How Seattle’s 43rd District Became a Bulwark for Gay Representation in Washington

Since 1987, the district has been represented by at least one gay person.

In Seattle, in 2016, it’s easy to forget just how recently mainstream America began to accept LGBTQ people. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973 by the American Psychiatric Association, and being transgender per se was taken off the list only three years ago. Same-sex marriage, non-discrimination laws, open service in the military—heck, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws only in 2003. We live in one of the most tolerant times and places in modern history for sexual and gender minorities.

Amid such an embarrassment of riches, it’s easy to overlook the significance of this year’s race for Brady Walkinshaw’s soon-to-be-vacated seat in District 43, which covers much of Seattle (the largest American city with an openly gay mayor). Two gay candidates are running in a district that’s been held, in one seat or another, by the Friends of Dorothy for nearly three decades. And whatever the results of the election between Nicole Macri and Daniel Shih, both of whom are in committed same-sex relationships, queer Seattleites can rest a little easier knowing they’ll have yet another member of the Family watching out for them from the lofty halls of Olympia.

The winning streak started in 1987, when decorated Vietnam veteran and Seattle politico Cal Anderson became the first openly gay legislator in Washington. It all began when state Sen. Jim McDermott decided to take a job with the State Department as a “roving psychiatrist” for U.S. aid workers in central and southern Africa. One of the 43d’s two House representatives replaced McDermott. After a hard-fought campaign, Anderson was ultimately appointed by local Democratic Party members to fill that House seat. History was made—but that was just the beginning.

After thrice winning re-election, Anderson moved on to the state Senate in the 1994 election, where he continued to represent the 43rd for less than a year before dying from AIDS-related complications. Ed Murray, then a City Council aide, was Anderson’s choice of successor to the Senate, but politics being politics, he had to settle for the House seat.

Murray won re-election every two years until 2006, when he moved up to the Senate. His successor, Jamie Pedersen, won Murray’s endorsement explicitly because he was gay. At the time, the state Supreme Court had just upheld a statewide ban on gay marriage. The ruling “was like a political earthquake in the gay and lesbian community,” Murray told The Seattle Times, and Murray said it was not the time for gay Washingtonians to lose a voice in the statehouse: “The community has an opportunity to move forward with yet another leader.” Murray and Pedersen both kept winning re-election until 2013, when Murray successfully challenged Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Pedersen got himself appointed to Murray’s vacant Senate seat, and Brady Walkinshaw, also gay, was appointed to Pedersen’s vacant House seat.

Anderson. Murray. Pedersen. Walkinshaw. The 43rd district has been a bastion of gay representation—an apparent first in American politics, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national organization that works to elect LGBTQ politicians. Elliot Imse, director of communications with the group, notes that along with providing marginalized groups a voice in the state House of Representatives, the seat has proved to be a launch pad for higher office.

“This legacy seat is truly special because Cal Anderson was appointed at a time when few openly LGBTQ state legislators were serving anywhere in the nation,” Imse says in an e-mail. “As we painstakingly built LGBT political power over the past three decades, representatives of the 43rd district have continuously shown that LGBT people make strong and effective leaders—and can run and win the highest offices. Anderson and Jamie Pedersen became state senators, Ed Murray mayor of Seattle, and now Brady Piñero Walkinshaw,” who is running for Congress.

“This seat is a microcosm of the Victory Fund model at work,” Imse says. “We support these candidates in down-ballot races to build the leadership bench for when top-of-the-ticket opportunities emerge.”

For all that history, though, this is the first time that the two finalists for a 43rd House seat have both been gay.

Nicole Macri is a deputy director at Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Center and president of the Low Income Housing Alliance’s board of directors. She used to sit on Seattle’s Housing Levy Oversight Committee. Her partner, Deb Cayz, works on the campaign. Dan Shih is a trial attorney at Susman Godfrey. He also sits on the boards of directors of the state ACLU and API-Chaya, an Asian and Pacific Islander group that focuses on domestic and sexual violence. Shih and his husband Ted MacGovern have three daughters.

Neither candidate is making their sexual orientation a central part of their campaign, instead focusing on issues such as homelessness and education. The fact that being gay isn’t a big deal for local politicians shows how far we have come in a relatively short time. But both are aware of the shoes they are filling, and agree there is still work to be done on the LGBTQ front.

“This seat carries a great legacy, and therefore a great responsibility for ensuring continued expansion of civil-rights protections and safety for the LGBT community,” says Macri. “The occupants of this seat … have been at the forefront of changing national policy around LGBT civil rights and safety.” She’s referring to Ed Murray’s 2006 bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and lending and his 2007 bill creating domestic partnerships.

“Our community will have voices at the table” thanks to continued LGBT representation from the 43rd, says Shih. He quotes an old saying: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably the meal.” Shih says that having a queer legislator makes differences big and small. It’s not just symbolism, he says: “Having someone in the room from a community makes it a little bit harder for someone [else] to say something bigoted … Members of the community who are looking for someone to talk to, it’s nice to have someone readily identifiable that they can go to, who speaks their language.” In this sense, the 43rd’s gay politicians are representing not only Seattle, but LGBTQ people across the state.

While gay rights have seen huge victories in recent years, including the passage of same-sex marriage by state ballot measure in 2012, Macri and Shih say there is still lots of work to be done on LGBTQ issues. Both candidates condemn recent attacks on transgender people in (and outside of) the legislature. “We had a huge win in both defeating Senate attempts to bring forth limitations on what bathrooms transgender individuals can use,” says Macri, and in stopping the anti-trans bathroom Initiative 1515 from even gathering enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. “Even though there’s been more acceptance of gay and lesbian people, there also has been huge [pushback], and transgender people have borne the brunt of that backlash,” says Macri, both in the legislature and in rising hate crimes on Capitol Hill, Seattle’s longtime gayborhood. “We do not think that’s going to be the end,” she warns. “I anticipate we’re going to have to continue this fight against hateful interests against our community.” (The race for this seat actually drew a transgender candidate, Danni Askini. She dropped out to focus more attention to defeating I-1515, and has since endorsed Macri.)

“The bathroom bill was ridiculous,” says Shih. “An enormous amount of legislative time and public attention were spent on a rather frivolous anti-LGBTQ [bill]. It also distracted from things that needed to be done to protect trans people,” like health-care parity.

Like Macri, Shih’s aware of the weighty history that goes with this seat. Neither candidate forgets that, even in 2016, queer people are still figurative and literal targets of hate. November’s winner will carry a torch that’s been burning for nearly 30 years.

“Every participant in [this] movement has to acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Shih said in a follow-up e-mail after our interview. “Generations of LGBTQ leaders came before us and led a fight under very different conditions and on much more hostile terrain. It’s because of their courage, sacrifices, and hard work that our state is where it is now, and it’s humbling to be in the running for a seat previously held by such leaders.”