For Sammamish City Council, diversity remains a challenge
As the November Sammamish City Council election approaches, the Sammamish Independent conducted a review of the people who have served on past and present city councils. Our analysis revealed that the individuals elected to the council have been overwhelmingly white, and mostly male.
While Sammamish is 50.8% female, only six of the 25 members (24%) who have ever served on city council have been female. That is the same proportion as the number of council members named Tom, John, or Ron.
City council elections are staggered to occur every two years, and there have been two such terms when only one woman served on council. Each council has had at least one female member, but overall, female council members share a combined 56 years of service compared to the male council members’ 108 years.
Yet, gender may actually be the most diverse aspect of the council. An openly LGBT council member has never been elected to citywide office.
But the area of diversity in which the city council has struggled with the most is minority representation. According to US Census data, the proportion of minorities has dramatically increased since 1999, when Sammamish was incorporated into King County. In 2000, the percentage of minorities living in Sammamish and Klahanie was 14.4%. This figure increased to 26.4% in 2010 and reached 47.4% in 2020. If this growth rate continues, Sammamish could become a majority-minority community within a decade.
Despite the significant minority population in Sammamish, only one person of color has been elected to the council in the city’s 22-year history.
Ramiro Valderrama served on the council from 2012 to 2019. Valderrama is the son of Hispanic immigrants and grew up in the D.C. region before moving to Sammamish in 2004 to work for Microsoft. After serving on council for 8 years, he decided not to run again due to a cancer diagnosis.
Valderrama said the prospect of being the first member on city council from a racial minority was not a focus during his initial bid for a council seat. However, during his tenure on the council, Valderrama said that “a lot of things started to come up” that would have been addressed with “greater sensitivity” if the community had more minority representation.
Valderrama cited the example of outstanding driving infractions. Currently, licenses of cited drivers are suspended if they fail to pay their tickets.
Opponents argue that the practice unfairly penalizes minorities and low-income drivers who cannot afford to pay the ticket or miss work to combat these tickets in court.
Although cities have grappled with the issue for several years, the most tangible progress came this May through Olympia, when Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that, starting in 2023, will provide drivers with the option to request an incremental ticket payment plan instead of forfeiting their license.
“I think that if we had more people of diverse backgrounds [on city council], they could have brought that attention to that issue sooner,” said Valderrama.
Similarly, Valderrama said that homelesseness in Sammamish could have been more effectively addressed if the council was more diverse — whether in terms of race, socioeconomic status, faith or lived experience. For instance, Valderrama suggested that “we as a region could benefit” from electing people who have lived in denser cities and could provide valuable insight into the practicality of affordable housing proposals like tiny houses.
When asked what the biggest obstacles are for minorities in getting elected, Valderrama cites a number of issues that can dissuade qualified and overqualified minorities from entering an election altogether. Some suffer “imposter syndrome,” or a feeling that they do not understand the issues enough to participate. Others believe that serving on city council is a larger time commitment than it truly is.
Valderrama said representation also plays a big factor. Many decide not to run because they do not see anyone who looks or speaks like them on the current council.
“I heard people say, ‘Hey, I don’t see my name, my type of name up there’,” Valderrama said. “I would take objection to that and say, ‘Hey look at my name over here. If I can run you can run.’”
There has been some improvement in past years, with more diverse candidates running for city council. According to King County Elections, over the past four city council elections, 44.8% of candidates have been female and 24.1% of candidates have been minorities. However, the winners have still been mostly white and male.
Rituja Indapure ran for city council twice, in 2017 and 2019. Indapure is a first-generation immigrant, having moved from India to the United States in 1997. She has lived in Sammamish since 2002 and decided to run to give back to the community and to make the council more collaborative and inclusive.
Indapure said that during her initial bid for council, she was cognizant of the fact that it was harder for women, especially women of color, to run for office. She found that one of the biggest obstacles to diversity on council was low civic engagement, especially in local elections.
“With the city of Sammamish becoming more diverse, it is important that our local government also reflects the same,” said Indapure. “Our lived experience informs policies and it is important that these be represented on the council.”