The Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Washington. • Photo by cmh2315fl/Flickr

Rep. Davina Duerr (D-Bothell) identified herself as the newest legislator in the May 26 virtual town hall hosted by Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington and Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. She grew up in upstate New York and first came to Washington on a family vacation.

“It was the first time I saw people who looked like me,” Duerr laughed. “I was the only Asian at my high school other than my brother.”

According to ACRS executive director Michael Byun, the town hall, at the tail end of Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, was designed as an opportunity for constituents to engage with legislators that look like them in review of the historic session.

In an interview with the International Examiner about API Legislative Week in February, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-Seattle) said that a legislator from a marginalized community is not only a representative of their district, but of that marginalized community – hence town halls that are not specific to a district.

The turn out for the town hall peaked at about 60 participants including seven state lawmakers, executive director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs Toshiko Hasegawa (joined periodically by her cat and baby — a sign of the ongoing Zoom times), and Congressmember Jayapal’s Deputy District Director Palmira Figueroa, who followed up the congress member’s pre-recorded greetings.

For the first half of the town hall, the lawmakers took turns giving their perspective of the legislative session. The moderator, Courtney Chappell, a local advocate, asked the legislators to keep their remarks to around two minutes. Most struggled to keep them under five.

Sen. Mona Das. Courtesy photo.

“People are scratching their heads saying, ‘how did they get so much done this year?’” Sen. Mona Das (D-Kent) said. “…when we elect different people, we get different results.”

Das says when it comes to policy making, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. This year, with what has been called the most diverse legislature in Washington state history (and what Das described as the most stressful 105 days of her life), more Asian American legislators were at the table then ever before.

In fact, according to Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue), it is the first time in state history that

Rep. My-Linh Thai. Courtesy photo.

the both chambers are led by people of color: Sen. Bob Hasewaga (D-Seattle) serving as majority caucus chair of the senate with Das as majority caucus vice chair, and Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Everett) serving as majority caucus chair of the house with Thai as majority caucus vice chair. Three out of the four of those leaders are Asian-American.

The second half of the event was a moderated discussion for community members to ask their legislators what they did to help Asian American Pacific Islander folks with their growing power in the state legislature.

“What did we do this session to help our low income immigrant communities with economic recovery?” APIC South Seattle’s Kelsey Monaco asked.

Thai, who sponsored the Working Families Tax Credit on the House side, said that much of the work in economic recovery was within the budget, not in a bill.

Rep. Cindy Ryu. Courtesy photo.

For example, in 2019 the state enacted a long-term care insurance benefit which built into the budget only 50 beds across the entire state for elderly who could not afford long-term care or would not qualify for the insurance benefit due to their immigration status. This year, Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-Shoreline) says she doubled that number.

“In what ways has this session had historic wins that correct our state’s long history of a racist and regressive tax system?” APIC Spokane’s Sarah Dixit asked. “What does a progressive tax system mean for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities?”

Sen. Bob Hasegawa. Courtesy photo.

The question was immediately handed to Sen. Hasegawa, who had already voiced concern about the limits of the recently passed capital gains tax which only affected 53 of the wealthiest constituents in his Seattle district.

“We still haven’t gotten off the path of least resistance which is putting the financing burdens most heavily on those who are least represented in our system,” he said.

Hasegawa also encouraged constituents to weigh in on conversations with the Washington State Tax Structure Work Group.

“Last year congress passed a COVID relief bill that corrected a 25 year mistake, a mistake that unjustly excluded COFA citizens living in the United States from Medicaid,” Tweetie Fatuesi with UTOPIA Washington said. “Now that COFA [Compact of Free Association] citizens are eligible for medicaid, how is Washington state ensuring our COFA community members do not face coverage gaps?”

The COFA agreement allows citizens of Micronesia to live and legally work in the U.S. without a visa.

Sen. Hasegawa says there is an anticipated savings to the state as the cost burden associated with medicaid was shifted to the federal government. Hasegawa says this savings will go back into the COFA community to address coverage gaps.

“During the pandemic, congress has passed multiple relief bills that provide Americans with stimulus checks, however undocument immigrants have been excluded from this relief,” Joomi Kim from Korean Community Service Center said. “How has Washington state made a priority to support the many undocumented family with economic relief?”

Rep. Mia Gregerson. Courtesy photo.

Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac) shared how they feed and house folks without proof of citizenship within the budget. Ryu, who says she’s been in the legislature a little longer than Gregerson, wanted to put that into perspective.

“We used to have to put those types of benefits in the back end of the budget,” Ryu said. “Guess what? Numbers matter. We could [put these measures] in the middle of the budget.”

Amy Pak, a director with ACRS asked: “What are we doing at the state level to address police accountability when we are also seeing frightening levels of anti-Asian hate? How can we address racism outside of the reliance on police or the criminal legal system?”

Duerr, who says she was particularly disturbed by a fatal stabbing in Bothell that was not ruled a hate crime, says she was looking for ideas from the community as well.

“If we accept that there is racism in the system, we need to have a paradigm shift,” Sen. Hasegawa said. “…We need to get away from the militarized factions that law enforcement currently represents.”

He suggested community policing as seen in the Chinatown International District.

The discussion ran right up against the 6:30 PM cut off with some legislators having to leave early for other end-of-session town halls, but for ACRS, the hope is that these conversations continue. Hasegawa even suggested another conversation in the interim to keep the community engaged.

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