Majority-minority districts are usually created with an eye to boosting the number of minorities in Congress. But in the Washington’s new majority-minority 9th District, that’s definitely not going to happen this election.
They split the city of Seattle between two districts in order to create the state’s first ever “majority-minority” district.
The 9th Congressional District was shifted northward, leaving behind the Fort Lewis area and rural Pierce County to take in both South Seattle and a growing population of immigrant and minority voters in South King County.
Now 51 percent of residents in the new 9th district identify as ethnic minorities.
But when those minority voters cast their ballots this week, they’ll be choosing between eight-term incumbent Adam Smith, a Democrat, and GOP challenger Jim Postma.
Both are white. Both are Christian. Both were born in the US.
When the Stranger interviewed the two back in June (along with Democrat challenger Tom Cramer, who later lost in the primary) they invited readers to “Ask Three Old White Dudes,” summing up the frustration felt by voters who thought a minority candidate would be a better fit to represent the district.
Eaden Andu, a 26-year-old Seattle voter originally from Eritrea says an immigrant candidate would be more likely to address the communication gap that keeps many new immigrants and English-as-a-second-language voters from participating in civic discourse.
She says many older immigrants, like her mother, want to vote and get involved but can’t understand confusing political jargon. They don’t know what’s at stake, what their options are or how to make their opinions heard – so they just give up altogether.
“Translation is a big issue,” she says. “It keeps a lot of immigrants in the dark.”
Andu says a lot of otherwise apathetic immigrant voters would respond positively towards a minority candidate by default – but any candidate, regardless of ethnicity, can reach out to immigrant voters through strategies like multilingual programming. It’s just harder.
“If I saw an Eritrean running for office, that would definitely get my attention from the start,” she says.
Al Garman, a 56-year-old Iranian American carpenter and passionate political activist from Bellevue also believes an immigrant candidate would be uniquely qualified to lead the 9th district.
Garman says many issues that specifically affect immigrant communities require complex, nuanced solutions best understood by people who have been there. He says this is especially true when dealing with the details of immigration policy and deportation.
“I’d delighted if somebody with an immigrant background ran for office…and actually got it!” he says.
Congressman Smith may not be the minority underdog imagined by some voters, his policy record shows consistent support for hot-button issues within the immigrant community like the DREAM Act, increased healthcare affordability and fair treatment for immigrant workers.
In a recent statement, he further espoused the need to focus on health issues specific to the African immigrant community.
Smith grew up in SeaTac, attended the city’s highly diverse Tyee High School, and has represented the 9th district in Congress for the past 16 years.
“He’s always stuck up for the minority,” SeaTac City Councilman Dave Bush says. “He does have their best interests in mind. I know because I’ve worked with him.”
Smith says the 9th district is home to more than a hundred languages and dozens of different ethnic groups, each with their own set of concerns. He says this makes it impossible to represent the collective majority-minority with someone from just one ethnic group.
“It doesn’t matter what race, color, creed or gender. What matters is: are they doing a good job? Are they listening?” he says. “What’s important is the voices of the people are heard and aggressively represented. And that’s what I’ve been doing for years.”
Smith’s opponent Jim Postma did not respond to requests for comment. He challenged Smith back in 2008, and was defeated by a landslide margin. A similar result is expected this year, and according to voters I spoke to, Postma is unlikely to get the immigrant vote due to his belief in stricter immigration control and opposition to social welfare programs.
Viradeth Xay-Ananh, a 28 year old Laotian immigrant and student at Renton Technical College, says he doesn’t care if a minority runs for office – he just wants someone who will “push for stronger policy.”
Xay-Ananh feels let down by existing political representation for lower-income immigrants in his Renton neighborhood, which Congressman Smith has represented since 1996. Like many of his friends and family, Xay-Ananh’s biggest struggle is finding decent healthcare benefits while working a minimum wage job.
“There is a lot of neglect,” he says. “I just feel like it all doesn’t even matter, you know what I mean? The rich are just gonna get richer and we are just gonna stay the same. “
Congressman Smith has always supported making healthcare more accessible for lower-income individuals. But Xay-Ananh’s stagnant situation exemplifies the difference between vocal support and real success when it comes to tough issues that affect immigrants.
When Somali immigrant Othman Heibe ran for SeaTac City Council last year, he sought to unite the city’s many ethnic groups under common issues that faced the entire immigrant community at large.
He ended up losing to former SeaTac mayor Terry Anderson. Now he says that addressing the individual concerns of every ethnic group within a vast, socio-economically divergent area would be impossible for any one leader.
“I could run all over trying to unite the Somali’s with the Ethiopian’s with the Latino’s and so on,” he says. “But it would be an unthinkable task.”
SeaTac Councilman Dave Bush says fixing the problem of minority under-representation depends on like-minded ethnic groups electing local leaders who can clearly communicate their concerns to state and federal representatives.
But Bush says this will only work if higher-up official first introduce programs to increase literacy, policy education and civic engagement in immigrant communities.
“What we need from people like Smith is to get the county, the state and the federal government to support programs like these, because we can’t do it ourselves,” he says.
In the meantime, grassroots efforts to engage the immigrant community in civic discourse are growing. Immigrant-rights advocacy group OneAmerica is going door-to-door with their “Power of the Vote” campaign, registering new citizens to vote and educating them about critical issues.
Maha Jahshan, lead organizer for the campaign, says strength in numbers will force any representative to listen to the voice of the people.
“This is just the first step,” she says. “The immigrant community, when banded together, is a powerful force to be reckoned with – and I do believe we’ll see them in office in the near future.”
Melanie Eng is an undergraduate at the University of Washington studying journalism, international policy and global communications. She has covered immigration, health care and and social activism as a student reporter, and is a former arts + culture intern for Seattleite magazine.