If Tony Lee was coming, people heard him before they saw him. For decades, the activist’s booming laugh echoed through doorways in Seattle City Hall and all the way across the Washington Capitol campus in Olympia.
Lee’s laugh was so frequent and so boisterous, it was often hard for Mike Buchman and his coworkers to concentrate when he and Lee both worked at faith-based organizations that shared an office in the 1990s. So they built a wall to separate him from the rest of the employees.
“The wall helped, but it shook when he laughed,” Buchman said.
Lee, former advocacy director at the anti-poverty organization Solid Ground, fundamentally changed what it was like to live in Washington for people who live at the margins. He helped save cash assistance programs for disabled or mentally ill people, worked to expand Medicaid to cover dental care and helped create a public-private partnership to help new immigrants become naturalized citizens.
Lee spent his life fighting in Seattle and at the state Legislature in Olympia for funding for social programs to help poor and immigrant communities. Much of his work was dedicated to combating the effects of Reagan-era cuts, ’90s welfare reform, and reduced social services spending after the Great Recession. He spent his final years in a fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called ALS. He died of the disease Thursday. He was 72.
“He was the greatest advocate for immigrant folks and poor people,” said Democratic state Rep. Frank Chopp, former speaker of the Washington House. “(He had) such a beautiful positive view of the world but was also very eloquent and effective as an advocate.”
“He was with the people“
While Lee was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Shantou, China, they were thrown into poverty when Mao Zedong came to power. Lee was 2 years old. The family felt threatened; they fled to Hong Kong, where Lee’s nine siblings and his parents all lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a year, Lee’s older brother Joe Lee said.
The family then immigrated to Brazil. They didn’t know the language and didn’t have money, Joe Lee said.
“It was kind of a family culture to help everybody as much as we can,” Joe Lee said.
Finally, the family settled in Seattle when Tony Lee was 11 and bought a grocery store in majority-white Wallingford.
Lee attended Lincoln High School, where he played varsity tennis and earned good enough grades to land a scholarship to Harvard.
But Lee got homesick for Seattle, according to Sharon Lee, who was married to Lee from 1986 to 2010. He came home and studied law at University of Washington, after which he worked as an attorney representing low-income and refugee clients.
In the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Lee became concerned about how potential cuts to the social safety net would affect his clients. He began lobbying local and state governments on behalf of Asian Pacific Islanders, and the needs of the people he represented. Sharon Lee worked as legislative staff for Seattle City Councilmember Paul Kraabel at the time and met Tony during his frequent visits to City Hall.
“He was with the people,” said Sharon Lee who is also a well-known advocate for low-income housing and founded the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle. “He was so warm and people just warmed up to him.”
Diane Narasaki, who co-founded the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition with Lee, said Lee did more to establish a refugee and immigrant safety net in Washington state than any other single person.
“We brought literally thousands of Asians and Pacific Islanders to talk with the governor about the importance of these programs, but it was Tony who translated the needs of the community into legislative and policy solutions,” Narasaki said.
“Dean of the lobbyists“
Seattle City Hall was also where Lee met Chopp, one of his closest friends. Chopp worked for the Fremont Public Association, which would later become Solid Ground, in the mid-’80s and Lee was lobbying Seattle City Council for more money for homeless shelters, community health clinics and food banks.
Chopp liked Lee’s sense of possibility and fun — and that “hearty” laugh.
In 1995, Lee told Chopp that he wanted to continue to work together and Chopp offered him a job on the spot. Solid Ground became the base from which Lee launched many of his campaigns for the next 19 years.
Lee’s close friendship with Chopp, who was later made speaker of the Washington State House, gave Lee a door into the halls of power in Olympia.
“Literally, I felt like he was my brother,” Chopp said. “When you’re in the Legislature, particularly a speaker, everyone’s coming at you to advocate for this or that — and I told Tony, ‘Just tell me what I should do.’”
But Lee always used this influence to advocate for people who couldn’t get into those same spaces. Chopp said Lee served as “the conscience of the Legislature,” encouraging lawmakers to spotlight not just stories of people who had worked their way off cash assistance, but people who were stuck trying to live off so little.
One of those people was Juanita Maestas, a single mother who survived for years in and out of jobs, cash assistance and homelessness. She joined the advocacy arm of Solid Ground to give back for the help she received. But she told Lee she worried no one would listen to her.
“And Tony said, ‘That’s why you have a voice. You’ve got to make it so people will listen,'” Maestas said.
In the ’90s, it was a radical idea that people who’d been in poverty could act as their own spokespeople, according to Marcy Bowers, who worked under Lee at Solid Ground and took over the advocacy arm after he retired.
But Lee often asked Maestas for advice on how to improve family welfare programs that she had relied on in the past.
He also took her to lunch, Maestas said, and asked her about her life. He met and mentored her grandchildren. He told her he was always just a text away.
“He was my guiding light,” Maestas said. “He taught me how to be myself. And how powerful my voice can be.”
Activists Lee mentored would go on to help change eviction laws, ban discrimination against people using rent vouchers and persuade Gov. Jay Inslee to put tens of millions into fighting homelessness and building affordable housing. By the time Lee retired from Solid Ground in 2014, he was “dean of the lobbyists in Olympia,” said Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
“His legacy’s pretty vast — a lot of what the human services sector is accomplishing today is due to Tony,” Ramos said.