By Vasudha Sharma
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It has been 12 years since Denis Law was elected as mayor of Renton.
He has guided the city through many growth phases during the past decade.
Many say his most significant accomplishment has been to position Renton as a leading example of one of the most diverse cities in the nation. The city has been keeping up with the growth spurt of the population which doubled since 2006, crossing 100,000 in 2019. The town had tremendous growth in minority populations by 165 percent. The percentage of Asian, Latino, Black, and other non-white groups now account for over 50 percent of the community.
Now, Law is retiring from the position as he is moving to a custom-built home in Skagit Valley with his wife, Patty. He will be replaced by Marcie Maxwell or Armondo Pavone, depending on who wins the November election.
In a recent interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly, Law reflected on his tenure as he candidly counts his remaining days as mayor. He began serving on January 2008 and is currently in his third term. He served one time on Renton City Council before becoming mayor. Law announced in January this year that he would not seek re-election. In his last “State of the City” address, Law mentioned, “Politicians from the nation’s capital continue to argue over building walls. In Renton, we’re focusing our efforts on building an inclusive city for all our residents. I feel we have made great progress in making our community more inclusive for everybody.”
Law recalled the initial challenge 12 years ago when the worst national recession coincided with a significant increase in population in Renton, with the annexation of the Cascade/Benson community. Law credits his team of dynamic administrators who dramatically revamped the city’s leadership and management techniques to take on the challenge. Renton continues to be financially healthy today thanks to a well-trained, dedicated workforce that is led by these administrators.
Law’s administration has been a more accurate representation of Renton’s shifting ethnic demographics. Renton is a nationally awarded city for diversity from the National League of Cities in 2014. The achievement speaks volumes of Law’s significant pursuits in establishing meaningful relationships with leaders from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. The diversity actions of Renton have also influenced organizations such as the Association of Washington Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
From very early on, Law believed that diversity is an action. Therefore he formed the Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force in his initial term, representing nearly every ethnic, religious, LGBTQ, and senior population in Renton. The focus of the task force was to improve communications and services to communities, where English is not their first language. Law made it essential that all city employees receive diversity and implicit bias training. The other important step was to go with a “blind” application process to minimize the risk of cultural biases in the process of hiring. Renton city officials actively recognize and celebrate the diversity of the community by encouraging culturally diverse celebrations in festivals and parades, such as Renton River Days, the Multicultural Festival, the Seattle International Film Festival in Renton, the Sikh Parade, Japanese Sakura festival, Cinco de Mayo festival, and the Native American and Black History exhibit at Renton History Museum.
Preeti Shridhar and Benita Horn have led the efforts to become a more inclusive city. Shridhar is Law’s deputy public affairs administrator and the city’s former communications director. Shridhar said inclusion and diversity agendas take time, and they aren’t always linear to create belonging. Shridhar is credited for rewriting Renton’s mission and business plan. The core value of the 2012 policy adopted by the council was, “Building an inclusive city with opportunities for all.” Renton has gone the extra mile in routinely translating all its public materials into Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Spanish. The public can also use Language Line provided by the city, to request a translation into other languages.
Benita Horn, a Black equity consultant, joined Renton City Hall in 2014. She conducted various regulatory assessments, developed training curriculum, provided training, and provided facilitation and conference presentations, and as a result, Renton has diverse candidate pools in multiple departments.
“Targeting the hiring process may boost diversity numbers, but this won’t be enough to create an inclusive culture. It requires a keen eye toward designing conditions that promote inclusion every day and promote ways to track the change. Cities must adapt their processes to inclusive behaviors. It is important to look at everything that you can do so that everybody gets included in their unique and congenial way and if you find places where that’s not working, you must have the courage to admit that and work to change it,” Law said.
Empathetic leadership is vital for real change to happen; every individual leader needs to buy into the value of belonging—both intellectually and emotionally. A recent starting point for uniting communities on principles of equity is the Family First Community Center project. It’s an ambitious public/private partnership between the City of Renton, Doug Baldwin’s Family First Community Center Foundation, Renton School District, and Health Point. The foundation will design and build the center in the Cascade/Benson Hill area, which had the most need for youth enrichment programs as it holds almost a quarter of the city’s diverse population, and 12 percent are below the poverty line. Twenty percent of the population is 14 years old or younger. This community center will meet the needs of underserved populations and offer a wide array of specialty programs, including sports, recreation, health and wellness, technology, music, and English as a second language. The Renton City Council authorized up to $4 million for it. The Renton School District has approved the land to build this center. The Family First Community Center Foundation will be funding it significantly with the support of community donations as well. Cascade Elementary School, the proposed site of the new community center, records more than 60 percent of students in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The Family First Community Center will offer a variety of programs that will help kids succeed.
Although Law is half Chinese, he prefers not to highlight his ethnicity as he believes it should not appear as a self-serving superficial agenda to be from a particular background for any public reason.
“As mayor, my goal is to be approachable and represent everyone to the best of my ability and not be limited to one social group. Progress is inevitable in Renton being a truly inclusive community. Renton will always be celebrating community diversity through festivals and events as its a special community, and its future is bright!”
Robin Amadon says
Remarkable leadership and it is everywhere evident in the morale and superb customer service in Renton City Hall. Enthusiasm and civic pride permeates every aspect of City government and this came from the top as Mayor Law has supported so many high quality technicians and civil servants working to make the City of Renton a genuinely welcoming and inclusive community. Such a story of success in these times of divisiveness, the City of Renton is a place where differences are celebrated as a source of strength.
Ed James says
I’m proud to call Denis my long time friend. He has been a godsend to the Renton community and surrounding communities. His leaders has elevated Rentons status among cities in western Washington these past 12 years. The new incoming mayor should continue the good work that has been done by Denis and his outstanding group of city personnel. He will be missed.
Min. W. D. Patterson says
-Min W D Patterson
author of the original “Inclusion Theory” for public records.