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In Seattle and beyond, running for office is harder for people of color. These candidates know

Racism and other indignities have littered their path to office. For some, a working class background has made it even more complicated.

Scot with campaign staff and volunteers

Shaun Scott, candidate for Seattle City Council District 4, prepares for his team’s last day of canvassing before election day on Nov. 5, 2019. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

On the campaign trail, spineless acts of racism are as rampant as they are familiar for candidates of color like Shaun Scott. 

The latest vile act occurred early last week. Scott’s campaign finance director Enrico Doan woke up to a defaced “Scott for District 4” yard sign in front of his house. Soiling the Seattle City Council hopeful’s name, face and credentials was the most abhorrent of racist American epithets.

City officials, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Lorena González, condemned the act. Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said she would open an investigation.

“I sat on it all day in terms of what to do about it,” says Scott. “To be honest, it’s not the first time this has happened.”

In recent months, Scott has been subject to both casual usages of the n-word and an expanding range of racially venomous replies to “get out the vote” text messages sent to voters from his campaign.

Scott kept relatively quiet about the past incidents, preferring to stay focused on what he sees as a critical campaign geared toward uplifting the city’s working class and countering its economic inequality. But after last week’s incident, he felt the need to speak out. (Editor's note: The tweet linked to in the previous sentence contains graphic racist language.)

“I don’t think it’d be right not to let people know the distinction between where we say we are as a city and where we actually are,” Scott told me.

This is where we’re at: In Seattle during the year 2019, candidates of color who run for public office, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, will be weighed down by both systemic and explicitly racist freight. That truth, Scott says, is simply a reflection of the racial social order perpetuated by larger society.

“I remember talking with my dad back in 1993 — he broke it down that as a black man you’re just going to have to work twice as hard,” he says.

Scott’s father cited the example of a white teenager named Brian. He could fall asleep in class, be both disruptive and academically mediocre and still bank on making it farther in life than the average black kid. It’s a parable that tragically bears out: Data show that white high school dropouts land jobs at the same rate as black college graduates.

“It’s a model of racism that continues to persist in different variations,” says Scott. This imbalanced social equation, he adds, means a person of color is often required to be excellent in order to succeed, whereas a white man’s mediocrity is celebrated, frequently seen as more than good enough.

When race and class intersect on the campaign trail

Being a person of color comes with unique challenges when running for office, but add class to the mix and those challenges grow more complicated, according to Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who studies racial politics.

“Most POC candidates who run belong to the bourgeoisie class. If you go to an elite law school like Harvard, you’re getting support from superrich classmates in the first 90 days, which scares off challengers,” says Grumbach.

Most elected officials, irrespective of race, come from the fields of business and law. That means someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an organizer and bartender turned rising progressive star, or Seattle District 4 candidate Scott is fairly unusual. Not because of their politics but because of their working-class backgrounds, lifestyles shared disproportionately by people of color.

The end result is a “discriminatory diversification” that plays out in politics, as well as in boardrooms and newsrooms. You’re granted partial access to power as long as you’re “the right kind of minority.”

For many candidates of color, the kin disadvantages of race and class are added layers heaped on the already difficult task of running for office while managing work and family commitments. This is playing out in other communities such as SeaTac and Tukwila, where halls of power have been drastically incongruent with demographic shifts.

Takele Gobena
Candidate Takele Gobena reviews a doorbelling plan with supporters Tucker Richards, left, Edilnesh Bude, right, and her son, Keabe Kebede, second from right, on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, as part of Gobena’s campaign efforts in SeaTac, Wash. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Takele Gobena seeks to change that. The Ethiopian immigrant and labor organizer is running for city council in SeaTac, where people of color are the majority and a Trump-adoring mayor has been making headlines.

“The last four years have been a crossroads. The current city council became a version of the White House ideology instead of serving the community,” says Gobena, who points to recent legislation that displaced several immigrant businesses in the city as an example of anti-immigrant sentiment emanating from City Hall.

Gobena says it is essential that the politics of the area, where growth over the past decade is largely attributed to a swelling immigrant population, more closely resemble those held by its constituency.

But as a first-time candidate of color lacking a big money network, or without being “anointed by a political machine,” as he puts it, that effort arrived with little initial guidance and media attention.

“When I started, I really wish I would’ve known what it took to run a campaign. As a person of color you have to work two to three times as hard as everyone else,” Gobena says of his 18-hour days split among work, family time and door knocking.

Adding to that difficulty is how little systems of power typically value the life experiences of nonwhite, nonmale candidates.

“A question I get from people who have been in office forever is, ‘How many council meetings have you been to?’ instead of ‘What can you bring that we don’t have on a council that governs one of the most diverse cities in the state?’” says Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson, who arrived in Tukwila six years ago and is looking to become the first woman of color to serve on Tukwila’s City Council.

That question is all too familiar to Delostrinos Jonhson, a Filipina mother who has also been asked if being a parent would adversely affect her ability to do her job. Both types of questions, small indignities they may seem, add to the extra work people of color have to do that white candidates simply don't.

“When are we ever going to stop expecting that of ourselves? I’m not sure we can when it’s OK for white people to be mediocre. It’s in our culture to give them the benefit of the doubt,” says Delostrinos Johnson, who adds that she is encouraged by the majority of white constituents she speaks with while door knocking who want the city’s council to be more diverse.

But Delostrinos Johnsons’ expectation of dashing towards “outstanding” while others amble toward “good enough” will likely persist as long as class and racial distinctions do.

Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson

Tukwila City Council candidate Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson with her family after campaigning around her neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, in Tukwila, Wash. Delostrinos Johnson is running for Tukwila city council Position 4. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

'Narrative is a complex machine that can elevate or assassinate one's character'

Emijah Smith had always been skeptical of politics. She wanted no part of the showers of toxicity she saw spewed in most political contests. 

But then a Seattle School Board seat opened up. Encouraged to run for the appointment by family and friends, the community organizer and mother of three went for it. She, along with two other candidates, was vying to fill the Board’s District 7 seat vacated by Betty Patu.

On the eve of the Board’s decision, Smith was jolted awake early in the morning by text messages alerting her to a KUOW article, which had published late the previous evening.

That article, and one published in The Seattle Times earlier that morning, described an incident, nearly eight years ago, when a woman came to Smith’s home acting as a liaison for a man Smith says repeatedly threatened her and her family. According to Smith, the visit was in violation of a protection order she had against the man and any third parties functioning on his behalf (the man was convicted of a domestic violence felony in 2008). Feeling the woman possessed ill intent, and having asked her several times to leave, Smith says a physical altercation between her and the woman ensued. After being called to the scene by the man Smith had the protection order against, police arrested Smith. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault and served a year of unsupervised probation; the charges against her were eventually dismissed.

The two-tiered nature of our justice system means that working-class people, like Smith, have a higher likelihood of exposure to it. Race plays the role of force multiplier in that probability, according to a study by the People’s Policy Project. As a result, candidates of color are more likely to be subjected to scrutiny over past run-ins with law enforcement, a dynamic amplified by the tendency of media to sensationalize criminality. So when it comes to covering candidates of color whose lives have intersected with the criminal justice system, the bar for responsible coverage must be high.

Emijah Smith
Emijah Smith in a Family Engagement Team meeting at Mercer Middle School in Seattle on Nov. 1, 2019. Smith was one of three finalists in September to fill the Seattle School Board district seven seat but was not selected. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

While the KUOW story detailed the contents of the police report, and claimed Smith acknowledged its accuracy, Smith says she never agreed with the report’s portrayal of the night.

“KUOW lied about me [accepting the accuracy of the police report]. I realize they probably view me as some uneducated black woman with little power, so they feel they can get away with it,” Smith says.

KUOW says it stands by its decision to tell the story. “To be candid, this is a story nobody at KUOW was eager to publish, but we ultimately agreed it was our responsibility as journalists to cover it,” KUOW News Director Jill Jackson wrote in an email. “We believe it would have been irresponsible to ignore a story about a finalist for public office, or to cover it in a way that did not provide the context and nuance we sought.”

In an interview, Jackson acknowledged that the timing of the article was not ideal. “If we could have done it earlier, we would have,” she said. As of last week, KUOW had removed the illustration that originally ran with the piece — a childlike collage that meshed black and white photographs of Smith and her home with out-of-context quotes pulled from charging papers. Following public criticism, the NPR affiliate also changed the original headline of the story, which had alluded to a confrontation between Smith and “past demons.”

While it’s uncertain whether the story impacted the appointment decision, Smith’s defenders saw it as a nail in the coffin.

“Narrative is a complex machine that can elevate or assassinate one's character,” says Donte Felder, a South Seattle educator who has known Smith for years. “In the case of Ms. Smith, and her courageous run for the school board, some media outlets used their power to destroy her chances to create change at the district level.” 

Elevation is what was granted to Joe Fain, a former Republican state senator accused of rape in September 2018. Not only did he benefit from a delayed, then later suspended, investigation of the allegations by Candace Faber, a former foreign service officer, he also received a shameless boost from the Seattle Times editorial board, which doubled down on its endorsement of him during his reelection bid, despite the accusation. (Fain has denied the allegations.)

Many candidates of color, like Smith, receive no such vicarious rejoinder.

“When you’re from a POC community, negative things are going to get magnified because there’s fewer of us running relative to white candidates,” says state Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, citing the overrepresentation of white males elected both in Congress and locally in certain city councils.

Nguyen, who was successful in his first try for office a year ago, says novice candidates from marginalized communities often find themselves several degrees removed from power brokers.

“The Seattle Times editorial board has an institutional relationship with [Fain],” says Nguyen. “They have wider knowledge of him. With someone like Ms. Smith, the only perspective they have on her is what they read in some article.”

Too often, to be a working-class candidate of color is to be locked outside the palaces of cultural influencers, political power players, and the campaign financier class. It is to face a barrage of bigoted insults. It is to be forced to comply with a value judgment placed on the totality of your life, one that may find you guilty of imperfections forgiven in others.

“There’s a price to pay for going against the grain when you’re a candidate of color,” says Shaun Scott. “But the price not to run in order to change the status quo would be far greater.”

That price is still comparatively lower than the going rate for being treated like a wealthy white man.

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In Seattle and beyond, running for office is harder for people of color. These candidates know

About the Authors & Contributors

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green is the founder of the South Seattle Emerald and a former reporter at The Seattle Times.