'We worked hard for this win': Seattle's suburbs are getting more diverse, and so are their city councils

SeaTac, Tukwila and Burien all saw gains with regard to better representation.

Takele Gobena

First-time city council candidate Takele Gobena speaks with volunteers before a door-to-door campaign effort on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, as part of his campaign in SeaTac Wash. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Last year, community members in the city of SeaTac worried about who would take the place of Amina Ahmed, a well-known and well-respected advocate for immigrants and refugees on the Seattle suburb’s city council. Ahmed had died in a car crash just weeks after joining the council.

Approximately a month after her death, the council announced their pick. It came as a surprise to some: Stanley Tombs. Tombs would add to an already majority white council, and some worried about a lack of representation for a city with a sizable Black and Asian population. 

Now, supporters in several suburbs in south King County, including SeaTac, are celebrating some big wins by candidates from a greater diversity of backgrounds in this last round of city council races.   

In SeaTac, voters elected Senayet Negusse, the daughter of Ethiopian refugees, and Takele Gobena, an immigrant from Ethiopia. Many in the community hope the two new council members will give the suburb’s large immigrant population a bigger say in issues impacting the region.

In a Facebook post after her win, Negusse, an educator and commissioner on the King County Immigrant and Refugee Commission, paid tribute to Ahmed, calling her “a pillar of our community.” During her campaign, Negusse focused on transportation, safety and improving representation on the council.  

Gobena, a 30-year-old union representative for Teamsters Local 117, who was also involved in the successful 2013 fight for a $15 minimum wage in the suburb of approximately 30,000, will take Tombs’ place. 

“We worked hard for this win. Not just me but the entire community,” Gobena, a University of Washington graduate and father of three, said in a recent telephone interview about his election. “Hopefully we are going to make a big impact.”

Although the community in SeaTac, which is more than 20 percent Black or African American and about 15 percent Asian, tends to vote Democratic, its mayor, Erin Sitterley, has garnered media attention for being an apparent supporter of President Donald Trump. 

Some see the success of candidates like Negusse and Gobena as a sign that SeaTac’s large immigrant population will continue pushing forward on issues such as displacement and affordable housing, despite having more conservative leaders with whom they haven’t always agreed.   

“More people want to be at the table. They don’t want to be on the menu,” said state Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, when asked about the recent elections and the increase in traditionally underrepresented groups winning.

Gregerson said both immigrants as well as those who are facing an opportunity gap in the region, such as renters, are looking to become more civically involved.  

Election turnout was strong in King County overall with 49% of eligible voters participating. SeaTac, meanwhile, saw 41.8% voter turnout.

The disconnect between local leaders and the suburb’s large immigrant population has come into focus recently with the sale of the SeaTac Center, a shopping complex that held approximately 50 mostly immigrant-run businesses. 

Last year, members of the SeaTac City Council voted 5-1 in favor of a proposed project by the Inland Group to redevelop the shopping complex. The Spokane-based development firm plans to build 665 units of housing and 30,000 square feet of new commercial space next to the Tukwila International Boulevard light rail station.

Controversy has also erupted over plans to redevelop Firs Mobile Home Park in SeaTac, a mostly Latino community. Families there have until next summer to vacate the premises. 

Ben Anderstone, a Seattle-based political consultant who worked on city council races in both Burien and SeaTac, said candidates like Negusse aimed to get a broad coalition of support, including new homeowners in the region who have been pushed out of Seattle. 

Anderstone said many of the new homeowners tend to lean progressive and have shared concerns with the immigrant population. 

“The city can unify its concerns,” Anderstone said. “Everyone benefits from wise policy decisions.”

Tukwila, too, is breaking new ground. The suburb, which also has a large Asian population, is adding its first woman of color to its city council with the election of Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson.

“I wish I wasn’t the first woman of color given how diverse we are as a city,” said Johnson, who is Asian American. “Could we do better?  Yeah, I think we could, but we’re at least moving forward.”

Johnson said she hopes to work on some of the same issues that have come to light in SeaTac. Construction on a new Justice Center in Tukwila, for example, has begun and the project is displacing about a dozen East African owned businesses.  

In Burien, Sofia Aragon won a seat on a city council in a suburb that elected its first two Latino members just two years ago. The city council is also now considerably more progressive.

“I really like where we’re going,” said Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, who had been embroiled in a fight about immigrant rights and the city’s sanctuary status near the time of his election. 

“This community is changing, and it’s changing in a way that people want to tackle the hard issues” with compassion, Matta said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, who supported some of the first-time candidates in SeaTac, says not only is it important that leadership has time to catch up with the influx of immigrants in the community but that a diversity of constituents remain civically involved.  

“It is a constant effort to try to make sure that you are including as many voices as possible,” Smith said. 

“I would say overall south King County is moving in the right direction,” Smith said. “We still have a lot more work to do. Diversity also doesn’t solve every single problem. The problem of unaffordable housing is one that many, many fast-growing areas face. But it does help.”

Smith said a diversity of voices is also crucial so that community members have greater buy-in with regard to not only problems but possible solutions. 

“Whatever your solution is, if the people don’t believe in it you’re going to have a much harder time implementing it,” Smith said.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.