By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I have been in the King County prosecuting attorney’s office for 27 years. I have dedicated my entire career to public service and public safety,” said Leesa Manion, who in January announced her intention to run for King County Prosecutor upon current prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s retirement. She currently serves as Satterberg’s chief of staff.
With two other candidates in the running—Jim Ferrell and Stephan Thomas—Manion feels her experience is most suited for the position. For one thing, she’s already there. She likens her position to someone tending her garden.
“This is the place where I have dedicated my entire career…I have been long at work planting this garden [and] not only are things blooming, but I’m starting to see the areas where there are bare spots, that need to be pruned, new planting, or what no longer fits. I don’t want to see that work stopped.”
During Manion’s time as chief of staff, she has been integral to several developments, many having to do with building community trust and revamping the justice system. She has added 10 victim advocate positions, and secured funding for a public integrity unit to look into cases of officer-involved shootings. She has partnered with the Seattle attorney’s office to combat organized retail theft in the downtown core and, since her time in her current position, the county has reduced juvenile crime to the lowest ever “through smart, effective, and proven diversion programs.” She recognizes that there is still work to do and wants to be the one to do it.
Manion is very involved with problems of racism and discrimination. In the fall, she secured funding for a hate crimes unit. She has seen racism’s effects firsthand. When she was a child, her mother, who is Korean, was thrown out of the house by Manion’s white grandmother. Manion and her brother did not see their mother for 25 years. This experience sensitized Manion to the plight of those who are without resources and also taught her forgiveness. She loves her grandmother in spite of what took place and realizes that action is not the sum of her character. This might be why Manion leans towards rehabilitation over traditional incarceration.
“People can make poor decisions and that doesn’t mean that’s all they are.”
Growing up, Manion saw her brother experiencing disproportionate discipline in school due to his race. She herself has faced prejudice while running for this position.
“As a woman of color, I’m having to battle certain perceptions.” On the one hand, people wonder if she is “tough enough” and on the other hand, when she does speak out, she runs the risk of being labeled as “angry” or “shrill.” “I’m having to walk that balance,” she said. “Every woman candidate, every leader of color, every woman of color has encountered that at some time in their life.”
Manion grew up in conservative Kentucky, the Bible Belt. She knew her lived experience was not the same as her white family.
“In that part of the country, if you weren’t white, you were de facto Black…it was literally Black and white,” she shared. “I remember my brother and I being little kids, people would drive by and throw a coke bottle and smash it on the sidewalk and yell, ‘Go back to your own country!’” Because of her background, it’s important to her to “be there,” especially for the community of color. Compared to Satterberg, she vows to attend more community meetings in person because “you have to be in the room to build relationships.”
She is excited “to invite the participation of our BIPOC and business communities to have a seat at the table…We need their leadership, their good ideas. We need their trust.”
Manion wants to repair the county’s relationship with the law department and do so through finding “common ground.” She has declined to seek the endorsement of the police department as she feels that would demonstrate a conflict of interest.
“I’ve heard it mischaracterized that I have a problem with the police. My significant other is a retired assistant police chief—I think he’d have an opinion about that!” she laughed, then grew serious again. “When we are afraid and call 911, we want a response. We also want police who know how to deescalate volatile situations…we need more of them, while police that abuse their authority, we want them off the force.”
For this campaign, Manion has stated her priorities as protecting public safety, juvenile justice, gun violence, victim services, and maintaining public trust. She realizes she doesn’t do it all herself, and several times during her interview with the Weekly, she praised others, such as MLK Labor, who “are working hard to build pipelines for young people and men and women leaving prison. We’ve said they’ve paid their debt, but they can’t move on.” She also praised “some of the work that doesn’t get mentioned in the office” such as that of the court’s civil division, who are “behind the scenes, making sure our communities are safe,” and the family support division.
One of Manion’s proudest moments was being co-founding partner of the Choose 180 program. A pilot was launched in 2011, designed to “give the community’s voice equal measure to the prosecutor’s office…to make sure that those speaking to youth was a voice that they could hear.” This became a permanent nonprofit program under the leadership of Sean Goode.
“That showed me firsthand the power of what happens when we work with community, not against community.” To Manion, this program has served as catalyst for “effective juvenile reform and diversion programs” that “get to the root cause” and offer opportunities to young people, which to her is one of the reasons why we have the lowest rate of juvenile crime ever in King County. She explained that the lowering rate is not a coincidence. According to Manion, it’s a “return on investment.”
Manion lives in West Seattle. Her son, Christian, just turned 18, and plans to be a union electrician. Her daughter, Natalie, just turned 15 and attends Summit Sierra High School in the Chinatown-International District. Everyone in the neighborhood knows her two “super friendly” cats and their “pandemic puppy,” Timber, who was supposed to be a medium-sized Labrador type but is actually a 90-pound Great Pyrenees mix. Her significant other, Perry Tarrant, is a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, now retired and doing consulting work. In addition to being a metaphorical gardener, Manion enjoys actual gardening, and “hanging out with the community,” be that walking the dog, hosting at home, going out for pizza (a favorite), or visiting Alki Beach.
“I want the Seattle that my kids grow up in to be equitable,” she said. “…a place where people come together and work together for the benefit of the community.” She wants acceptance, “not just of lived experience but also different perspectives.”
Manion remembers her former boss, who would quote Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness…So many are ready to light candles. I want to live in that community where we can appreciate that there is difference and there are different ways of doing things; but rather than seeing that as a challenge or something to be battled, it is something to be embraced.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.