By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If Ruth Woo was alive, what would she say about a small group of Asian immigrants recently breaking records in raising money for political candidates?
Woo was once the most powerful and recognized political guru in the Asian community. A mentor of our former governor Gary Locke, she helped and mentored many younger politicians fresh off the boat. She had lobbied to get Asians appointed and managed campaigns for many Asian elected officials, including the late Kip Tokuda, state Rep. Sharon T. Santos, former King County Executive Ron Sims, and former Seattle City Councilmembers Dolores Sibonga and Martha Choe.
With leaders like Woo, who had played a major role in getting Asian American officials elected, the Asian community was perceived as powerful then.
“Our power comes from the values that our parents and families instilled in us…those are our roots,” said Sibonga. “And our power comes from decades of working together as Asians and Pacific Islanders to benefit our communities. Folks from California would marvel and say, ‘How are you actually getting Asian candidates elected to office?’”
Today’s Asian community has focused less on the glass ceiling. One reason is our community has achieved a remarkable record in politics, but less successful in corporate leadership. We elected Locke, the first Asian American governor in the continental U.S., Cyrus Habib, former lieutenant governor, several Asian state legislators (of Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese descent), and city councilmembers all over our state. Past and current Seattle mayors have appointed Asians as department heads and deputy mayors like Michael Fong.
Another reason is the changes within our community. Like our country, the community is more complex and divided due to issues such as homelessness, racial injustice, housing cost, the growth of Amazon, police, public safety, and other issues.
Several Asian community members have changed their priorities. What is good for the City? What is good for the community? Although these two issues are interrelated, they can be interpreted differently, depending on who you are talking to. The community has been divided between the entrepreneurs and young activists; moderates and extremists; Chinatown senior residents and the young; immigrants and the American-born; and those living in the suburbs and Seattleites.
Woo had a magic touch. Her ability to work with all kinds of people amazed me. If she were still alive, she could fill the leadership void in our community. The late Bob Santos, Al Sugiyama, Tomio Moriguchi, former governor Dan Evans, and former secretary of state Ralph Munro all respected her.
Woo’s view on candidates
Woo’s support toward Asian candidates was unwavering, as long as the person was decent—he or she did not need to be outstanding. Woo would be on board without hesitation unless the opponent was a long-time friend who had asked her first for support. Woo would have been delighted to support Asian American candidates like Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell and Port Commission candidate Toshiko Hasegawa, no questions asked.
But the recent fundraisers organized by small business owners, professionals, and community leaders don’t want to back candidates just because they are Asians or people of color. They look for candidates with a more balanced approach to run the city. Most importantly, these candidates believe listening is crucial, rather than just harboring political ideologies, representing special interests and a one-sided view.
Ming Fung of Vibrant Cities, one of the organizers for Harrell’s June 30 event, said, “I have read a lot about Bruce’s political platforms. He was city council president for three years, and knew the rules and boundaries of the city council. He knows when to use the vote count at the council and not when dealing with the issues. If he gets elected, he will know how to run the city better than any other candidate.”
Fung also helped organize an event for City council candidate Sara Nelson, with 90 attendees, raising $8,000.
“She’s not just a business owner, but the only candidate who understands businesses and the workers. She understands the need to support low-income workers,” said Fung. Nelson said service workers can’t survive if their hours are cut, and is considerate in providing for them, according to Fung.
Another organizer called Harrell the “most normal” among all mayoral candidates, while the others are perceived as “crazy.” The group raised $13,000 from about 200 people. Harrell said that was his biggest campaign event. Other candidates they support include Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, Port Commission candidate Toshiko Hasegawa, and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
When other candidates, like mayoral candidate Casey Sixkiller, reached out to the group, they were invited to the Chinatown-International District (CID) so they could meet and exchange views.
Like Woo, some organizers don’t want to speak on the record, but have played a key role in pushing the city to clean up the CID two months ago. This is similar to Woo’s low-key approach.
Soft-spoken, charismatic, and light-hearted, Woo shunned all kinds of publicity. If you gave her an award, she would not show up. A smile and a twinkle in her eyes always lit up her face. Often cheerful, she never talked about herself. She loved gossip though.
“What’s the latest gossip?” she would ask with mischief. And she had the most amazing tales about Asian and non-Asian officials that I had ever heard. It would be juicy material for a book.
“Don’t quote me,” she would say. That’s the most disappointing words to say to a journalist. It’s just as terrible as “no comment.” No matter how much I begged, she would say, “Nope, no, no.”
Even when Woo was furious, she would not say so publicly. When former governor Christine Gregoire picked the non-Asian candidate over Justice Mary Yu in the Washington State Supreme Court, she would never forgive nor forget. A “Letter to the editor” was prepared for the Northwest Asian Weekly, complaining about Gregoire. Yu was later appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Of course, Woo didn’t allow her name to be printed in the paper. Instead, she asked Bob Santos to sign the letter, and he gladly agreed.
Woo was inclusive. I never heard her say even once to any Asian American from Seattle to Olympia to Bellevue, “You are not part of the community.” Once her team sent out an email to her network of friends to come support her candidates, they would come with their checkbooks.
Woo strived for unity, acceptance, and collaboration in the Asian community, and bridging the gap between Asians and non-Asians. I have been searching for anyone in the Asian community who could fill Woo’s place. Sad to say, Ruth was and is irreplaceable!
One more difference between Woo and the current organizers who had held most of their fundraising dinners at China Harbor Restaurant—Woo’s favorite was the Four Seas Restaurant. At the time, its owner, Al Quan, always did a superb job for Woo’s fundraising receptions with lots of food, including chicken wings and lots of fruits at a reasonable price. Quan often let her use a big space, almost the whole restaurant, even though there were mostly about 50 people. I suspected she used her own money for many of these receptions. Her generosity was well-known. Most Asian nonprofit organizations would ask her to buy a table at their annual fundraising dinners, and she would donate many of the seats to elected officials and younger people.
Four Seas is now under construction as the future Bob’s Place affordable housing apartment. It was demolished earlier this year, and had buried lots of Asian American political histories. To her credit, Woo had brought many non-Asians and Asian Americans to the CID over the decades.
Raising money for politicians is vital to spreading the Asian community’s influence. But Sibonga said “building coalitions with other communities of color” is also key to building our power.
The Northwest Asian Weekly is following Sibonga’s advice. On Sept. 23, a panel of Asian and Black community leaders will be speaking at “Unity in Voices: Where do we go from here?” which will be held at the Joyale Restaurant in CID, from 5-7 p.m.
More information about the panel will be published later.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.