By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
At December’s Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC) meeting, five API legislators took questions on issues relevant to the API community for the 2019 legislative session, which begins in January. Among the legislators present at the meeting, held at Seattle Goodwill’s Training and Education Center, was Senator-elect Joe Nguyen (D), who beat out Shannon Braddock (D) for the 34th district seat. He was asked what it was like to walk, unescorted, onto the Senate floor for the first time.
“I took the rope off, nobody stopped me, I walked out…” he described. “And that was the first time that I felt that this was a space that I belonged, and it wasn’t just a spot where we can be a guest. It’s a spot that we can actually have authority to be able to help people out in the community…This is pretty powerful.”
Facilitator Michael Itti reiterated the impressive November numbers that had placed state Democrats in a stronger position: 28 Democrats and 21 Republicans now sit in the Senate; 57 Democrats and 41 Republicans in the House. Of those, significant additions, such as Nguyen and Mona Das, in the 47th, were made in terms of API representation.
Attendee Ron Chew, of International Community Health Services Foundation, stated, “I am proud to have so many API legislators [in Olympia]. I remember a time when we had no API legislators. It’s a great time.”
Rep. Cindy Ryu (D), 32nd district, announced that, for the first time in eight years, another member of color (her) would be in the appropriations committee. She also mentioned that the house Members of Color Caucus (MOCC) had grown from 12 to 16.
“We are very cognizant of members of color going into positions of influence, such as chairship or leadership, and then also, of course, women,” Ryu said.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D), 11th district, stressed that MOCC numbers had grown by 60 percent in the Senate. His intention was to work closely with the house.
“We’re going to try and coordinate closer with the house side this session…We look at ourselves as sort of separate entities. I think we need to draw a bit closer on that.” Ryu mirrored this sentiment when she said, “We plan on working really closely together.”
Throughout the meeting, there was a sense of the give and take needed to operate successfully in Olympia. The biennial budget was a hot topic, and more than one legislator reminded attendees that funds aren’t added to one area without taking them away from another. Hasegawa clarified that 75 percent of the legislative budget is mandated “by law, or by our constitution, or by federal requirements.” He pointed out that higher education budget currently has the largest slice of the maneuverable portion. “So if we’re going to try and increase money to higher ed, that just means that we’re going to have to try and take it out of human services, government operations, or mental health and substance abuse.”
The inevitable conclusion is that, as a state, we need more revenue. “But we can’t do it in a regressive fashion,” Hasegawa insisted. “I’ve made the commitment that I’m not voting for anymore regressive taxes, period.”
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D), 37th district, the longest-standing member present, with 20 years in Olympia, agreed that “our tax payers are going to hit a point of being saturated with taxes — I would argue that they’ve already hit that place.”
One of the solutions put forth for increasing revenue without taxes is a state bank, an idea that is gaining momentum, and that Hasegawa supports.
“The thing about a state bank is it not just allows us to internalize our debt payment, but we get to keep the profits for it so that means it raises new revenue without raising taxes…Who doesn’t like raising revenue without raising taxes? …The whole rest of the developed world uses public banking…In the United States…we rely on commercial banks, which is bleeding us dry, so it’s one of those fundamental shift things.” There is only one public state bank in the United States at this time — in North Dakota.
Rep. Mia Gregerson (D), 33rd district, spoke on quality of life and the environment, specifically the impact from transportation.
“Washington state has not traditionally done very well in understanding human impact when we invest in infrastructure,” Gregerson said. She expressed how excited she was to talk to the new chairs about those impacts.
Hasegawa talked about the difference, in his eyes, between “affordable housing” and “public housing,” and advocated a return to the latter.
“It used to be we would provide public housing, owned, built by the public, for the public good. The conversation was shifted to “affordable housing,” which has opened the door to looking to developers to solve our problem for us and that, in my opinion, is never going to happen, because it’s not in their economic interest.”
Building the community’s trust in the police force was discussed by Nguyen, who has been active in that area, and who, along with Gregerson, also described ways in which participation can be made more accessible to those whose first language is not English when it comes to voting or participating in the 2020 census.
From start to finish, the thread persisted of give and take, not just in budget, but between Asian and Pacific Americans and other populations, or between API voters and their legislators. There was humor (Gregerson got a laugh when she said the item most needed to survive in Olympia was “coffee”), yet, the need for API activism was taken very seriously — and the need for taking that activism outside the API community.
“I hope that this group will take upon itself to champion the value of civil rights as an obligation of your elected officials,” said Santos. “Under the current administration, it has become even clearer that state legislators and state legislatures are our final standing ground for protection of immigrants and refugees…We need you to contact your white legislators…To make sure they understand how grave their responsibility is to Black, brown, and other people of color and immigrants…This is an issue that affects the state of Washington to our core.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.