BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Democrat Chris Marr is trying to get elected to a State Senate seat Republicans have held for over 60 years. A candidate for the 6th District (north and south Spokane) seat, Spokane-area media have been reporting that his race with Sen. Brad Benson could break the state record for campaign fundraising and spending.
Marr, 52, was employed as a manager by Ford Motor Company and the McDonald’s Corporation in the Seattle area before moving to Spokane in 1986. For the past 20 years, he has been president of the Foothills Auto Group, which operates Lincoln Mercury, Mazda, Acura and Honda dealerships in the Spokane area. He sold his interest in the Foothills organization to pursue a career in elective office.
Marr presently serves on the Board of Regents of Washington State University, on the Board of Governors of the Washington State University Foundation, and is chairman of the Board of Empire Health Services and Inland Northwest Health Services. He has served as chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, as well as chair of the Washington State Transportation Commission (the governing board of the Washington State Department of Transportation), and president of the Spokane New Car Dealers Association. He has also served on the boards of numerous nonprofit and arts organizations. Marr was honored with the Washington Environmental Council’s 2005 Backyard Hero Award for his leadership efforts in passing state Clean Car legislation. He is also a marathon runner.
With the election around the corner, Marr took time out to answer a few questions from the International Examiner:
International Examiner: Is Spokane/Eastern Washington overlooked by state government more than those of us in Western Washington realize?
Marr: There is certainly the perception that Eastern WashingtonÜhas not participated in the Puget Sound’s booming economic growth and that we are increasingly being denied a fair share of state tax revenues. However, this is a more recent trend and not due to some “anti-dry-side bias,” as some would believe. First, our local economy’s past reliance on agriculture and resource extraction clearly works against us. We do have some bright spots in healthcare, clinical research and skilled manufacturing – but have not clearly articulated a vision for a new regional economic focus. With my qualifications, I believe I can be an effective advocate and help obtain targeted state investment. Two other personal observations: Spokane is caught in a netherworld – we are neither Puget Sound nor are we “rural” Eastern Washington. Often, as Westside lawmakers attempt to bridge the Cascade curtain, they offer initiatives to rural counties (economic development funding, for example) which Spokane does not qualify for. Lastly, for too long, Spokane and Eastern Washington have been represented by partisan, ideological extremist legislators who speak of Seattle in an adversarial or derisive way. We need leaders who are more thoughtful, collaborative and able to put partisanship aside.
IE: Are there defining characteristics and concerns of Spokane’s Asian Pacific American (APA) community?
Marr: In relative terms, the APA community here is small and not actively engaged in politics or civic leadership. Other than Rob Fukai, former head of the Office of General Administration who served on our school board, I would be the first APA elected to a public office in Spokane. It is comprised of an older community of Japanese Americans who relocated after internment and a number of Chinese and Japanese families who owned small family businesses. Often, their children moved off to bigger cities after college. We are seeing a number of those younger people (particularly professionals) move back. I also know there is a growing Southeast Asian population, but it tends to be pretty insular. This speaks to the need for those of us APAs that can, to be more visible and active in the community, and encourage and mentor others to do so as well.
I.E.: Are you active within the APA community?
Marr: My wife, Christine, attends the Spokane Buddhist Church, of which she serves as president. She is also actively involved in the Northwest Buddhist District Council. Professionally, I interact and collaborate quite often with AHANA, a business diversity organization founded by former Seattleite Ben Cabildo. I have also worked closely with theÜSpokane Sister Cities Association and Mukogawa Institute – a local branch of a Japanese women’s university. From a social perspective, I am sad to say Spokane lacks the same opportunities for active APA networking, especially since the passing of former JACL leader Denny Yasuhara.
I.E.: Are there aspects of your campaign that specifically address APA issues?
Marr: First and foremost, as a visible APA, my campaign fulfills my personal commitment to participate actively in my community – which I hope encourages others to claim roles in the political process. In a general sense, I carry a deep belief of the power of diversity to power economic growth and create the rich social fabric that attracts people and capital to cities like Spokane. As a WSU Regent, I have led the push for initiatives that expand our inclusion of APAs and improve outreach to the Seattle APA community, to improve retention and recruitment of students, faculty and staff. I intend to continue that role on a broader scale as a legislator.
I.E.: Is your race against Sen. Benson becoming the most expensive in state history, as earlier predicted in newspaper stories?
Marr: The fact that our campaign will surpass the $500,000 mark in spending (the previous record of $418,000 was set by former Majority Leader Sen. Jim West for this same seat in 2002) is not a huge point of pride for me. I often think of how many college scholarships that could create! But, given the fact that a Democrat has not been elected in the 6th District since 1938, and that the Republicans dearly want to hold on to this seat, it’s an important part of our strategy. By the way, I’ve also knocked on over 11,000 doors and earned the endorsement of many business and moderate Republican community leaders as well. What I do take pride in is that my opponent has only raised 15 percent of his funds in Spokane County from less than 200 donors, whereas 70 percent of my donations are local and I have 10 times as many donors.
I.E.: Has your ethnicity been an advantage or disadvantage for your campaign and/or your business career?
Marr: That’s hard to answer. I think every person of color encounters ignorance early in their life and we learn to tune out any subtle negativity we may encounter. Having said that, I do not believe it’s been a disadvantage during my 20 years as a businessperson or a civic leader in Spokane. I tell a story aboutÜbeing sworn in as chair of the Chamber of Commerce. As I stood at a podium before 800 business leaders, I said, “Many of you have asked what it’s like to be the first minority chair of the Chamber.” As a hushÜfell over the crowd, I continued: “I don’t think being a Democrat has been held against me at all.” The heavily Republican crowd roared with comprehension. I guess you could say being a Japanese American running for the legislator in Spokane is less a problem than being a Democrat.
I.E.: Why are you so heavily involved with community organizations?
Marr: I have a personal passion around community building and public policy, which my former role as the owner of a successful large business allowed me to indulge, perhaps to excess. As I walk around my city, I am taken with the fact that our parks, streets, schools, museums and symphony did not get here by themselves – they were the result of community efforts led by men and women with vision. That’s why I was so proud to have the late Ed Tsutakawa, who recently passed away, serve as my honorary campaign chair. Ed was a lifelong Republican – but a huge inspiration and mentor to me. Without him, we would not have our sister cities program, our Japanese Gardens, Mukogawa Institute, Expo 74 and so many other things that increase our respect for diversity and the contributions of the Japanese American community. To think that the man emerged from the internment camps with a passion to give back to a community which conferred so much indignity on him and his family is almost incomprehensible to me. He was an inspiration.
I.E.: How do you size up your chances of being the first Democrat to be elected to a seat that’s been held by the Republicans for some 60 years?
Marr: Having runÜ40 marathons, I know enough not to get overconfident before the final stage of a race. Having said that, we have a huge lead in fundraising, endorsements, volunteers and doorbelling. I feel very good about the fact that we have run a textbook campaign to this point. However, as the campaign enters the last three weeks, given the importance of the race, I’m sure attack ads and independent expenditures will appear. We have to work hard to the end, stay on message and continue to fight a fight we can be proud of – regardless of the outcome. Don’t bet against us..