By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Community organizer Tanya Woo recently won the open seat at the Seattle City Council, but the race is far from over.
Woo, an entrepreneur, is the second Chinese American female, since Cheryl Chow was elected in 1990, to be on the city council.
(The open seat was a result of former Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosquerda’s resignation on Jan. 2 after winning a seat at the King County Council.)
Asian Americans made history during the application process for the vacant seat. Five finalists, out of the eight chosen, were Asian Americans. This competitive application process has gained our community five rising stars in politics.
It was a beautiful moment for the Asian Weekly to witness former political aide Linh Thai, Seattle School Board member Vivian Song, city department manager Mari Sugiyama, hotel co-owner Neha Nariya, and Woo all being nominated together. Being a woman myself, the female finalists gave me a source of joy and pride. Our next generation of Asian leaders are articulate, bold, and fearless.
Isn’t that what we want—to see our future leaders eager to carry the torch in making a difference politically, socially, and economically?
All council members have taken to heart the importance of Asian representation since the city‘s Asian population is more than 18%.
Kudos to all eight council members who nominated and voted for at least one Asian finalist out of 72 applicants. In the past, several city officials left before their term was up, and none had five Asian Americans as finalists to replace them. With Woo, two Black council members, Rob Saka and Joy Hollingsworth, and Maritza Rivera of Latino descent, the city council is becoming more diverse. How wonderful!
Throughout the public hearings, each Asian finalist developed their own powerful political base and machine on short notice. Sugiyama’s team made labels printed with her name, “Mari.” Nariya’s supporters carried colorful signs with Space Needle graphics. Woo’s multiethnic speakers and over 40 Chinatown-International District seniors showed up on her behalf on Jan. 23, showcasing her group’s speedy organizing ability. Song’s supporters speaking on her behalf from parents to workers were equally impressive.
The selection process has energized the Asian community on how to mobilize and generate support from different sectors of the city. How far Asian Americans have come along politically! A remarkable accomplishment and, possibly, a new trend for future elections, including the 2024 presidential campaign in the Asian community.
New title: Councilmember Woo
It took only 30 seconds to turn Woo from an ordinary citizen to council member, an appointed official. Five council members voted for Woo in the first round. The impact was astounding! More than 13 journalists gathered afterwards for the news conference, and addressed her with a dignified tone, “Councilmember Woo.” Literally, the media’s questions sounded more like music to me. Rather than shouting out their questions as the media tend to do, they toned down their approach. It was impressive to see an Asian American commanding so much attention.
Most efficient vote
Thank you, Council President Sara Nelson, for not dragging the audience through the anxiety of going through endless voting. By throwing in your tie-breaker vote, the fifth vote for Woo in the first round, you not only sealed the deal for Woo, it eliminated the agony and humiliation for the other finalists. Nariya noted that Nelson’s voting process took less than a minute, though she was surprised that the results came so quickly.
This could also be an indication of Nelson’s leadership style. Though she has less seniority compared to Morales and Councilmember Dan Strauss, Nelson “is the most experienced person” at the council, according to Alex Pedersen, former councilmember. Nelson served for 10 years as an aide to former City Councilmember Richard Conlin. “She puts herself out there to win the issues. She knows the issues.”
“No drama” was her way as she had warned about the council meetings in an early Asian Weekly story. Her decisive vote for Woo may be a signal to her colleagues and us that that’s how she operates. She doesn’t play games. And neither do other council members who voted for Woo in the first round. Thank you to Councilmembers Rob Saka, Cathy Moore, Maritza Rivera, and Bob Kettle.
The most misunderstood vote
It didn’t escape Woo’s supporters that Councilmember Joy Hollingsworth voted for Thai instead of Woo in the first round.
Someone texted me, “She’s trying to play both sides. Be in the middle of this council dynamic. A swing vote going forward…”
It’s not that Hollingsworth does not support Woo. I have witnessed at a women’s lunch that she agreed to introduce Woo to meet with Black church leaders. In fact, she has connected Woo with many more Black leaders and not just those from church.
“I have opened doors for Tanya,” Hollingsworth said. “But she was the one doing the work…I have been supportive of Tanya since day one…in the background, linking her to the Black community. I am supporting Tanya 100%. She has won it fair and square…” All those prominent Black leaders showed up for Woo in droves. It was significant and striking, and all the council members noticed.
Why vote for Thai?
”My vote for Thai wasn’t saying ‘no‘ to Tanya. I am an independent thinker. I knew Tanya would be successful.”
Hollingsworth said after being on the council for three weeks, she knew how hard the job is. As many council members had said during the meeting, it’s a 24/7 job.
“My thought process gave me the belief that if she nominates someone to hold it (the job) and govern and not stress out about a campaign simultaneously. Thai would be a good fit…and put forth the best work and govern…” The council never voted if the position should be a caretaker or fill-in. Nelson just left it open for the individual to decide.
Woo has to run for re-election in November and again in 2025.
It was a surprise that Saka changed his mind. He had repeatedly told people that he would vote for Mark Solomon in the first round. Then, he led the way by voting for Woo and not Solomon, a crime prevention officer, whom he had nominated. Solomon and Saka served in the Air Force together.
Why did Saka vote for Woo?
Saka said he had “carefully and thoughtfully considered everybody.” However, he saw Woo “has the most growth” from the beginning of the application process until the voting. The council members had also met with each finalist individually, outside of the public hearings.
After Woo was sworn in as the new council member, Saka went to where Solomon stood outside the council’s space, and hugged him. There was no scolding, blaming, or unpleasant exchanges between them. The bond between the two men demonstrated respect, understanding, and deep friendship. Saka asked if Solomon was alright. Solomon said “yes” and that he understood. The power of forgiveness! Another beautiful unforgettable moment!
The most unforgiving person is Councilmember Tammy Morales. At the council meeting, she said, “I need to be clear that this council nominated two of my general election opponents as finalists.” Woo lost to Morales by about 400 votes in 2023; and Solomon, who ran against Morales in 2019, lost by about 2,000 votes.
What does it say about Morales? Holding grudges may be an understatement. For her being unable to move forward, one could only conclude, “How can a bitter woman see things objectively and serve the public wisely?” And to say it before the vote, nasty! Already, the mainstream media like the Seattle Times has been saying she will be “lonelier.” Other media have suggested Morales is filling a void for former Councilmember Kshama Sawant, lecturing and scolding her colleagues and the public whenever she could. If she continues to display a hostile voice at council meetings, it could overshadow everything she wants to accomplish. Nobody will listen. For journalists and those who are tired of negativity, “Here she goes again!”
Morales accused the council of not being transparent and becoming “big business telling the council who to choose.” Bully pulpit she was whenever she had the microphone. For the next four years, could Morales be effective on the council to get things done if she keeps on attacking her colleagues with baseless claims? Remember, anything she wants to accomplish needs five votes from her colleagues.
The best revenge
After what Morales said, five council members gave their votes to Woo in the first round as if they didn‘t hear a thing.
Between labor and business
Business and labor can work together with goodwill in mind—if they listen to one another and give each other a chance, if they are determined to find solutions before going to the public and the media, if they see mutual benefits in supporting one another and building trust—it will be the best approach from both sides. Though I am part of the media, I know how sometimes the media can blow stories out of proportion.
If each party can start fresh and forget old wounds, it will be a solid beginning for both sides.
The best joke
As I was walking out of City Hall the day before the council cast their vote for the open seat, I said “thank you” to a Black female security guard at the door. We were connected instantly—our eyes locked together for seconds.
“Have a good night,” she smiled warmly like she was inviting me for a conversation.
”Who is going to win tomorrow?” I asked.
”Tanya Woo,” she smiled without missing a beat.
”Why did you say that?” I replied.
”Everybody likes her here,” she responded. Everybody meant not just the officials, but the security team, staff members, janitors, maintenance workers, and all those nameless workers…
To say that Tanya Woo is for big business is laughable. Really!? You simply don’t know who she is. Unions, please talk to people in the Chinatown-International District who know her. Find out for yourself.
At the news conference, Woo said, “I am trying to rise above the noise, focus, and bring people together” to solve problems.
If you think you can easily persuade the council members to change their minds by pitching between businesses and labor, you are wrong.
What happened last week was proof that the council members are independent thinkers. If you think you could dig up dirt from some finalists’ past acts, don’t waste your time.
“Where is your specific evidence?” council members demanded.
The council members focus on tasks and goals, and not ideology. Their pick has less to do with who is pro-labor or business. They have specific criteria to find the perfect fit for the city. Like Councilmember Cathy Moore told the Asian Weekly earlier what she was looking for, the candidate she chose must have a “demonstrated track record across the issues” that voters put them on the council to address, namely, public safety, homelessness, truly affordable housing, and the climate crisis.
Also, the candidate must come from “a community that has not been historically represented.”
If Mari Sugiyama’s dad, Al, was still alive, all of his friends would have a tough time saying “no” to him including this reporter. The Northwest Asian Weekly had awarded Al with a Life Achievement award in 2011. For self-disclosure purposes, Al was not only a special friend and informal advisor, but an inspiration in my life.
Al was the first Asian American Seattle Public School Board member, an activist, a legend and one of the most charismatic leaders I had ever met in life. Al’s life was cut short at the age of 67, in 2017, due to cancer.
However, some community members were torn between Woo and Sugiyama. Few knew that it’s okay to support both candidates for the seat as state Rep. Sharon T. Santos had dual endorsement for her niece, Sugiyama and Woo. Initially, she endorsed Woo. When Sugiyama of Japanese descent applied for the position, Santos told Woo that she would endorse both.
Many community members were surprised that Sugiyama jumped in the race for the council’s open seat. Sugiyama’s camp was successful in convincing some of Woo’s supporters to defect to Sugiyama.
Getting support for Sugiyama evolved into an ugly contest, Chinese vs. Japanese, according to one person who was disturbed by what he saw. That’s a terrible mistake. I don’t think Al, who had always been fair all his life, would tolerate that.
A dominant figure in community protests and organizing protests, Al would have joined Woo fighting against anti-Asian hate crimes and the homeless mega shelter bordering Chinatown if he were alive two years ago.
Sugiyama told the Asian Weekly that she didn’t think about running for the seat at first. But encouraged by “community aunties and uncles,” she decided to jump in the race to find out if her job contributions for the city could speak for itself. Some of those aunties are pro-Councilmember Tammy Morales.
“It was an honor for me (to get Morales’ nomination), given her prior statements about wanting someone familiar with city processes,” Sugiyama said. She told the Asian Weekly that she did not know Morales prior to this nomination.
Had Sugiyama not been nominated by Morales, she would not be a finalist. Of course, Morales did it by serving her own interest in pursuing a potential ally at the council.
Morales, who is anti-business and pro-union, might not be aware that Sugiyama’s father worked tirelessly to get support from big businesses like Boeing, Macy’s, McDonald’s, Ben Bridge Jewelers, and several big banks. They were his major sponsors for his big annual dinner of his nonprofit organization, Center for Career Alternatives, according to his close friend who didn’t want his name out. These businesses’ CEOs were not just his sponsors, they had become Al’s personal friends overtime. He had a unique way of building relationships. You couldn’t say “no“ to Al.
After Al shut down his organization, he worked as the executive director for the Executive Development Institute. His job was to recruit big businesses’ Asian and Latino employees and train them to be managers and potentially go into higher management.
Bitter and angry
The most disappointed and upset finalist was Juan Cotto, a director for Bloodworks, who had already announced that he intended to run against Woo in November.
The other finalists were more graceful. Mark Solomon and Steven Strand congratulated Woo. Both said they won’t be running in November.
Nariya said had she won, she would have run for the position. But now, she doesn’t know.
Though friends said Sugiyama looked unhappy in a photo, she said it wasn’t true. She had a difficult time hearing what people said at the meeting, because of the sound system and where she sat.
Asked if she planned to run, she said, “Probably not this year.” She realized that it would be hard on her family as she has a 7-year-old and 20-month-old baby. Al’ close friend, who asked not to be named, said, “Family is important.”
Song said she still hasn’t decided. She would like to talk to more people. Song resigned from her school board position on Jan. 30, due to her change in residence.
Thai actually spoke during the public hearing about “forgiveness.” He was happy that Woo won. In his supportive way, he said, ”We should allow officials to fail to succeed“ so they can learn and serve better later. For this reason, “I would not attack or criticize my friends in public…”
Not many of us can shut our mouth when we disagree or dislike. That’s a meaningful lesson to us all, and Morales, too.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.