It’s roughly a month before the general election and Ronda Metcalf’s ascension to the Washington state House of Representatives from the 39th District now seems not so out of reach.
Metcalf, Sauk-Suiattle, faces John Koster, a former state legislator and Snohomish County Council member whose campaign for U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 – in which he was favored to win – was derailed when he referred to sexual assault as “the rape thing” when answering a question about abortion.
With his party’s presidential nominee’s offensive comments about women regularly making news, Koster’s “rape thing” is a dark cloud over him.
Metcalf finished 4,901 votes behind Koster in the primary. If she picks up the 1,220 votes cast for the Libertarian Party’s candidate, who did not advance to the general election, the gap narrows to 3,681. Consider that the general election voter turnout is expected to be higher than in the primary, and her victory seems within reach.
Metcalf is certainly campaigning that way. “We have knocked on about 4,000 doors all together,” she messaged via Facebook on October 8. She’s participated in two parades and four meet-and-greets, with several more events coming up.
“No debates,” she wrote. “Everywhere I have gone, my opponent has been invited but never has shown up.”
Koster is a formidable opponent. He served as a state representative from 1995-2001, as a Snohomish County Council member from 2002-14, ran for U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, 2010 and 2012; and in 2015 was elected to a commission that is reviewing his county’s charter.
His issues, according to his website: Improve public education without raising taxes (fund public safety, roads and schools first, then prioritize the rest); fix the state’s transportation problems by improving how transportation funds are invested (“With one of the highest gas taxes in the nation, we should be getting more for our money,” he writes); and hold accountable those responsible for the early release, over a three-year period, of some 3,000 prisoners.
But he shouldn’t count Metcalf out.
Metcalf served as a U.S. Army combat medic for nine years, earned a B.A. in social work and a graduate degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and later worked as a mental health counselor, sheriff’s deputy, and a corrections officer.
She served on the Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Council from 2005-09 and again from 2013-15, including a stint as vice-chairwoman. She served on the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, on a work group of the IHS National Tribal Advisory Committee on Behavioral Health, and as Sauk-Suiattle’s director of health and social services. She is now Sauk-Suiattle’s general manager, overseeing a government with nine departments, several economic enterprises, and more than 100 employees.
“I came into a big mess” as general manager, she said. Sauk-Suiattle had been sued by former employees who claimed they had been discriminated against. While the plaintiffs were not successful, she said, she worked with a team to implement new policies regarding employment, finance and procurement; and wrote a new employee handbook “which, I hope, will be adopted by council soon,” she said.
Metcalf said most voters she’s met put the same stock in tribal government experience as they do experience in other forms of government. She said local and tribal government constituents have much in common.
“People in my tribe experience the same issues as someone in Concrete or Sedro-Woolley,” she said.
Metcalf’s endorsements include the state Coalition of Mental Health Professionals and Consumers, the Washington State Labor Council, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Northwest Washington Labor Council, Snohomish County Labor Council, as well as the Lummi, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, and Swinomish nations.
Metcalf was a council member in 2014 when a massive landslide occurred in the Stillaguamish River town of Oso, burying a neighborhood and killing 43 people. She jumped into the recovery effort, advocating for residents affected by the disaster and pushing for the reopening of the only road through the area. She testified before a U.S. Senate committee on federal response to the tragedy, asking that FEMA improve its coordination with tribes and charitable organizations like the Red Cross; and BIA and IHS to formalize disaster response protocols so emergency resources are available when needed.
She continues to advocate on behalf of those lost in the mudslide. She said the county and state have purchased properties on the landslide site and propose installing a walking and bicycling trail there, something she believes is inappropriate. People died there; parts of bodies were not recovered, she said. And a man who was homeless and believed to be in the area when the landslide occurred has not been seen since. This is sacred ground, she said.
Other priorities: Improving transportation services in rural areas (part of her legislative district is rural and not all communities have transportation services); improving access to substance-abuse treatment; and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2008,” she said. “We had 58 employees then and have 102 employees now, and [the higher wage] has not hurt us a bit.”
Families ‘need a voice’
“I am running as an advocate for Washington families,” Metcalf said when she announced her candidacy. “Our families are dealing with economic uncertainty, the difficulty of keeping a roof over their heads, the spread of illegal drugs in our communities, and the challenges and joys of raising children. Our families need a voice in Olympia. So do the veterans who are part of many of our families.”
She said she was inspired to run because of the successes of state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip; Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet; Bellingham City Council member Roxanne Murphy, Nooksack; and the wave of other Native American Democratic candidates seeking election across Washington.
“In talking with my children and grandchildren, we decided it was time for me to bring my experience and advocacy to Olympia,” she said.
Depending on how the election goes, Washington’s legislature could have five Native American members. McCoy, who represents Tulalip and Marysville in the state Senate, isn’t up for reelection until 2018. State Rep. Jeff Morris, Tsimshian, is unopposed for re-election from Skagit County.
Economic development leader Sharlaine LaClair, Lummi, advanced from the primary and is trying to draw voters away from first-term state Rep. Luanne Van Werven, Republican.
State Rep. Jay Rodne, Bad River Band of Chippewa, is the lone Republican among Native American candidates. He faces a Democratic challenger but led in the primary 54.4 to 45.6 percent.