We are proud to call Seward Park a City of Seattle park — located in one of the country's most diverse neighborhoods. @POTUS Biden's executive action to protect forests and take on climate change are critical for our health and future. pic.twitter.com/sEDuctEi1v
— Mayor Bruce Harrell (@MayorofSeattle) April 22, 2022
To celebrate Earth Day this year, President Joe Biden visited Seattle and gave a speech in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, surrounded by almost entirely white people who work in the other Washington.
The left-of-center crowd could not have been more excited for Biden’s visit on April 22. The city swept two encampments in anticipation of the star-studded Earth Day event, which featured Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Suzan DelBene, Rep. Kim Schrier, Rep. Adam Smith, Rep. Derek Kilmer, and the only local face, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell.
After the event, Democrats posted pictures of the crew on social media. While many commenters oohed and aahed over the President hanging out with our elected leaders, the white-dominated images sparked a conversation about diversity and inclusion, with the chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, Tina Podlodowski, coming to the President’s defense despite criticism from people of color.
“As much as I appreciate this group of people, aside from Bruce I see white, white, white,” one commenter said under a picture of the event on Facebook.
“Yes, it proved very difficult to herd all the various electeds into one photo,” Podlodowski replied.
But Sophia Danenberg, the only Black Washington State Park Commissioner and a literal trailblazer (she was the first Black woman to summit Everest), took issue with Podlodowski chalking up overwhelming whiteness to logistics.
Aside from Harrell, who the President referred to as “Mayor Harley,” Biden posed with a bunch of white people in Seward Park, nestled in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Seattle, the state, and perhaps the whole country. And the area’s elected leaders reflect that. As Danenberg noted, if you had a house right where the President stood that Earth Day, your city council member would be Councilmember Tammy Morales, your county council member would be Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, your state representatives would be Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, and your state senator would be Sen. Rebecca Saldaña. With this leadership, Danenberg argued that the President and his PR team missed out on a great photo op of the local leadership’s “natural” diversity.
Podlodowski continued to dismiss the online critics by saying that Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Rep. Marilyn Strickland, who are both people of color, were out-of-town. Additionally, Podlodowski said that Rep. Mona Das, Vancouver City Councilmember Diana Perez, and Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Equity in Education Coalition Sharonne Navas attended but did not appear in pictures. She encouraged Danenberg and other critics to think about all the progress the Democratic party has made and argued against the assertions that people of color are “woefully underrepresented” in Washington.
Danenberg agreed. There are people of color in office, especially where Biden held the event. But the question remains, where were the people of color who represent the incredibly diverse area?
In a Facebook comment, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales said that the White House staff did not invite her or the four other people of color who represent this area to the event.
“It’s completely unacceptable and was completely avoidable,” Morales wrote on Facebook.
County Councilmember Zahilay also confirmed the White House did not invite him. He emphasized that it is not about him or any individual elected but rather a failure to be intentional and inclusive of the Black and Brown climate organizers in the South End.
“It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many. Instead, we had one-dimensional representation during a time when Democrats should be fighting to build as broad a coalition as possible every chance we get,” Zahilay said in an email.
I asked the teams with Harris-Talley, Santos, and Saldaña if the White House invited them and will update if any respond. I also asked Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who represents that area as an at-large council member.
Podlodowski continued to play some level of defense online, saying that the state party had no say in who attended Biden’s event. The whole exchange frustrated Danenberg so much that she did what anyone invested in local politics would do: She made a thread on Twitter.
I had THOUGHTS about @POTUS flying across the US on Earth Day & taking a motorcade of mostly older, white, non-local politicos to one of the US' most diverse zip codes for a photo op with the trees. At @Summer_Stinson's suggestion and w/@PoulChapman's help my very 1st thread! 1/ pic.twitter.com/83cMdh6MMD
— Sophia (@sophiaclimbs) April 24, 2022
The thread, which went into detail about Biden’s missed opportunity to show off a diverse group of Democrats, amassed over 1,000 likes. But she still found Democrats giving her responses similar to Podlodowski’s—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good, as one Twitter commenter said.
“Good is not always good enough,” Danenberg said in a phone interview. “We are years away from a presidential election. This is the time for us to be reaching towards ‘perfect.’ This is the time for us to be better.”
Danenberg said this kind of reaction to criticism of the party, even from someone who considers herself an insider, is indicative of a broader issue for the Democrats.
Danenberg noted that during the 2020 presidential race, the Democratic party tabooed the act of criticizing Biden and, like Podlodowski, urged people to focus on the positive. Democrats argued that despite his pro-fracking position, his sexual assault allegation, and his craftsmanship of his controversial 1994 crime bill, he was still better than Trump. At the time, Danenberg said she lived by that “less of two evils” philosophy. In fact, if this happened during a presidential election year, she “might have just shut up,” she said. But the messaging to hold your tongue to not screw up Biden’s chances in the election often came with the caveat that Democrats could “hold him accountable” once he took office. The discourse following the very white gathering in Seward Park seemed to be stuck in the pre-election mentality.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we told folks we couldn’t get anything progressive done until we had Biden in office and now that we have Biden in office, we are still asking folks not to push for anything more,” Danenberg said. She added that as midterms approach, using the “incredibly low bar” of Trump may not be such a winning strategy with disillusioned progressives.