Olow, a community organizer and King County employee who recently picked up a doctorate in education, entered the race back in January and has been running slightly to his left. Her campaign has raised nearly $160,000 (compared to Upthegrove's ~$192,000) and has scooped up sole endorsements from groups such as OneAmerica Votes, Sage Leaders, a couple local Service Employees International Unions, The Urbanist, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the Transit Riders Union, and others.
Since the District 5 race only featured two candidates, it went straight to the general election without a primary. But all along the way, organizations that represent immigrants and/or many people of color said he accused them of not endorsing him just because he's a white guy. He also told one elected official not to endorse his challenger because "he didn't think it was fair to give them any hope."
In an email, Upthegrove, who's the first out gay legislator outside Seattle in Washington's history, said he does not believe in the concept of reverse racism, nor does he believe he's fallen victim to such a thing. He called the following stories "untrue" or else "taken out of context and exaggerated." He added that he has "always supported the values, goals and priorities" of the organizations accusing him of these things and will continue to support them because he shares their values.
Earlier this summer Melissa Rubio, senior political manager at OneAmerica Votes, the political arm of the largest immigrant and refugee rights organization in Washington, called Upthegrove to tell him they planned to endorse Olow.
That revelation prompted a 15-minute conversation, wherein Upthegrove “repeatedly said the only reason” OneAmerica Votes endorsed Olow “was because he was a white man,” Rubio said over the phone.
Rubio dismissed that accusation and listed Olow’s “experience, competency, drive, and her work with us on key issues” among their reasons for endorsing her. She told him his assumption was “indicative” of a sense of entitlement among incumbents.
“She’s proven herself to be a viable candidate. It’s not like she’s coming out of the woodwork without any money or organizing chops—she’s organized her ass off. She’s kept up as a candidate, and she’s earned this,” Rubio said.
After hearing all that, Upthegrove said OneAmerica “would regret this,” and he argued that the organization was “letting down all of the immigrants and refugees in the district,” Rubio said.
Rubio told The Stranger she disagreed with Upthegrove's assessment regarding their endorsement's impact on the immigrant and refugee population in the district, given that Olow immigrated to the US from Somalia by way of a refugee camp in Kenya and her platform reflects the needs of people with those experiences.
In an email, Upthegrove told The Stranger he remembered the phone call differently. He said he pointed to his "perfect record" on voting for issues OneAmerica championed and asked why they decided to endorse someone else: "Was there something wrong with my voting record? My leadership on issues? Or is it because of racial representation? I don’t know," he said.
He didn't recall telling Rubio that OneAmerica would "regret" the endorsement, and said the point he tried to make regarding them "letting down" immigrants was that their decision "didn't reflect the wishes of a majority of the immigrant and refugee community leaders in South King County," who he said support him.
OneAmerica Votes wasn’t the only organization Upthegrove had this sort of discussion with.
In mid-May of 2021, Upthegrove called up a union member to ask about the status of the union’s endorsement decision in the race. The union member warned Upthegrove he might not like the answer to that question. Judging by the content of the 8-and-a-half minute conversation that followed, he did not, according to this member.
When the union member told Upthegrove that the union voted to support Olow, Upthegrove initially asked if the union planned to set up an independent expenditure committee to oppose him. The union member told him they had no knowledge of that.
About halfway through the conversation, Upthegrove asked if the union members didn't endorse him because he was a white guy, assumed the answer was yes, and then said that was unfair, according to the union member.
Upthegrove called the decision to endorse Olow “a slap in the face,” and said that when he wins reelection he’ll “govern in such a way to support the people who supported him," the member added.
This was not the first time this union member had broken bad news about an endorsement to a candidate, but it was “the most unpleasant conversation I’ve had with calling someone to let them know they’re not getting an endorsement,” this person said.
Upthegrove said he asked about the independent expenditure "to try to get a sense of what to expect in the campaign." He added that he'd been one of this union's "strongest and most responsive supporters" and he will continue to be, but he said he felt their endorsement of Olow was a slap in the face, "and so I told them so."
In a similar instance, a nonprofit director said their team met with Upthegrove to ask about some CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act funding the org hoped to secure to help BIPOC and migrant communities in South King County. According to this director, the Councilmember told them to "ask the woman you endorsed for the money," meaning Olow. He then suggested he wouldn’t support the organization if he won back his seat, the director said.
“I never had a situation where an elected official threatened to withhold funding because I didn’t support him,” the director said.
Upthegrove flatly denied this accusation. "No such conversation of any kind took place," he said.
Before those endorsement calls happened, Upthegrove tried to dissuade an elected official from endorsing his opponent in a way she ultimately found offensive.
Last fall he called Burien Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx for an endorsement. On that call, Marx said Upthegrove told her not to endorse a potential challenger who had attended the same Democratic bench-building class as she did because "he didn't think it was fair to give them any hope."
Not knowing who he was talking about at the time, Marx endorsed him. When Olow jumped in the race, Marx switched her endorsement to Olow and texted Upthegrove's husband, Chad Harper, with the news. Marx didn't hear back afterward but said both Upthegrove and Harper "unfriended me on social media after that."
Upthegrove claimed he didn't tell Marx not to give anyone hope on that call. However, Winter Cashman-Crane, Renton LGBTQIA+ Community president and person who endorsed both candidates, recalled Marx relaying her version of events to them that fall.
Over the phone, Olow said the campaign has been tough enough without this kind of behavior. "It’s enough to be running with multiple identities as a Black woman, a Muslim, a refugee, a younger candidate, someone who doesn’t come from institutional power, who isn’t connected to wealth during a global pandemic — it's a lot. I never imagined that another challenge would be someone I thought was a progressive, an ally to my community in particular," she said.
She wants Upthegrove to stop this kind of campaigning and "to focus on the people he’s supposed to be serving in this district."