Voters will send four Asian Pacific Americans to the Washington State Legislature next year, after an election that is likely to give Democrats a majority in both houses.
Voters returned Kip Tokuda, a two-term Democratic legislator from the 37th District, in a landslide victory over Muhammad S. Farrakan (R) and Guerry Hodderson of the Freedom Socialist Party. Velma Veloria, a Democrat, embarks on her fourth-term representing the 11th District with 82 percent of the vote.
Joining Tokuda and Veloria in Olympia will be Sharon Tomiko Santos and Paull Shin, both Democrats. Tomiko Santos took the second slot in the 37th with 88 percent of the vote. Paull Shin secured the position of state senator in the 21st District in Snohomish County, beating out Republican incumbent Jeannette Wood by 10 percentage points.
At his election watch in Lynnwood, Shin said, “This is a victory for American values and a victory for Asian Americans. It shows we can assimilate into mainstream society. On a personnel level, it means a lot to me, because I have an opportunity to serve the people.” Shin, who owns a small business and teaches, immigrated to the United States from Korea. He previously served as a state representative from 1992-94.
This is Tomko Santos’s first experience as an elected official, though she has been active in grassroots organizing for 20 years, particularly within the Asian Pacific American community. Together with Tokuda, she represents the most diverse legislative district in the state. “There are important issues that affect the African American communities that may not affect or involve the APA community. I intend to be just as out there on those kinds of issues,” she said.
“Her heart is with the people,” said Veloria of Tomiko Santos. “She has strengths that I don’t have. She’s very articulate and cites facts just like that.”
For Veloria and Tokuda, it has sometimes been a tough and lonely road as the only Asian American legislators in Olympia.
Last year, when 1,500 Asian and Pacific Islanders descended on the state capitol, it gave Veloria “a real sense of power”—she felt like she was “at home.”
But each year after everyone leaves, there is a void, said Tokuda.
It doesn’t help matters that Republicans have run the state legislature for the last two years.
This past legislative session proved “strenuous” for Veloria, “frustrating” for Tokuda.
Veloria recalls the immigrant bashing. Tokuda saw his legislation for juvenile justice reform die just hours before the 1998 session came to a close.
“Everything that we fought for, we got attacked on,” said Veloria. “We got attacked vehemently.”
But after three terms in office, Veloria has learned that the state legislature can be “very incremental,” and that the survival of a bill often depends on the reinstitution of its sponsor.
Washington was the first state to provide equal protection for legal immigrants threatened by the 1996 federal welfare reform bill. English as a Second Language and bilingual education programs were saved from several attacks. Tokuda’s “Special Needs Adoption” bill, serving the needs of developmentally disabled children, passed out of the legislature unanimously. And Veloria’s work to make the Seattle Housing Authority more accountable resulted in the addition of two board member positions to represent the residents of Seattle housing projects.
The senior legislators expect particularly strong threats to bilingual education and English as a Second Language programs in the coming session. As has happened in other states, legislation making English the “official state language” could open the door to tighter restrictions on multilingualism.
Veloria wants to see the state legislature take an active position on bilingual education. “We should assess where a child is, and then develop a program to facilitate his/her learning of the English language. American-born kids receive 16 years of English, but we want immigrant children to learn English in three.” Increasing the funds for low-income housing will also be a priority for Veloria, and Tokuda will co-sponsor “Juvenile Justice Reform” legislation for the third straight year.
Echoing the words of Tokuda, Rep. Veloria expressed that she has high hopes for the Asian Pacific community. But said, “We’re still here—Kip and me—but we won’t always be. I want people to become more active, to show their faces in Olympia, and not just on APA legislative day—so we won’t be so lonely.”
Added Tokuda, “We are still a community where politics isn’t cool—not legitimate or necessary, almost dirty. There’s an element to that I can’t understand, but we absolutely have to be involved. We can’t cry about inequalities and not be.”