The Metropolitan King County Council chose Rebecca Saldaña to be South Seattle’s state senator on Monday, filling the 37th District seat that was vacated by Pramila Jayapal’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Share story

The Metropolitan King County Council chose Rebecca Saldaña to be South Seattle’s state senator on Monday, filling the 37th District seat that was vacated by Pramila Jayapal’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Saldaña, a former union organizer, is the executive director of Puget Sound Sage, a progressive advocacy group.

Her selection is unusual but not unprecedented. She was the second choice of the King County Democratic Central Committee, which submitted an ordered list of three candidates to the County Council to choose from. While the decision ultimately lies with the Council, it generally follows the preference of the local party committee.

Rory O’Sullivan, who resigned as chair of the 37th District Democrats to seek the Senate seat, was the first choice of the Democratic Central Committee, which voted last week on its list of candidates. O’Sullivan had won a narrow 46-35 victory among the Central Committee.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The party’s third choice was Shasti Conrad, a political consultant and former staffer in the Obama White House.

But, after interviewing all three candidates, the County Council voted against O’Sullivan 6-3, with only councilmembers Joe McDermott, Rod Dembowski and Jeanne Kohl-Wells supporting him. The council then considered Saldaña, who won unanimous support.

On policy, there was little daylight between the three candidates. All said finding more school funding to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision was among their top priorities. All said they favored lifting the 1 percent per year limit on how much a city or county can raise property taxes, which would allow King County to increase taxes more quickly.

O’Sullivan not only got the most votes from party officials, but he also had an extensive history, going back nearly 10 years, in leadership roles in the local party.

The councilmembers had high praise for all three candidates, several spoke about how difficult a choice it was, but their decision came down to a drive for diversity.

O’Sullivan is white, Saldaña is Latina and Conrad was born in India.

Jayapal, who was the only woman of color in the state Senate, endorsed Saldaña. And Saldaña argued that Jayapal’s replacement also should be a woman of color, especially given the fact that the 37th District is one of the few in the state that is a majority people of color.

Councilmember Larry Gossett noted that both the state House and Senate were more than 90 percent white, and asked all three candidates about the significance of the 37th District’s diversity.

Councilmember Dave Upthegrove noted that he was a white man who represented a majority-minority district. But he also said that, as a gay man, just being in the room during debates over same-sex marriage changed the nature of the debate.

“Presence in the room changes the discussion,” Upthegrove said,

Councilmember Claudia Balducci agreed, saying she remembered serving on government bodies where her presence, as the only woman, made a big difference.

“It’s not just identity politics, it’s about this increasingly diverse county that we live in,” Balducci said. “And the number of people who come to the table and bring that point of view is really, really woefully lacking.”

During her interview, Saldaña at one point broke down in tears, discussing a grade school classmate who was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, when he was 14.

“That, early on, made me realize that laws are written, but justice is not always done,” she said.

She said she wants to be an advocate for workers, immigrants, seniors, women, children and communities of color, and will run for the seat next year, when there will be a special election to fill it.

The contested selection was in stark contrast to the one last week, when the County Council chose Republican Dino Rossi, with minimal discussion and no debate, to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Andy Hill. Even one of the other candidates for the spot agreed that it should go to Rossi.