Washington State’s Jewish community is on the verge of a couple of political milestones, a cause for caution as well as celebration, says one of those responsible.
Based on primary election results, Jews could well hold nine seats in the 63rd Washington Legislature when it convenes in January, apparently the most ever. That would make the 49-member Senate and 98-seat House more than 6 percent Jewish in a state where Jews comprise less than two percent of the population.
Moreover, also for what looks like the first time in state history, voters in one district — the 46th in Northeast Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Kenmore — have signaled a readiness to elect an all-Jewish delegation.
“I have pondered this, and I don’t know what to make of it,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-46th, the state’s newest Jewish legislator. “Thus far it’s been a non-issue, and I think it’s not likely to become one [in the election].”
All the same, there could be a backlash “if all three of us are elected,” he said. “I’m very seriously worried about it.”
Historically, Washington’s small Jewish population had little to do with electoral politics and government. Among the few exceptions were Edward Salomon, a Jewish Civil War hero who was appointed territorial governor and served from 1870 to 1872; Bailey Gatzert, a hardware merchandiser who was elected Seattle mayor and served in 1875-76; and former KIRO television commentator John R. Miller, who was elected to the Seattle City Council and then to four terms in the U.S. House.
Now the Legislature’s “Jewish caucus” is up to eight with the appointment last fall of Pollet (pronounced pah-LEHT), 53, known statewide for working to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation and in his district for efforts to relieve overcrowding in North Seattle’s public schools.
A potential ninth, Jessyn Farrell, seeking the other House seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic 46th, finished first in a crowded primary field in August with 29.9 percent. She now faces another Democrat, Sarajane Siegfriedt, who got 22.2 percent, for the seat that became open when Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney did not seek re-election.
David Frockt is running unopposed for the Senate seat to which he was appointed nearly a year ago following the sudden death of Sen. Scott White. Pollet, who replaced Frockt in the House, got 59.1 percent of the primary vote to 39.9 percent for Democrat Sylvester Cann, Pollet’s opponent in the current race as well.
Completing the Jewish roster in Olympia are Sen. Adam Kline, and Reps. Andy Billig, Sherry Appleton, Reuven Carlyle, Marcie Maxwell and Roger Goodman.
Billig won 57.9 percent of the primary vote in his bid for a Senate seat from Spokane. Kline, Appleton, Carlyle, Maxwell and Goodman made strong primary showings in their Seattle-area re-election campaigns. Carlyle faces a Republican Jewish candidate, Leslie Klein, on Nov. 6 in the 36th District, which includes Seattle’s Queen Anne and Ballard neighborhoods.
Zach Carstensen, director of government relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said there were only two Jews in the Legislature when he began lobbying in Olympia in 2005.
“I think most people, especially in Seattle, look at the issues … and decide who better represents their values,” Carstensen said. “If identity politics ruled today, you’d have very different outcomes.”
Similarly, Pollet, who occasionally attends Temple Beth Am and feels close to Rabbis Jonathan and Beth Singer, believes high levels of commitment, quality and performance explain the spate of Jewish election winners in Olympia.
“I don’t think any of us run on our religious identity,” he said. “My Judaism is a deeply personal issue that helps to shape my sense of what’s right and wrong.”
When asked his religion by lobbyists who compile a directory of legislators for what Capitol insiders call “the Third House,” Pollet said, he replied, “It’s none of your business what religion I am. It’s not the basis of my voting.”
The lobbyists said any legislator who did not respond would be listed as “Christian” — and, despite Pollet’s protests, that’s how he was described in the guide this year, he recalled.
Another source of discomfort for Jewish legislators, he said, is that about one day out of five, the opening prayer at the start of a floor session “is not non-denominational but is all about what Jesus would do.”
More grievously, in a community forum on his home turf this year, one participant attacked him “very viciously … as a part of the Zionist conspiracy to take over the government,” and the moderator “just totally didn’t do a thing,” Pollet said.
He also said he received an “anti-Semitic, nasty, vicious piece of hate mail” this year.
Those episodes, Pollet said, showed that however small a minority, those responsible show a potential for a backlash against Jewish success in state politics.
Carstensen said he believes there is little potential for a widespread backlash against Jews in politics, but adds, “I’m sure there are people for whom that is an issue.”
The Seattle area’s politics also may encourage some “people with strong views on the Middle East to try to impose their views on others,” Carstensen said. “It is a way for anti-Semitism to creep back into the public discourse.”
Pollet and his wife, Janet Miller, a former chair of the 46th District Democrats, have two children: Hank, a student at Roosevelt High School, and Eileen, a Western Washington University student, who recently completed a study program in Istanbul, Turkey.
Pollet grew up on Long Island in Valley Stream, N.Y., and said he regularly attended after-school Hebrew and Jewish studies classes, but quit after his Bar Mitzvah.
He first saw Seattle at the end of a transcontinental bicycle ride in 1975, at age 15.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is it. When I get out of school, this is where I’m going to go,’” he said.
Pollet was cross-country team captain in high school and at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., finished third in a national collegiate track-and-field competition. He returned to Seattle and earned a law degree at the University of Washington.
He became executive director of the Washington Public Interest Research Group, WashPIRG, and in 1986 led the successful campaign for Referendum 40 to bar construction of a national nuclear waste dump at Hanford.
The next year Pollet founded Heart of America Northwest to press for cleanup of Hanford, which produced fuel for hydrogen bombs and is now the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
Besides teaching at the UW’s School of Public Health and running an internship to train law students for work on behalf of the public interest, he is still executive director of HOANW.
“I never had any notion that I’d still be working to get the federal government to clean up Hanford 25 years later…and that we’d be so little along in the job,” he said.