Eastside demographic shift not seen on ballot
By Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Asif Rauf, following the long tradition of American politics, went to an Independence Day picnic to schmooze voters, donors and potential campaign workers.
The novice candidate walked through the gathering at Redmond's Grass Lawn Park, introducing himself with a familiar campaign mantra.
"I'm Asif. I'm running for Redmond City Council. I need your help."
The difference is, it was Pakistan Independence Day. The burgers on the barbecue had been specially butchered and prepared for Muslims. The crack of bat on ball was from a cricket bat.
Rauf, a Pakistani immigrant, is one of a tiny number of aspiring Eastside politicians hailing from the area's growing minority communities.
The arrival of minority and immigrant residents over the past decade has begun to reshape the Eastside, bringing ethnic diversity to neighborhoods and workplaces.
But that demographic shift has barely registered on the ballot.
Minority residents made up 21 percent of the voting-age population in Eastside cities in 2000, but the number of minority candidates for Eastside city council and school board elections this year can be counted on two hands fewer than 5 percent of all candidates.
With much of the minority population growth occurring since 1990, it just may be a matter of time before their presence at election time becomes more evident.
Local Latino community leaders unsuccessfully tried to recruit candidates for the upcoming elections, said John Camargo, president of the fledgling Eastside Latino Leadership Council. Several turned him down because they were too busy with work and family.
"There just wasn't enough interest," he said. "Several people have asked me to do it, and I don't have the time to do it either."
In Kirkland, Santos Contreras, a longtime figure in local politics and one of the few Latino politicians on the Eastside, is stepping down.
In Bellevue, Al Yuen, a commercial real-estate broker active in the Chinese-American business community, is in a four-way primary for a City Council seat.
In the Lake Washington School District, Arthur Hu, a child of Chinese immigrants and a vocal critic of standardized testing, is running for the school board.
Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna and some other local officials say having more minority candidates would help attract people who now feel little connection to the political process and could bring new perspectives on government policies.
"I think it makes the city work better," said McKenna, a founder of Advance Bellevue, a program that seeks to recruit and cultivate community leaders. "It's not in anybody's interest to have one part of the community dominate the council. It just produces alienation."
McKenna said he had hoped the election in the early '90s of people like Conrad Lee, a Bellevue city councilman who emigrated from Hong Kong, would attract a more diverse candidate pool. But he said there's little sign of that.
Several barriers may be contributing to the dearth of minority candidates, say political observers, politicians and minority-community leaders.
Immigrants may not be eligible to vote or run for office, or may be unfamiliar with the local political process. Newcomers may be too busy with work and family to try their hands at politics.
Minority communities haven't developed the political infrastructure that could cultivate potential candidates and provide a core of backers to finance and staff a campaign, or haven't felt welcomed into the interest groups that influence local politics.
"Where do you go for a social environment, political environment that would help you, cultivate you, encourage you, nourish you?" Lee said. "There's no institution, there's no infrastructure."
Lee, who was first elected in 1993, said cultural values particularly among recent immigrants may place a higher premium on education and economic achievement than political involvement.
Add to that possible concerns about how a candidate might be received.
"When a person named Asif steps up, how is John or Tom going to feel about that?" said Rauf, a program manager at Microsoft who moved to Redmond from Houston just more than a year ago.
Rauf said he raised that question with Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives, and she told him the city was ready for an immigrant candidate like him.
With no training in how to campaign, Rauf is falling back on his managerial experience and turning first to local East Asian communities for campaign volunteers.
Many of his campaign issues are familiar planks in a suburban platform improve transportation, make the area business-friendly and protect the quality of life. But he also sees it as a test case for other East Asian residents.
"I think that a lot of other people will be standing up and crossing the line, saying, 'If Asif can do it, so can I.' "
Rauf faces a more established contender. John Resha is executive director of the Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association and a former Safeco assistant director.
In a testament to the complexities of measuring race and minority status, Resha said he generally is perceived as Caucasian, is part Lebanese, his wife is Japanese American and they have multiracial children.
Resha said he welcomes the area's growing diversity but doesn't feel a candidate's race will determine how well residents are represented.
"If the perspectives that are being brought to the table are broad and open-minded, then I believe it becomes less of an issue," he said.
Some say they want to accelerate an increase in the ethnic and racial diversity of candidates. That may show as soon as the next election cycle for local offices, predicted Doreen Cato, a founder of the Institute for Community Involvement and of Sisters on the Eastside, an organization for minority women.
Cato, who lost a 1995 bid for the Bellevue City Council, said the institute would work to help attract and cultivate potential candidates who now may not be connected with the political parties.
"I think in two years you're going to see a different group of people running for office," she said.
Advance Bellevue also has begun some outreach efforts, helping to back creation of the Latino forum. But McKenna said there is only so much an organization can do.
"I think the most realistic thing we can do is keep encouraging people to get involved," he said. "Eventually, I think it will pan out."
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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