In the diverse 37th Legislative District, another woman of color is headed to the state Senate, and that’s good. But it could have gone another way.

Share story

In the 37th Legislative District, white people are in the minority, which led some folks to ask whether a new state senator from the district ought to be a person of color. It’s a reasonable question to ask, but the answer needn’t necessarily be yes.

Tuesday, the Metropolitan King County Council chose Rebecca Saldaña to replace Pramila Jayapal as senator from the district, which includes part of Seattle. It was a good choice in this instance.

The Legislature is disproportionately white, so when all other considerations are taken into account and the candidates are similar, considering background and experiences that might add another perspective is reasonable.

The district itself is Democratic Party turf, and the Democrats are by far the more ethnically diverse of the two major parties. So it’s where you might expect such a question to arise.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

 

People often vote based on how comfortable they feel with a candidate, not based on a close examination of policy positions, and whether they think a particular candidate will understand them and act in their interests. Voters look for clues in a candidate’s background, personality, race, gender.

In the state House, the district is represented by Sharon Tomiko Santos, an Asian American, and Eric Pettigrew, who is black, which makes the district unusually diverse for Washington’s Legislature.

But it is also a district in which any candidate who hopes to succeed would have to share the politics of its neighborhoods, which run from Seattle’s Central area south into Renton. Any candidate who fits the district can do well. Before Jayapal, the Senate seat was held by Adam Kline, a white guy district voters supported for more than 17 years.

One of the positive things about a district in which no group is a majority is that it rewards political positions that ultimately benefit everyone.

A committee of the Democratic Party sent three names to the County Council for consideration: Rory O’Sullivan, who is white; Shasti Conrad, whose family emigrated from India; and Saldaña, who is Latina and German.

In this case, all of the candidates would likely have behaved in similar ways in office, supporting polices and promoting issues that are important to voters in the district. But it is also true that a person’s life experience can add something to an understanding of constituents and to that person’s contribution in Olympia.

Republicans have been saying that “identity politics” hurt the Democrats in November’s elections, by which they mean Democrats paid too much attention to African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Latinos and so on, maybe even Native Americans, who hardly anyone paid attention to until this year. Some Democrats even agree that maybe, like the Republicans, Democrats should have paid more attention to white guys who feel left out, which is itself a kind of identity politics, and unfortunately one that for some people means excluding other groups. Being aware of the needs of different constituencies is different from me-only politics.

We all have multiple identities, and some identities mean more to our sense of who we are than others. Sensibly, we are concerned about any identity that might put us at a disadvantage, or even at risk. If someone is targeting Muslims or immigrants, and you are either of those things, you would tend to pay attention. That’s reasonable, but shouldn’t be the only basis for a decision, or even the main one.

Kline spent some time as a newspaper reporter, which is a plus in my book, but then Susan Hutchison was a reporter once, too, and now she’s talking like Donald Trump. You really can’t go by just one piece of a person’s identity. Maybe it will make the kind of difference you hope for, but maybe it won’t.

I have some things in common with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and with Ben Carson, but nothing that would make me support either of them politically.

No single characteristic completely defines any person. It always makes sense to look at the whole package.