman for 23 years, including two years as the first ethnic mayor of the City of Bellevue.
When he lost in his first election, the Asian Weekly’s former editor Susan Cassidy and I were worried that Lee couldn’t cope with defeat. We both had predicted that he would lose — for good reasons. Bellevue, a mostly-white city, was not ready to have a person of color on its City Council — and he was a newcomer in the political scene. Even though the Seattle Times endorsed him, and he had raised funds successfully, some voters just couldn’t accept a person of color at the table of power, just like some voters rejected President Obama just because he’s Black.
So we invited Lee to lunch two days after the election in the International District, to cheer him up. While waiting for him at the restaurant (now the site of the Wing Luke Asian Museum), we brainstormed ideas to lift him up, not realizing we completely underestimated the guy.
When he walked into the restaurant, there was no gloom or tension on his face, just smiles.
Lee was relaxed and gregarious, as if nothing had happened. No moaning and groaning about the results. No placing the blame on racism, even though there were racist incidents during his campaign. And his appetite was voracious, enjoying everything he ate as opposed to some people who stuff food for self-punishment. Being present at the moment, he never mentioned that he suffered a loss. His upbeat mood was unbelievable as if he was ready to launch another tough campaign.
Lee’s remarkable quality is that he doesn’t give up. This is the first time I’ve shared Lee’s story in the Asian Weekly to inspire viable Asian American candidates who worked hard and yet, lost in the election.
To our Asian American candidates, what you have been through is a blessing, not a failure.
Keep serving your community, keep developing relationships. Be patient. You never know what door is going to open. The day of harvest will come when you least expect it.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conrad Lee says
Who is counting? However, for the sake of accurate reporting, I just won for the seventh time.
Jin-Ah Kim says
Just one correction Assunta!
“Of the 147 legislators, only 15 are women”
It’s actually 15 people of color! There are 19 women in the Senate and 36 females in the House for a total of 55 women and 92 men in the State Legislature. I’ve made a handy excel spreadsheet with every legislator’s name/party/age/generation/gender/race/sexual identity: