As an Indian Sikh immigrant, Manka Dhingra saw people in her community fearing for their safety after Donald Trump was elected president. Dhingra heard Indian mothers recount how their children's classmates teased them, telling them that they'd be deported under the new president.
"I never expected an election to hit me as hard as it did," she said. "[People in the community] didn't know if they would be in the country the following year. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God. This is not what I remember America to be like growing up.'"
Dhingra, a Democrat, is running for a seat in the Washington State Senate to represent the 45th Legislative District, which includes Duvall, Kirkland, Redmond, and Sammamish. Republican state senator Andy Hill, who represented the 45th, died of cancer in October 2016, which led to the special election.
All eyes are on Dhingra's race. She offers the best chance for Democrats to flip the state senate to blue. The party last held a majority in 2012.
Conservative state senators routinely kill bills that passed with bipartisan support in the Washington State House of Representatives. In recent years, senate Republicans have quashed efforts to better regulate guns, protect consumers' internet privacy, address climate change, restore salmon runs, and ban conversion therapy across Washington.
"There are a handful of people who hold the state senate hostage," Dhingra told The Stranger. "It's crucial to flip it so we can actually be this beacon to show the rest of the country what a progressive state can look like."
By high school, Dhingra already knew she wanted to become a prosecutor. While working toward her Juris Doctor from the University of Washington School of Law, Dhingra held a clerkship with Washington State Supreme Court justice Barbara Madsen and later interned under then-state attorney general Christine Gregoire. In the attorney general's office, she frequently worked on sexual- and domestic-violence cases.
She remembers one woman whose efforts to have her domestic-violence case heard in court were repeatedly dismissed. Although her client's abuser had been accused of domestic violence before, he rarely left physical marks on her, Dhingra said. When she was finally able to prosecute the woman's former partner for assault, Dhingra remembers her client pulling her aside to thank her for changing her life.
"That woman needed someone to believe in her when, for years and years, no one did," she said.
Dhingra said her drive to give "people who were voiceless a voice" was a core value in her family. Some of her relatives worked on Indian refugee camps. To continue her women's advocacy work, Dhingra cofounded Chaya—now known as API Chaya—in 1996 to better support survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.
In January 2000, after graduating from law school, Dhingra became the first South Asian prosecutor for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Seventeen years later, Dhingra now serves as the county's senior deputy prosecutor, supervises the Regional Mental Health Court and Veteran's Court, and works as a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Eastside. In addition to advising on the King County Mental Health Court, Dhingra also supervises and teaches crisis intervention and de-escalation trainings for law-enforcement departments across the county through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
If she's elected to office, Dhingra said she first wants to focus on finding ways to pour dollars into the state's criminally underfunded K–12 schools. To do so, she said she will work with legislators to find "non-regressive methods of raising revenue" that "[do] not raise property taxes in the district."
"On a federal level, the state of Washington seems like a progressive state, but the bottom line is that, within the state, we're not passing progressive policies," Dhingra said. "The fact that we're not taking care of the most vulnerable in our state, to me, is a travesty."
Although she voiced support for progressive taxes, including a capital gains tax and closing corporate loopholes, Dhingra said she does not support a state income tax, putting her in opposition to many Seattle progressives. (Washington voters last voted to approve an income tax during the Great Depression, but the state supreme court later ruled that it violated a state constitutional policy that taxes be uniform within the same class of property.)
Dhingra said state legislators' efforts would be better spent identifying revenue streams rather than being mired in legal battles. Seattle's recent income tax is designed specifically to survive a court challenge and overcome court precedent. In theory, the legislature could institute an income tax without going to the courts by passing a constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds majority within the state house and senate. However, even if Dhingra were elected, Democrats still wouldn't have that majority.
Dhingra's district, which includes Woodinville's vineyards and the Microsoft tech hub, is not strongly Democratic. When she and her husband moved to Redmond 21 years ago, "we were a red district—we weren't purple," she said. Now, Dhingra said, many people in her district don't vote strictly on party lines.
Dhingra faces Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, also a first-time politician. After completing her undergraduate degree at University of Washington, Englund worked on then-state senate candidate Dino Rossi's campaign and as an aide to US congresswoman and Trump fan Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Englund also served as a product manager for the development of a United States Marine Corps smartphone app and the spokesperson for the Bitcoin Foundation.
Like Dhingra, Englund opposes a state income tax. She also opposes a capital gains tax, which she describes as a "threat" to Eastside residents, and vows to find ways to decrease traffic. When Bellevue City Council members voted unanimously to ban safe injection sites, Englund issued a media statement calling on city councils in her district to do the same, saying they would "[raid] funds for the mentally ill and chemically-dependent to keep people addicted to drugs." Dhingra noted that there are currently no proposals to open safe injection sites in the 45th District.
"The opioid epidemic is taking lives on a daily basis," Dhingra said via e-mail. "This issue should not be politicized for the personal gain of one candidate."
As of the county elections department's final ballot count on August 15, Dhingra is more than 10 percentage points ahead of Englund.
Incumbent state senate Democrats are also expected to retain their seats. State senator Patty Kuderer leads her libertarian opponent by near 40 percentage points. State senator Rebecca Saldaña ran unopposed. Candidate Michelle Rylands, meanwhile, trails incumbent Republican Phil Fortunato by nearly 17 percent.
Wresting control from state senate Republicans and beginning to pass progressive, or at least bipartisan, legislation now hinges on Dhingra winning in the general election. She is our only hope.