Author: Madrid, Cienna
Date published: March 21, 2012
Journal code: STRR
Scan the websites of Washington's 98 state representatives and you'll notice three trends: Our legislators are overwhelmingly white, male, and over the age of 50.
It's a pallid theme that 28-year-old Sahar Fathi, a current legislative aide to Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, wants to change. On March 20, Fathi announced her campaign to represent the 36th Legislative District, seeking the seat held by Mary Lou Dickerson, who is retiring after 18 years representing Northwest Seattle. Fathi is everything the state legislature currently lacks: She's young and Iranian American, and she's running because women and people of color are woefully underrepresented in state politics.
"All of our legislators look the same," Fathi reflects after watching a recent senate budget debate. "Here they are, making ridiculous cuts, balancing the budget on the backs of people of color and the poor-people who weren't anywhere in the room-and I thought, 'This is embarrassing.' Then I realized: These are my people. I can represent them."
Roughly 24 percent of residents in the 36th District are people of color, according to the state elections office, "and yet the policies we're adopting at the state level disparately impact them," Fathi says. She cites our state's gross misdemeanor law as an example, which until recently caused immigrants to be automatically deported for infractions like reckless driving due to its poor wording.
Which is why Fathi is determined to run a campaign with as many people of color on staff as she can find. Still, winning in the 36th won't be easy. At this early stage, Fathi is up against Phinney Ridge resident Nick Cail, who has formally declared his candidacy, and two connected, political women: Port of Seattle commissioner Gael Tarleton-a powerhouse with the name recognition and fundraising network that Fathi lacks-and Noel Frame, the Washington State director of Progressive Majority, which helps recruit, train, and elect new liberal candidates. Frame is running as the champion of public education. Tarleton, who touts an environmental and businessfriendly record at the port, reports having raised nearly $20,000 in less than two days.
But Fathi has an impressive résumé of her own. Before working in O'Brien's office, she earned her law degree from the University of Washington, studied international law at the Sorbonne in Paris, then clerked for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. "I wanted to help Middle Eastern women," she says of her desire to work for the UN, "but I learned that doing that work is more effective on a local level."
She returned to Washington State in 2009 to cofound the Middle Eastern Legal Association of Washington-the first nonprofit in the United States devoted to providing legal representation for the Middle Eastern community. Its legal clinic, which Fathi currently chairs, allows anyone 30 minutes of free legal counsel with an attorney-most of whom speak at least one foreign language. Fathi is also a board member for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU of Washington.
Again: She accomplished all of this before the age of 28.
"Sahar brings two sharp qualities to the table that translate pretty well into politics: a natural ability to connect with people and an ability to listen," says Chris Stearns, chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, in describing the characteristics that make Fathi an ideal candidate for the 36th. "I've watched her work an audience or two, and she has the ability to mix policy, personality, and wit in a way that draws in people to her message."
In her two years at O'Brien's office, Fathi helped secure an agreement with Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes's office to reduce sentencing recommendations for gross misdemeanors by one day (making them just under one year), thereby sparing immigrant residents deportation for relatively minor crimes. That small but significant change was eventually adopted by the state legislature in 2011. She also helped launch Seattle's Safe Parking program to connect homeless people living out of their cars with social services and safe places to park.
"Criminal justice has to happen at the state level," she explains, "because cities mimic what happens there."
But how can she win? Fathi believes she can win on a platform of the social justice issues she sees weekly in her capacity as legal counsel for people of color. "I intend to talk about race," she says. "If you want strong budgetary reform, we need to talk about race and about kids dropping out of school at a disproportionate rate. We need to talk about issues like sex trafficking in a non-placating, Seattle way-we need to empower the people who are affected by these problems."