News

A Vote for Diversity

The historic new faces of Washington’s Legislature

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Washington made the books last week, voting in record numbers and electing the most diverse and representative Legislature in the state’s history. Voters nearly tripled the number of women of color—and notably Black women—to represent them in Olympia.

“There are so many barriers for women, for people of color, for people who aren’t wealthy,” state Sen. Mona Das observed. Elected to the Washington Senate in 2018, Das—who was born in northern India and came to the United States with her parents when she was eight months old—played a pivotal role to reduce those barriers, encouraging women to run and helping to fund their campaigns.

“The only reason I have made it as far as I have is because I do not give up,” Das said. “Oh, and I am very good at fundraising,” she laughed.

Das helped create the Opportunity PAC, a political action committee with a vision to create an American democracy that is truly representative by getting women of color elected to public office. Launched in early June, the Opportunity PAC proved enormously successful in altering the color balance in Olympia.

Running for the state Senate, T’wina Nobles, president of the Tacoma Urban League, was elected by 50.6 percent of the vote in her district. She’s an elected official on the University Place school board, focused on issues of equity and inclusion.

“A commitment to ensuring that women of color, especially Black women, have the resources and visibility to run and win is a long-overdue need,” Nobles observed.

April Berg, a former board member for the Edmonds School District and currently director of the Everett School District, won her seat for Snohomish District 44 in the House of Representatives by 51.7 percent of the vote.

“I am so grateful for the network of Black women, people of color, and allies coming together to elevate Black women candidates,” Berg said. “Voters in our state are ready for a truly representative democracy.”

Attorney Jamila Taylor will represent District 30 after she won 57.8 percent of her district in Auburn and south King County. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a teacher and social justice activist, won 65.5 percent of Rainier Valley’s District 37 along the western shore of Lake Washington. Lynnwood City Council member Shirley Sutton, a directory of diversity affairs at Edmonds Community College, lost in her challenge to Asian-American Cindy Ryu, the incumbent House Democrat in District 32.

Democrat Tanisha Harris was defeated by Republican Vicki Kraft in Clark County’s conservative District 17. Joy Stanford, a teacher and community outreach specialist, lost to Republican Michelle Caldier in Kitsap’s District 26.

But incumbent Rep. Melanie Morgan kept her seat in Tacoma’s District 29, as did Rep. Debra Entenman in Das’ District 47 in south King County.

“Opportunity PAC has provided a network for these Black women running for office across our state, many who did not know each other prior to its founding,” Das said. “It’s helped elevate and bring awareness to all their campaigns and has really taken on a life of its own, more than I could have ever dreamed. These candidates are now supporting each other, and getting donations and volunteers from around the state who heard of them through the PAC.

“I wanted to build something that I wished had been there when I first ran for office,” she reflected.

Das sees an opportunity to expand the effort in other states. Her PAC is a concept that could increase representation nationwide.

“Guess how many women of color are running for the California Legislature this session. Zero. This is California,” she exclaimed. “And look at Washington this year. If lily-white Washington has 10 Black women running, that is incredible. When I ran for office, there were 13 Indian women running. Wow. And I am thinking, ‘What is in the water in Washington?’

“I have my theories—there is an encouraging community at work here—but it is a historic movement I would like to see continue.”

“If we want to re-imagine America, we must take deliberate action to create a democracy that is truly representative,” former state Sen. Kevin Ranker said. “What Senator Das created with the Opportunity PAC is a powerful example of how to do exactly that.”

The Orcas Island Democrat announced he was honored to be elected to the national board of the League of Minority Voters, an organization working to inspire and empower communities of color to engage and vote—and educate them on why that matters. Its parallel mission is to inspire people of color to seek elected office. Originally founded in Oregon, the League launched its national board in October of this year.

“It’s an incredible organization with a powerful mission,” Ranker said. “The board is extremely diverse—there’s even room for a middle-aged straight white guy like me—but most strongly represented by women of color, which is phenomenal and, frankly, about damned time. I am overjoyed to be a part of this effort.”

Debra Lekanoff was unchallenged in her race for reelection as a representative in the 40th District. While she was not a beneficiary of Opportunity PAC organizing, she too reflected on the growing role and need for diverse representation in an increasingly diverse society.

“I looked at my mirror and I said, you know what? It’s time to run for office,” Lekanoff laughed. “The only other people who looked like me were my colleagues from Lummi and the women in the kitchen.
“My approach has always been that I create a big kitchen table, and I work in collaboration with all stakeholders,” Lekanoff said. “Running unopposed is an important milestone for me because it helps bring me strength to know that the decisions and the relationships—and my wingspan around the 40th—is really respected by the voters.”

Arguing for a broad-based style of representation, Lekanoff observes, “I’ve got 800 fishermen in the Skagit; I’ve got 800 farmers in the Skagit.

“We have a saying that when the tide is out, the table is set. These values intertwined with my own Native American values of making sure that as we take care of our community, we take care of the resources that take care of us. When I’m in Olympia, it’s this community that takes care of my daughter. When someone asks, ‘Can you help me?’ and I say, ‘Absolutely.’

“It takes all governing bodies working together with respect, with honor, and understanding to make it sustainable for all people to call Washington state home.”

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