Pramila Jayapal has been a community organizer, a book author and an advocate for immigrants, but never an elected politician.
“I’ve never really been drawn to politics,” said Jayapal, 49. “I’ve been drawn to working from the outside.”
But now Jayapal and five others are vying to become the two candidates chosen in next month’s primary for the 37th District Senate seat. The top two will move on to the November general election to replace Sen. Adam Kline, a liberal heavyweight who has held the seat for more than 15 years.
The primary field includes Jayapal; attorney and civil-rights activist Sheley Secrest; analyst and teacher John Stafford; entrepreneur and teacher Louis Watanabe; union and civil-rights activist Claude Burfect; and the lone Republican in the race, IT professional Rowland Martin.
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Ballots for the by-mail primary must be postmarked by Aug. 5.
Once the election-night Champagne has been drunk, the winner will head south to Olympia to grapple with big-ticket issues such as court-mandated education funding and what to do about an aging transportation network.
A sliver of east Seattle that runs south to include Renton and parts of King County, District 37 includes Seattle neighborhoods, such as part of Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Leschi, Mount Baker, North Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, Rainier Valley, Bryn-Mawr and Skyway.
Born in India, Jayapal lives in Hillman City, a neighborhood south of Columbia City. She is known for her community activism, founding the advocacy organization Hate Free Zone, which later became OneAmerica. She has given TED talks, written for The Nation and authored the book “Pilgrimage: One Women’s Return to a Changing India.”
She’s raised three times as much money — about $153,000 — as the next best-funded candidate, according to state campaign-finance records. Her list of endorsements ranges from Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to former King County Executive Ron Sims. In its candidate-screening process, the Municipal League gave Jayapal its highest rating, the only District 37 candidate awarded that distinction.
Jayapal says education and transportation funding need to be looked at in short- and long-term contexts. The state can find revenue in the short term by making government more efficient and eliminating corporate tax breaks, like the $8.7 billion in tax breaks approved by the Legislature earlier this year for Boeing, she says.
In the long-term, Jayapal supports a state income tax, an idea floated unsuccessfully in Washington for decades. Jayapal says she’d balance it with reductions of other taxes and fees. The idea, she says, is to take a more planned approach toward raising money for programs.
“This slap-a-tax-here, slap-a-fee-there doesn’t work,” she said.
Jayapal says District 37 residents want more funding for public transit, and she also wants to study race issues within the education system.
Secrest, a 39-year-old Columbia City resident, is a civil-rights attorney now working for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. A former president of the local NAACP chapter, Secrest has been appointed to commissions and committees dealing with education, African-American affairs and police accountability.
“That was my heart and my baby, the police-misconduct cases,” said Secrest, adding that she wants to pass laws against racial profiling and make sure law enforcement tracks such instances. “We need those resources at a statewide level.”
Secrest says actions to spread economic prosperity — such as Seattle’s planned minimum-wage increase — will help fund the state treasury by generating more sales-tax revenue.
A supporter of the McCleary state Supreme Court decision that orders a boost in school funding, Secrest also supports prison reform and better health care access.
She says her campaign is driven by the people she meets, and she contrasts that with Jayapal’s high-profile campaign entrance earlier this year.
“When my opponent came out on the first day and snatched up all the political endorsements, the effect was people looked around and said ‘Wait a minute, we want a voice,’ ” Secrest said.
“It is a people’s campaign,” Secrest said. “That’s been the beauty of it.”
Stafford, 52, is no stranger to state Legislature races. This is his fourth run, though all the others were for state representative. A former consulting corporate analyst and now substitute teacher who lives on North Beacon Hill, Stafford is selling himself as District 37’s policy wonk.
“My campaign is focused 100 percent on substance,” said Stafford, adding that he isn’t into “feel-good popularity-based contests.”
He says he wants to create revenue by erasing state corporate subsidies. If it were politically feasible, Stafford says he would support an income tax on high earners.
He’d spend that money on funding the McCleary decision, which he describes as a “social justice, civil rights” issue.
Stafford would also like to see Washington move to a carbon tax similar to one in British Columbia. The idea would be to stop incentivizing the use of fossil fuels, and Stafford says he would offset the tax in other ways so it didn’t raise overall taxes.
It would be “a transfer fee to raise the cost of carbon fuel and lower the cost of other things,” he said.
Stafford says Jayapal has been too vague on the issues in District 37 debates.
In the money race, Watanabe comes in second, but with about $46,000 raised so far, the Beacon Hill resident is still more than $100,000 behind Jayapal.
Watanabe, 58, worked in engineering and software; he founded Dynamical Systems Research, a company that Microsoft acquired in the 1980s. After that, he began teaching business and math at Bellevue College.
Watanabe, who is no longer working at Bellevue and is focusing on his campaign, says he decided to run after becoming concerned about his students.
“I’m concerned about the opportunity for people in terms of having good-paying jobs to be able to raise a family,” he said.
The cost of tuition, the region’s transportation troubles, and crime in District 37 are three of Watanabe’s concerns.
When asked how he planned to fund education, “everything has to be on the table,” Watanabe said.
Another of Watanabe’s priorities is creating new jobs in the district.
“I believe that the best crime prevention is a job,” he said.
Watanabe also says he would have voted against the Boeing subsidy package.
“Companies need to understand that investment in people and their community is not a bad thing,” he said.
Drive down to the Skyway neighborhood in South Seattle and you start seeing campaign signs for Burfect.
Burfect, 69, is a retired government worker. A civil-rights activist who took the bus from his native New Orleans to the 1963 March on Washington, Burfect settled in Washington state after returning from Army service in Vietnam. He says he’s lived in his Skyway neighborhood for 36 years.
“A lot of things have happened in the 37th District, which is why I decided to run,” Burfect said over the phone one day from a union gathering in Chicago. Many of the things he sees, he explains, are neighborhood crime and the hardships former prisoners have in reintegrating into the community.
A supporter of the McCleary decision for funding schools, Burfect says he wants to put more emphasis on the trades in high schools — skills like carpentry, masonry and mechanics — so young people have a marketable skill once they graduate.
An opponent of the Boeing tax-break package, Burfect says he’d support funding both education and transportation projects with a state income tax.
Martin also disagrees with the Boeing package, but he differs from the other candidates in two respects: He’s a Republican and he works for Boeing. After years of living in the 37th District, Martin says he got sick of seeing Democrats running unopposed.
“It’s like we’re living in a one-party state or something,” said Martin, a 55-year-old IT professional who lives in Bryn Mawr.
So Martin, who also holds bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and math, says he has taken to the neighborhoods in a restored 1965 Datsun truck, political banner on its side, to campaign.
Martin says he wants to simplify the tax system so businesses don’t have an incentive to seek special subsidies.
“We just have this patchwork of really inappropriate targeted rates and laws,” said Martin, who also wants to repeal what he considers excessive traffic tickets and other civil fines.
Otherwise, his platform is simple: He wants to go to Olympia, find 10 percent of the laws he considers burdensome, and repeal them.
Martin says the state needs more money for public education, “but the McCleary decision was not the right way to go about it.”
Nor does Martin agree with funding transportation with special sales taxes. But he acknowledges the roads are wearing out and traffic is a problem.
“If necessary,” Martin said, “ I’m willing to look at raising the gas tax.”
Joseph O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org