When state House candidate Juan Cotto encountered his opponent, Chris Bennett, at a community event, he had more than politics on his mind.
"I said to him, `I just wanted to make it clear that I am African American and my family is African American," Cotto recalls.
In Seattle's 37th District - where one legislative campaign features six Democratic aspirants vying for basically the same constituency, and where race plays a pivotal role - the conversation barely raised eyebrows.
The specter of race in this diverse community isn't unique; what is new is this: The Sept. 15 primary could end a decades-long run of African-American legislators representing the district.
"Being a person of African descent, I am concerned about the absence of that voice," says James Kelly, former executive director of the state Commission on African American Affairs and a longtime district resident. "I'm not saying that you need to be African American, (but) I need to know how you plan to make sure our concerns are not left behind."
Charlie James, publisher of the African American Business and Employment Journal, is using his newspaper to galvanize black voters.
"I'm not saying that it's a situation where we would not survive as a community, but I think it would be a shame if African Americans cannot maintain the small presence they have in Olympia," James said.
Their sentiments are heard loud and clear by those vying for the open House seat, left vacant by Rep. Dawn Mason's decision to run for the state Senate.
"It's vital that whoever is elected to this position, that that individual be able to well represent the diverse constituencies, and clearly the African-American community is an important one," says candidate Sharon Tomiko Santos, who touts her neighborhood work on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebrations.
Gwyneth Baker, an African American who owns a Victorian tearoom in Columbia City, says her vote will go to the candidate - regardless of color - who has been the most visible in her community.
Two of the candidates are African American, one is Asian, one Native American and two white. They all hail from a long, narrow district that is among the most diverse in the state, running from the Chinatown International District through the largely African-American communities around Rainier Avenue South, and including the more affluent, and mostly white, "Gold Coast" area around Madison Park.
One-third African American, one-third Asian American and one-third white, the district is politically colorful as well, boasting strident liberals, socialists and left-wing Republicans.
Four of the six candidates gained their experience through community activism: Bennett at the Seattle Medium, the African-American weekly newspaper his family owns; Santos in the International District and on the staff of Gov. Gary Locke when Locke was King County executive; and Cotto on the campaign trail with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and later as a staffer in her Washington, D.C., office.
Camille Monzon is the longtime director of the Seattle Indian Center, a social-service organization of 70 employees with a $28 million annual budget.
Fred Quarnstrom, 57, a Beacon Hill dentist, has never sought office nor is he well known among the 37th's activist community, but he says he was compelled to run by the unfair treatment of a young Vietnamese woman who couldn't gain admission to a community college.
He's referring to a question on the college admissions test that asked applicants why they should be chosen for one of the school's few coveted slots.
"Asians don't brag, so the question was culturally biased," he says. Quarnstrom says if he wins, he will use his House seat to advocate for people facing discrimination.
Quarnstrom has raised $13,000 so far, injecting $10,000 of his own money into the campaign.
The sixth candidate, Bob Penhale, is a 40-year-old senior environmental specialist with the Department of Ecology whose concern over the state budget drew him into the race.
Penhale says Washington state has spent a great deal of money protecting endangered species and that proposals to add more - for example, the chinook - to the list will heavily affect state dollars.
He has no arguments with adding more species to the list. But he says that dilemma, coupled with a conservative Legislature, compelled him to seek a seat in Olympia. If there are going to be tough budget decisions as a result of growing social-service and environmental needs, Penhale says, he wants to help make them.
"The Legislature needs a warm body in there that can relate to all kinds of people," Penhale says. "I'm not a politician and that's a good thing." He has not raised any money.
Several candidates have faced voters before. Monzon, 58, has run for this House seat twice. In the 1994 race, she garnered 31 percent of the vote in a three-way contest against Charlie James and Mason, the eventual winner. Two years later, she ran again and received 35 percent of the vote before losing to Mason.
"Three times may be a charm," Monzon says. "Goodness knows it took (Seattle City Councilwoman) Margaret Pageler three times to win, and Abraham Lincoln ran for many offices before he was elected president."
Last year, Santos, 37, made an unsuccessful bid to unseat County Councilman Dwight Pelz in a three-way race that included Monzon's husband, former Seattle City Councilman Jack Richards.
Santos had raised $18,983 as of Aug. 18. If elected, she said, she would concentrate on relieving overcrowding in Seattle public schools, adding jobs by attracting more small businesses to the district and using mass-transit and transportation funds to ease the traffic congestion on Rainier Avenue South.
Bennett made an unsuccessful bid for a House seat four years ago at age 24. This time, he has raised about $10,000.
Bennett largely gravitates toward issues the other candidates have outlined: jobs, housing and work programs. But he would also like to see property taxes lowered for elderly residents, he says, perhaps by freezing the assessed value of their homes.
Bennett's campaign has been stung by charges that his father, Chris H. Bennett, is orchestrating his political aspirations. That perception stems in part from the fact that the elder Bennett's newspaper, The Medium, has published several front-page stories touting his son's candidacy.
Moreover, past articles in the Medium have come back to haunt Bennett. Cotto, Monzon and Rep. Kip Tokuda say they have all been falsely characterized in Medium articles.
Monzon still remembers that during her run for Mason's seat two years ago, a Medium article characterized her as pandering to blacks by bringing her African American son-in-law to a political event.
Another article characterized Tokuda's race for a House seat two years ago this way: "Thus far, Asian male politicians in the 37th and 43rd Districts have walked on the backs of black folk in their quest for political power. We view the challenge to one such Asian politician as healthy. After all, turnabout is fair play."
The younger Bennett vehemently disassociates himself from the politicking and says he is not responsible for what others may write or say about the legislative race.
"Most people like Chris Jr.," says James, a frequent critic of the elder Bennett. "But there's a lot of people who probably will not support his candidacy because of what has been written in the Medium."
And candidates like Cotto find themselves feeling forced to emphasize their allegiance to black voters all the same.
Cotto, 34, can be spotted most days after 6 a.m. out on Rainier Avenue South waving a campaign sign until just after rush hour when he begins doorbelling.
Cotto says his goal if elected will be to increase the level of social and transit services for 37th District residents. He had raised $13,000 as of Aug. 18.
The lone Republican in the race, Kwame Garrett, is a member of the Lincoln Republicans, a group of African Americans who pattern themselves after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Garrett, 21, says he would work to pass legislation establishing a Truth and Justice Commission to study racism. But he is neutral on Initiative 200, the statewide ballot measure to end racial and gender preferences in government hiring, contracting and education, saying it would not bring about economic or institutional change.
Tokuda is running for re-election in the district's second House race. He is opposed in the general election by Freedom Socialist candidate Guerry Hoddersen. Election officials have nullified the candidacy of Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, who was running against Tokuda on the Republican ticket, because he is a convicted felon.
Lynne K. Varner's phone message number is 206-464-3217. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org ------------------------------- The candidates
House of Representatives, Position 1:
-- Chris Bennett, 28, executive sports/entertainment editor for the Seattle Medium.
-- Juan Cotto, 33, currently on leave from job as program coordinator for King County Department of Transportation.
-- Kwame Garrett, 21, owner of an export/import business.
-- Camille Monzon, 58, executive director, Seattle Indian Center.
-- Bob Penhale, 40, environmental specialist with the Department of Ecology.
-- Fred Quarnstrom, 57, dentist.
-- Sharon Tomiko Santos, 37, no current occupation.
House of Representatives, Position 2:
-- Guerry Hodderson, 53, organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party.
-- Kip Tokuda, 51, social worker and state representative.