By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Congressman Adam Smith, born 1965, grew up in SeaTac when it was predominantly white and back when houses cost $15,000 each.
Smith is a Democrat representing the 9th congressional district since 1997.
His father was a ramp serviceman for United Airlines and died when Smith was 19. His mother died when he was 25. Both events would affect Smith’s viewpoints and beliefs for his entire life.
Smith attended Western Washington University and Fordham University for his undergrad. He earned his Juris Doctor from the University of Washington in 1990. Before becoming a congressman, Smith was a private practice attorney, a prosecutor for the City of Seattle, and a pro tem judge.
In 1990, at the age of 25, Smith ran for the Washington State Senate and defeated Republican incumbent Eleanor Lee. He was the youngest state senator in the country at the time. In 1996, Smith ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and defeated Republican incumbent Randy Tate.
These days, there are homes in SeaTac going for more than a million dollars. He has watched the economic makeup and demographics shift in his home city, and he represents one of the most diverse districts in the state if not the country.
The 9th district covers Bellevue, Southeast Seattle, and Mercer Island. It is a minority-majority district, being 49.7 percent white, 11.17 percent Black, 21.2 percent Asian, 11.8 percent Hispanic, 0.8 percent Native, and over 11 percent other or multiracial, according to the 2010 Census.
Perhaps because history tends to be cyclical, Smith is currently being challenged in the upcoming general election by Sarah Smith (no relation), a 30-year-old first-time candidate who is self-described as a Democratic Socialist, an uber progressive who has accused Adam Smith of being a mainstream Democrat swayed by corporation power.
Adam Smith stopped by the Northwest Asian Weekly office recently, just to meet with Publisher Assunta Ng. Smith is very matter-of-fact and blunt.
During the meeting, we quickly picked his brain on a few things. Here are highlights from the chat.
NWAW: Can you speak on your district? Tell us about the 9th district.
Adam Smith: There are 160 languages spoken in the 9th district, and there is a high cost of living around here — you can be making a decent amount of money and still struggle because of the cost of housing. It has priced a lot of people out of the community, and it has spread. There is a significant wealth disparity here — there’s Mercer Island, where people live along Lake Washington. And yet Skyway and South King County are also part of this district.
So my job is to understand the communities here and what their needs are.
My job is to make sure we address these needs.
It’s a very ethnically diverse district.
There are a lot of different ethnic groups here. Just within the Asian community, which is the largest [racial] group in my district, there is a lot of ethnic diversity. We have big Cambodian and Laotian communities as well Taiwanese. There is a lot of commonality between the groups.
What do you mean — commonality? What does that refer to?
Commonality in terms of the issues that face the communities. Mainly economic oppression. There are a lot of issues related to that — how expensive it is to live here, how do people get the job training and education necessary to enable them to live here, and healthcare is important yet often dependent on who you work for. As it becomes increasingly expensive to live here, people are forced to move further out.
You grew up in SeaTac, back when the area looked very different.
I often think about the change from when I grew up and where we grew up.
Wages in the area have stagnated and gone down, especially adjusted to inflation. My dad was a serviceman for United Airlines in 1995 [as part of a union]. Today, wages for that job is less than twice as much as what my father was making in 1995.
Education also used to be attainable. It cost $6,900 a year for me to attend college. My daughter, who just graduated [high school], got into Fordham.
It costs $72,000 [per year] to go there. So she’s going to the University of Washington (UW). Even so, the UW is so much more expensive now. When my wife attended, it was $575 a quarter. (Ed’s note: Now, it’s about $3,700 a quarter to attend the UW full-time.)
Gas is more expensive. Health care is expensive. So you have all of these basic costs going up — and wages are not going up.
Why do you think this is?
There was a fundamental shift in how companies and corporations did business in America starting in the 1970s. Before that, it used to be that the executives did make more money [than workers] — there was some wealth disparity, but it wasn’t as wide between the leadership and the workers. In 1940s Seattle, you had doctors living in the same communities as machinists like my father. Now that has changed, and you have corporations paying their workers less and less.
What about ethnic diversity? Your district has changed a lot in the past few decades.
One of the things I do focus on is equality of opportunity, making sure that all of new diverse communities [of immigrants] are included.
When I graduated from Tyee High School [in 1983], we had 2 Black kids in the class, a smattering from the API community — and no Latinos. It was 95 percent white.
Now, it is completely different. But for a long time, it was hard for those from those communities to get elected to the school board. There wasn’t enough outreach. One of my major efforts is outreach — especially who I hire. More than half of my staff are people of color. The other big thing we do is recruit candidates [of color] for office, [such as Jesse Johnson, My-Linh Thai, Janice Zahn, Satwinder Kaur, Peter Kwon, Hoang Tran, and others.]
We’ve actually had a significant increase in diversity. That is improving quality of life in our community. Unemployment is down and poverty is down. But we know we still have a long, long way to go.
Can you tell us about your proudest achievements in your career?
As a member of congress, you don’t particularly have achievements. You have to understand how Congress works. There are 535 members of Congress. So if you’re gonna get anything done, you will work with a lot of people. I, on my own, do very, very little. What I do is work with a lot of people and collectively, we achieve accomplishments, such as increasing the minimum wage, the first in the nation to have a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
My skill as a legislator is about the respect that I have from people in Washington, DC. To get things done, you have to work with a lot of different people.
Where do you stand on immigration, in particular, undocumented immigrants?
On immigration in general, we help on endless immigration issues in my office. It’s a complex web of relationships that I have built up over the course of 30 years. Both on the macro level and on the micro level, stuff like, “Social security is not paying me.” People will call our office, and we’ll help them with whatever issue they have.
In terms of undocumented immigrants — we need a pathway to citizenship. We also need a comprehensive legal immigration system. At the same time, I support undocumented immigrants. I support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
Why are you a politician?
I’ve spent my whole life here, and I spent my whole life working in the district. I joined the north seatac community council back in 1980. Nobody understands this community better than I do.
My father also wanted me to be involved in politics. My father dragged me to campaign meetings. What he wanted were smart, effective, relentless people who will work for working people. The worst feeling in the world is to be powerless to help the people you care about. My father died when I was 19. My mother died when I was 25. There was a lot of struggle for me in between those two events.
Now, I have power. And I have never forgotten where I come from. When I’m able to help one individual person — the other day, a veteran came into my office. He was being foreclosed on.
When I was a kid, that was my family.
Now, I’m a U.S congressman. So I got on the phone, and I got my staff on the phone — and we helped this man. I think we all have to do something.
Do something for the community first.
I have a 30-year-plus history here. I’m every bit as passionate about it now as I was when I started.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.