B>Where else but Seattle's volatile 37th District would the most radical state House candidate—a 21-year-old African-American man who demands reparations for slavery, rails against the "political terrorism" of Weed and Seed, and is prone to sit-ins and strikes—be running as a Republican? A "Lincoln Republican" that is, asserts the candidate, Kwame Garrett, son of longtime Central Area activist and firebrand Omari Tahir-Garrett. Garrett is up for the seat being vacated by Dawn Mason, who is making a bid for the state Senate.
Any political vacancy in the 37th typically brings out a slew of candidates. Encompassing the city's poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods of central and south Seattle, the district gives rise to a level of ethnic and street politics seldom seem elsewhere in the city. This year is no exception. In addition to Garrett, six Democrats are running for Mason's seat: two blacks, two whites, a Japanese-American and a candidate of both Native American and Filipino descent. Respectively, they are: Juan Cotto, former political aide to both US Sen. Patty Murray and Gary Locke when he served as King County executive; Chris Bennett, an editor for his father's newspaper, the Seattle Medium, and chair of Seattle's Human Rights Commission; Beacon Hill dentist and political novice Fred Quarnstrom; Bob Penhale, a mystery candidate who doesn't show up at political events or return phone calls; Sharon Tomiko Santos, another former Locke staffer from his county exec days and veteran of many women's and Asian-American groups; and Camille Monzon, executive director of the Seattle Indian Center, a social-service agency.
Since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the primary is sure to decide the race, no matter what kind of Republican Garrett may be. And the enigmatic Penhale is out. Beyond that, there are few certainties. Political insiders sense that the front-runners are Monzon, Santos, and Cotto, these three having the most experience in politics and community service. Certainly, these are the picks of the politicos themselves, many of whom have benefited from the candidates' work on past campaigns. The King County Democrats have taken the unusual step of endorsing all three.
Yet, few are writing off Chris Bennett, who draws support from the African-American community served by the Medium, and who placed second four years ago in a six-way primary race for the state Senate, won by Dwight Pelz. The 28-year-old Bennett is uniformly considered a likable guy and has given thought to the issues. He favors reducing the B&O tax burden on small businesses and floats the idea of a moratorium on property-tax assessments for people living on a fixed income. His experience, however, is limited given his age.
More significantly, some people say, as does Central Area activist Earl Debnam, that "it looks like he's kind of a shadow image of his father." Critics find the senior Chris Bennett to be overbearing and complain about his use of the newspaper and radio stations he also owns for personal ends—like electing his son. The junior Bennett goes along with one-sided front-page stories about the race, such as the one in August bearing the headline:
"Bennett's campaign is all about the people."
The most generous of campaign observers also give Dr. Quarnstrom a chance— albeit a very, very small one—by virtue of his wide acquaintanceship gained over 30 years of practice on Beacon Hill. Quarnstrom's magnanimity in donating time and money to community events and liberal causes has earned him the respect of people like Ruby Chow, the community leader who agreed to be the doctor's honorary campaign chair.
Even so, Quarnstrom's political naivete is glaringly apparent. He says he was motivated to step off the political sidelines by seeing community colleges "discriminate" against two of his dental assistants who applied to dental hygiene programs. According to his account, however, what the
colleges really did was fail to practice affirmative action to his satisfaction—an issue that would be DOA in any legislature these days. Moreover, somebody ought to advise Quarnstrom against turning his dental expertise into campaign themes, as with his call to send out educational material aimed at stopping "baby-bottle tooth decay."
Of the three likely front-runners, the 37-year-old Santos seems the most polished. A former banker like Norm Rice, she has a similar professional aura as well as a corresponding degree of blandness. She last worked as a fund raiser for the recently opened International District Village Square, a multiservice center. Arguably her smoothness might make her the best at working with Republicans. She suggests as much by highlighting her cooperation with the Republican-controlled County Council while working as a policy assistant for Locke. She has a bureaucrat's ease with governmental process and acronyms of departments and laws roll off her tongue.
But she also has an impressive record of community service, from serving as an honorary board member of Aradia Women's Health Center to volunteering for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service. "She's paid her dues," says County Council member Dwight Pelz, who is endorsing her despite having run against her last year for the seat he now holds. She's consequently thought to have a considerable base. Her reputation is enhanced by her marriage to Bob Santos, regional director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the unofficial "mayor of the International District."
Monzon, in contrast, seems the most genuine of the three, despite an Ivy League pedigree. She received a master's in public administration from Harvard. The 58-year-old Tlingit tribal member asserts she's the only one with "hands on" experience working with troubled kids. The Indian center she directs runs a small school for kids who have been thrown out of the public system.
In truth, her educational agenda is the same as everybody else's in the race: increase funding. But she delves into real-world detail when discussing issues. On how to spur economic development, another perpetual issue in the 37th, she mentions specific intersections that have potential: 23rd and Union, for instance. She argues that the city is not taking advantage of federal tax breaks for so-called "empowerment zones" that have already been designated in the city.
This is the third time Monzon has run for this seat. She lost twice against Mason, the second time by almost a 2-to-1 margin. The previous races could either help her or hurt her, depending on whether her past runs grant her name recognition alone or an additional association with losing.
Finally, Juan Cotto, 33, is known as being a hard worker. He's certainly worked his butt off in this race, getting up early every morning to wave a yard sign at prominent intersections around the district. He has the eager manner of the young political aide (which he has been) but to some minds this does not convey the gravitas of a legislator. Ask him how he is and he'll likely beam and exclaim, "Outstanding."
He maintains that the district wants someone to be a "student" on the issues, and it's a good description of what he is. He has the half-formed quality of someone who knows he's not an expert but is eager to learn. In mulling over ideas for economic development, for example, he suggests teaching high school business from an entrepreneurial point of view, then admits that the Legislature is not the best forum for developing curriculum. He has done his homework on youth crime, however, pointing out at a community forum last week that most such crime happens not at night but directly after school, an argument against curfews and for after-school programs.
Cotto prompted some minor clucking by opponents and observers last week when he sent out a mailing with a picture of himself together with Gary Locke, taken when Cotto worked for Locke. One might reasonably infer that Locke is endorsing Cotto, but the governor is staying emphatically neutral.
Whoever wins may not win by much. A race with so many candidates, during a non-presidential election year expected to have a low voter turnout, may turn on a few thousand votes. The victor can look forward to a race against a unique brand of Republican.