Family Feud

Three political families face off in Seattle's 37th District.


You may think that Nov. 5 is Election Day, but in fact many of the key races in King County will be decided long before that date. First of all, the number of voters who go to their polling place on Election Day has dwindled—in the last election, 64 percent of King County voted by mail. And absentee ballots will start getting mailed Aug. 30, far in advance of the official primary day, Sept. 17. Also since Seattle is a one-party town, many key races will be decided in the next six weeks. This week, we start our election coverage and our endorsements.

If a race is too hot for veteran political consultant Cathy Allen's liking, you know the contest is scorching. Allen says she's keeping out of the fiercely contested race for state representative, position two, of the 37th District (southeast Seattle and Renton).

The three Democrats are competing to fill the open seat left by the departure of Rep. Kip Tokuda. This family feud isn't husband vs. wife or brother against sister, it's a face-off among three political families and their philosophies: Eric Pettigrew carries the standard for former mayor Norm Rice's crowd, with its consensus-building, win-win smoothness; Angela Toussaint holds the banner for former state Rep. Dawn Mason's bunch, with its feisty, grassroots activism; and Cheryl Chow keeps aloft former King County Council member Ruby Chow's emphasis on personal relationships leading to cutting deals. (Libertarian Ruth Bennett is also in the race but probably won't be a factor in this liberal Democratic district.)

Eric Pettigrew, 41, works for Safeco, but he doesn't sell insurance. Pettigrew is in charge of an innovative business strategy to open insurance offices/community centers in urban neighborhoods. Pettigrew launched the effort in Safeco's Central District office. The idea is to connect the insurance company to the community in tangible ways: Safeco's office includes a room for community groups to hold meetings and nonprofits to run classes; Pettigrew hired local businesses to do catering and janitorial work; he also made sure Safeco donated time and money to worthy community projects. Corporate headquarters was so pleased with Pettigrew's results—in other words, healthy insurance sales—that Safeco asked him to open similar offices around the country. He's opened one in Atlanta and now is working on another for L.A.

Pettigrew believes he can translate his success at bringing business and community together to the political realm. The key is not to be a boat rocker but to keep paddling forward.

His approach to transportation typifies his general approach. He supports Referendum 51 (R-51)—the road-heavy $7.7 billion gas tax increase—because, "It's a step in the right direction." He doesn't want to carry on an unending debate over the fine points but instead wants to move forward with the current plan.

He takes the same approach to Sound Transit's light rail. Although he preferred a tunnel option, now that the plan calls for surface rail right through his district, he wants to make the most of it. He fought hard to get the Seattle City Council to pony up $50 million to clean up the transit giant's impact on neighborhood businesses and homes. He also hopes to get resources from the state to make the neighborhoods around light rail a model of transit-oriented development, where apartments, stores, offices, and recreational centers will grow around rail stations so cars will be less necessary. He sees his political role as "an advocate and a resource identifier" for his district.

Isn't the state cupboard bare? Always the optimist, Pettigrew hopes to push Olympia to institute the Holy Grail of every liberal Democrat: a state income tax.

Angela Toussaint, 40, formed her political philosophy early on in life—at recess. As a girl, Toussaint kept getting in trouble by interceding in playground conflicts on behalf of the underdog. Exasperated, her father demanded to know why she kept fighting other people's battles. "Dad, it wasn't fair!" she answered. "Angela, life isn't fair," he counseled. "Well, it should be," she replied.

While she gave up physically jousting at age 8, she never stopped in her fight for the little guy. It has animated her work in community groups as varied as Parents for Student Success, where she met her political godmother, Dawn Mason; the Brighton-Dunlap Community Council, where she struggled to improve inner-city supermarkets; the King County Organizing Project, where she pressed candidates to support a living wage; and the Civic Foundation, where she worked to make City Council members accountable to poorer, South End neighborhoods. Her time in the activist trenches has taught her to stand her ground, to not be intimidated by the powerful, and to win by using collective power—or go down swinging. Along the way, she's also learned the importance of using finesse, not just political muscle.

Toussaint shows no signs of becoming too mellow, however. While many elected officials and candidates express private doubts about R-51, she is the only one with the guts to do so publicly. "Something is not always better than nothing," she says. She believes R-51 is too little money focused on the wrong solution. "As fast as we build roads, they fill up. We need to be more creative." She particularly thinks that trip reduction programs such as telecommuting need to be emphasized more heavily.

She also wants to take an innovative approach to education reform—stressing the role of parents. She believes children need a three-legged stool to reach their goals. Currently government only funds two legs—administrators and teachers. She wants money to train the third— parents—to advocate for their kids.

Where's she going to get the money? "If folks aren't willing to look at an income tax," she will encourage the closing of tax loopholes and thinking about new ways to tax multinational corporations that have branches in Washington.

Cheryl Chow, 56, retired from the Seattle School District last year. Though the energetic former principal has no kids of her own, Chow has dedicated herself to public service on behalf of children. She sees the state Legislature as her next means to promoting that end. She plans to bring to Olympia her 32 years of experience in education and politics that includes eight years on the Seattle City Council, a stint as an assistant state superintendent for public instruction, and two decades of classroom teaching and school administration.

She wants to wring more money out of Olympia for education. She thinks increasing teachers' pay may be a difficult sell, so she's trying to find different ways of putting money in educators' pockets, like paying off their student loans and subsidizing their use of public transportation.

Also on her to-do list: the elimination of the supermajority requirement for local school levies. Currently, 60 percent of voters must approve an increase in taxes for their local school districts; Chow wants it changed to a simple majority.

More money for education? Make it easier to hike taxes? These are the kinds of things that liberal Seattle politicians have been trying to get out of Olympia for years. How is Chow going to do any better at it than anyone else? That's where she's counting on help from her statewide network of educator lovers built up from decades of experience. In addition, she'll use the simple, but formidable, family philosophy: "It may sound Pollyannish," she says with a grin, "but it's all about personal interaction and respect."


We want Toussaint to go marching in.

Angela Toussaint's rare combination of guts, charm, and principle will make her an excellent representative for the 37th District.

While Toussaint has a couple of worthy opponents, she is an easy choice for us. While on the City Council, Cheryl Chow sided too frequently with downtown business to the exclusion of other interests and had a penchant for turning political differences into personal squabbles. Eric Pettigrew is too wedded to happy-face consensus politics, which often results in Olympia compromises that don't work well in Seattle.

Toussaint, by contrast, has walked the talk on social justice with years of grassroots activism. Voters can be confident that she will not back down on issues of principle. At the same time, legislators need to be able to reach across political divides to work with members whose views are far different from their own. Toussaint knows that finesse also enters into the equation of being an effective politician. Her warmth, sense of humor, and great storytelling will help her bridge the geographical and ideological differences that any representative of the 37th faces in Olympia.

The fact that her ideas for improving education differ from the liberal boilerplate with their emphasis on training and involvement for parents will also help her build coalitions. That will make it easier for her to explain why further cuts to our social safety net are untenable, despite the state's financial problems and why she believes it's wrong "to look for easy solutions in hard times."

Seattle Weekly Editorial Board

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