The Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color (CIRCC) is still in its “infant stage,” according to Bereket Kiros, an Ethiopian immigrant and south Seattle resident. But last weekend’s third annual Candidates Forum, hosted by the Coalition in Rainier Avenue’s Eritrean Community Center, was proof that that the community is important in the upcoming November election.
The Eritrean Community Center, a surprisingly large building just off Rainier Ave., occupies the center of Seattle’s famously diverse Rainier Valley. Last Saturday, 150 attendees watched as six panels of judicial and legislative candidates answered questions prepared in advance by members of CIRCC. Although well shy of the expected 300 attendees, the afternoon was energetic and, spurred on by the appearance of U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott and the fiery socialist, Jess Spear, at times raucous.
The population here is an almost even mix of white, black and Asian residents, with a substantial Hispanic population to boot. That breakdown doesn’t even begin to capture the incredible diversity within each of those four broad categories, which includes African-Americans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, Cambodians, Thais, Laotians and more.
Diversity does not always guarantee cooperation. In fact, it rarely does. In his 2011 article, “The Rainier Valley’s Diversity Myth,” for the City of Seattle’s website author John Poole argued that the Rainier Valley’s many distinct populations fail to intersect, with roads, parks and other physical barriers separating communities from one another.
The CIRCC turns Poole’s assessment on its head. With its mix of any and all immigrant populations — particularly East African and Southeast Asian — the Coalition is an impressive display of collaboration towards mutual goals: the rights and acceptance of immigrants and refugees in Seattle. Eritrea and Cambodia are far apart geographically and culturally, but U.S. immigration laws find immigrants from these countries grappling with the same issues. Common cause bridges cultural divides.
The CIRCC is only three years old. The organization has “no funding” source, explains Bereket Kiros. “We do it as volunteers and give $50 here or $100 here.” Shoestring budget aside, Saturday’s forum was buzzing with attendees, political candidates and advocates from every camp. Invited panelists included five judges, a crowd of candidates running for state legislature and U.S. Representatives Adam Smith and Jim McDermott.
Proponents of various November ballot measures were also out in full force. Advocates for I-594, Seattle’s gun control initiative, and for pre-K Propositions 1a and 1b manned tables at the event. Vote-seekers are clearly courting Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities. “For [these communities] to organize, not as Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, etc., but together,” said Rep. McDermott, “is a really big thing.”
Sameth Mell is one of the event’s organizers. His family came from Cambodia. The CIRCC, he said, liked to host these forums as a way to hold elected officials accountable. “We are going to make them promise they work with us on issues important to us,” he said, as he ate a plate full of injerra, phad thai and Caesar salad.
The key issues became clear from the outset as two moderators, both CIRCC members, put the same set of questions to each consecutive panel onstage, focusing exclusively on problems facing immigrants and refugees.
The most prominent question concerned criminal records. As Mell explained it, immigrants, especially refugees and undocumented people, stand to lose much more if they are convicted of petty crimes. With any sort of record, they can lose access to welfare, education, employment and housing, and risk deportation.
The moderators also asked about permanently sealing juvenile records, treating drug addiction as a public health matter, lifting the ban on ex-convicts having access to government aid and rehabilitating people as they get out of jail. Other questions focused on rent control and general access to housing, minority access to business contracts and education, specifically pre-K and secondary.
Initially, the forum had the look of a debate. Moderators granted each candidate two minutes per question, then an additional minute and a half. But CIRCC was not interested in exploring both sides of an issue. Its goal is to elect people who will advocate on behalf of its members.
Questions often began with “Do you support…” leaving little room for the candidates to answer anything but yes. Guests were across-the-board sympathetic to CIRCC causes. Judicial candidates Mark Chow, Damon Shadid, Fred Bonner, Philip Tavel and Kimi Kondo took turns offering slight variations on each other’s answers, but ultimately agreeing: All favored rehabilitation over punishment, restoring rights to those released from jail and sealing juvenile records.
U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Jim McDermott were also on hand to answer questions. Smith represents Washington’s 9th District, which includes Rainier Valley, but McDermott (representing Washington’s 7th District) stole the show.
Smith, sporting a Richard Sherman jersey, was greeted with warm applause. McDermott was met with whoops and cheers, lingering appreciation from the time, prior to the 2012 redistricting, when McDermott represented the neighborhood. Neither congressman faced any hard ball questions from the moderators — though Smith did stumble a bit on a housing question — and instead took turns agreeing with each other: more affordable housing, less consequence for petty crimes, greater access for minorities to business contracts and community college.
By all accounts, the people of CIRCC had already decided whom they would support. For Smith, Saturday’s event was simply an opportunity to remind his supporters to get out and vote. But what brought Jim McDermott to an event in a district he doesn’t represent? With the exception of a few reporters, no one in the room could cast a ballot for him. When I asked the congressman why he was there, his answer showed exactly why he still gets such big cheers. “I came here because it shows them the respect they deserve,” said McDermott, adding “what’s an hour out of my time?”
“Thank you, Mr. Jim,” said an Eritrean woman dressed in colorful, flowing shawls, who took McDermott’s hand and asked: “Can we clone you?”
Just when the energy in the room seemed to be fading, Jess Spear, socialist candidate for State Legislature, and her opponent, sitting Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, took the stage. Their exchange was the closest thing to a real debate all afternoon.
Chopp gave, essentially, the standard answers: He favored the minimum wage hike, more low-income housing and free community college. Spear, who had been desperate to get a proper debate with Chopp, was not about to let this opportunity pass. She claimed that contrary to his statement to the crowd, Chopp never supported the higher minimum wage and blamed him for being in thrall to corporations.
Spear, who has significant ground to make up after losing to Chopp by 59 points in the primary, was by far the most impassioned speaker of the day. She answered the moderators’ questions, but went further than any other candidate, bluntly calling for more taxes on the wealthy and on Boeing. She wandered a bit, but she impressed the crowd, many of whom had never heard of her. Ignoring for the first time all day the call to hold applause until the end, the crowd erupted several times during her remarks.
As a political event, there were few surprises. Candidates mostly affirmed their support for the immigrant and refugee communities and, when possible, shared their own immigrant stories. Kiros was disappointed: “I wanted them to say how they were going to do these things.”
Despite Kiros' disappointment, the potential for CIRCC is enormous. In three years, this small, underfunded organization had convinced local, state and national policymakers to sit down with them and respond to their issues. Every panel ended with the same question: “Do you, if elected, promise to meet with the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color within 60 days? Please answer yes or no.” Every candidate said yes.
Whether candidates make good on those promises remains to be seen. But to extract that sort of public commitment from such a large number of prominent candidates is no small thing for an “infant” organization like CIRCC, which is helping the diverse communities of South Seattle speak with one, coherent voice.