Othman Heibe strode up to a house inside a senior mobile-home park in SeaTac and tapped on the front door. Sherri Holton emerged, her hands...
Othman Heibe strode up to a house inside a senior mobile-home park in SeaTac and tapped on the front door. Sherri Holton emerged, her hands in blue rubber gloves, her morning chores interrupted.
Heibe, 28, introduced himself, telling her he’s running for a seat on the SeaTac City Council.
Her first question: “Why?”
It’s a question Heibe gets often, and his response to Holton, in a lilting Somali accent, was that he wants to bring a new and different voice to local government.
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While that may not be politically unique, Heibe, in many ways, is.
As an immigrant, a Muslim and a Somali American, Heibe reflects a changing face of South King County, where once predominantly white communities such as SeaTac, Tukwila, Kent and Renton now have a majority of minority residents — many of them Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants and refugees.
Yet even as the area’s streets, parks and schools have taken on this new look, candidates like Heibe remain a rarity, as leadership in many of these local governments remains largely unchanged.
The rules about seeking political office aren’t spelled out in any immigration handbook, and experts say immigrants and refugees often lack the political connections needed for a successful run for office.
Many come from cultures where the very idea of civic engagement — not to mention elected representation — is foreign.
And, occupied with their own lives and families, many believe they lack the time and money to run. Still, others worry about being unelectable — seen by others as perpetual outsiders.
John Wyble, a Seattle-area political consultant, said the question about whether a particular minority is electable has surfaced throughout history.
“Ten years ago, it was ‘can a gay or lesbian person get elected?’ In the 1960s, it was ‘can a Catholic be president?’ There are always barriers to entry. The key to crossing that barrier is doing the organizing to get to where you need to go.”
Wyble said it’s clear the country is moving toward more diversity. “The question is ‘are we ready for a Muslim in SeaTac?’ He may do it this time or it may take a cycle or two. But history says it will happen eventually.”
Three foreign-born candidates
Admittedly unseasoned in the ways of politics, Heibe — a married father, University of Washington student and taxi driver who became a U.S. citizen two years ago — is one of three first-time, foreign-born candidates seeking political office in nonpartisan South King County races.
He’s on the Aug. 16 primary ballot for Position 3 on SeaTac City Council in a race against two other candidates — including Terry Anderson, who has been on the council since SeaTac became a city some 20 years ago and who currently serves as its mayor.
Heibe’s other opponent is Sandra Cook-Bensley, who said she wants to bring a fresh perspective to the council on issues such as property rights and on improving the business climate.
South King County’s other two first-time, foreign-born candidates are both running for seats on the Tukwila City Council.
One is Ruth Sanoy, an 80-year-old retired teacher who was born in the Philippines, but has lived in the U.S. much of her adult life.
She is running against Louise Strander, whose family has roots in that city going back 100 years, and Kate Kruller, who boasts more than 20 years of volunteering in Tukwila.
The other immigrant candidate, 20-year-old Abshir Mahamed, was, like Heibe, born in Somalia. He came to the U.S. when he was 5 and said he feels he can walk the fine line between the American and immigrant experiences, and “be a catalyst for dialogue.”
He’s running against Dennis Robertson, a Boeing retiree seeking his fourth term on the council.
For Heibe, transportation is a key issue — he wants to be a voice for SeaTac on the placement of light rail. He said he also wants to promote human-services programs that focus on housing and other services for seniors and children.
In the U.S. less than 10 years and registered to vote just a week before filing to run for office, he said he’s running not as an immigrant or a Muslim but as an American who wants to build a bridge between all people.
“I want to go out and say to people it’s not a shame or a crime to be a Muslim,” he said. “I want them to know that the problems our city faces — whether it’s about sidewalks, balancing the budget, hiring city managers or providing safety for everyone and adequate equipment for firefighters — all those things transcend religion.”
Struggling with change
Ongoing demographic shifts over the past decade have given SeaTac and Tukwila the highest concentrations of minorities anywhere in King County — each at more than 60 percent.
Some have argued that boundaries for the state’s new 10th Congressional District should be drawn to include an area stretching from Southeast Seattle to Federal Way, creating the state’s first majority-minority district.
Between 2000 and 2010, South King County’s minority population increased more than 66 percent, according to the U.S. Census. And a 2005-2009 estimate showed that the area’s foreign-born population had increased more than 44 percent since 2000.
Anderson said the new refugees and immigrants are coming in quickly and in large numbers as more affluent families and younger people move out. As a result, the SeaTac mayor said, smaller cities like hers are struggling financially to absorb them all.
“The entire infrastructure of these communities has to change to accommodate the incoming residents,” she said.
Anderson, 79, said city governments don’t necessarily need to reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
“I don’t think it’s something you should strive for,” she said. “It’s not something you should fight, either.”
But Mia Gregerson, who is running in the general election for her second term on the SeaTac City Council, where she’s the only person of color, believes leadership that reflects a population can better connect with it.
Born in Taiwan, adopted as an infant and raised by American parents in South King County, Gregerson said she believes she stands out on the council because she looks and sounds “like the people who are coming into this community and creating what many fear is a sense of loss of power.”
She’s the first to acknowledge that engaging a population where dozens of languages are spoken is not simple. “But we’re not even trying,” she said.
On the campaign trail
As he doorbells around SeaTac explaining his candidacy, Heibe has fielded all kinds of questions.
Fellow Somalis often ask him: How much does the job pay?
“When I say it’s $1,000 a month, they say, ‘You have a wife and child, why are you wasting your time?’
“A few of them do understand and support me.”
He came to the U.S. with his mother and siblings at age 22, settling first in Virginia, where a brother lived, before moving to Columbus, Ohio, where there was an uncle and a broader Somali community for support.
In Columbus, he found work in the warehouse industry and bought a home, later losing it after he lost both his jobs. He eventually filed for bankruptcy.
In 2007, he moved to the Seattle area.
He became interested in politics two years ago when he interviewed SeaTac council members as part of a class project at Highline Community College, where he was enrolled. “I felt I was as qualified as any of the ones running,” he said.
For a while in recent weeks, Heibe and his opponents became bogged down in mudslinging over yard signs. He was accused of removing his opponents’ signs and they his, and on one of his someone carefully painted the image of New York’s twin towers next to an airplane and scrawled “terrorist” beneath it.
He’s had doors slammed in his face, and his signs have quietly disappeared from the yards of some who granted him permission to plant them. But he’s also met residents willing to hear him out.
In the end, he said, “there will be people — my wife is one of them — who no matter what I say will vote for me, whether it’s because I’m Muslim, or an immigrant, or taxi driver.
“Then there will be people who will vote against me, no matter what,” he said, recalling a woman who told him she could never support someone of the same religion as the Sept. 11 terrorists.
“The people in between will be the ones who decide who wins at the end of the day.”
Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo and news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org