Rebecca Saldaña, executive director of Puget Sound Sage, now heads to the state senate.
Rebecca Saldaña, executive director of Puget Sound Sage, will replace Pramila Jayapal. courtesy of saldaña campaign

Bucking the recommendations of Democrats in the district, the King County Council voted today to send Rebecca Saldaña to the Washington State Senate to represent South Seattle's 37th Legislative District.

The seat was previously held by Pramila Jayapal, who was the only woman of color in the state senate and last month won election to a seat in Congress. To replace lawmakers who leave before their term is up, precinct committee officers for their party in their district vote on three top picks and then the county council chooses the final appointee from those three.

In recent weeks, the 37th Legislative District Democrats recommended housing lawyer and chair of the 37th Legislative District Democrats Rory O'Sullivan, Puget Sound Sage Director Rebecca Saldanña, and progressive political consultant Shasti Conrad, in that order, for the seat. While the county council typically appoints the top vote-getting pick, some, including Jayapal, argued the council should instead select Saldaña in part because she is a woman of color.

When county council members questioned O'Sullivan on that issue today, he said he received broad support from members of the 37th district who are women of color.

"I think the most important thing is to have a representative that's gonna listen and has earned the trust of people in their community," O'Sullivan said.

The county council voted first today on whether to appoint O'Sullivan, but that proposal lost with just three of nine council members—Rod Dembowski, Joe McDermott, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles—voting yes. The council next voted on Saldaña, unanimously supporting her.

Throughout their comments, council members emphasized that all three candidates were qualified for the job. In interviews, O'Sullivan, Saldaña, and their supporters also agreed that there are few substantial policy differences between them. One O'Sullivan supporter said she appreciated his focus on bringing jobs to the district. Both O'Sullivan and Saldaña have said reducing homelessness and increasing access to housing are priorities and, in responding to a question from the county council, all three said they would support getting rid of the state's cap on property tax increases, which some county officials blame for their budget woes. While Sanldaña's background is in activism, O'Sullivan has deeper ties to the legislative district party.

Those council members who supported O'Sullivan said they wanted to respect the vote of the legislative district Democrats, but others argued for diversity and representation.

"It’s not just identity politics," said Council Member Claudia Balducci. "It’s about this increasingly diverse county that we live in. The numbers of people who come to the table and bring that experience [and] bring that point of view in our legislature is really woefully lacking."

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Council Member Larry Gossett, whose district overlaps with the 37th Legislative District, said 92 percent of the state legislature is white. While all of the candidates were qualified, Gossett said, Jayapal's departure meant there was "no woman that brings that perspective" to the state senate.

After the vote, a judge swore Saldaña in and she delivered brief remarks. To the legislative district's precinct committee officers, the majority of whom voted for O'Sullivan, she said: "I hope that through this process that was an appointment that I can earn your vote next year to continue to serve so that we are ensuring that our laws are bending towards justice so that our kids have a fair chance to be able to thrive no matter where they live."