“Growing up in Oklahoma, we were very much a part of the community, but we were also separate from it,” says Damon Shadid, his hands wrapped around a big white mug at his favorite coffee shop on Rainier Avenue South, Tin Umbrella Coffee. “Being (the children of) immigrants, people looked at us differently.”
Shadid’s grandparents fled conflict in Lebanon in the early 20th century. As a young lawyer in Houston, he helped Somali refugees apply for asylum, and since his relocation to Seattle in 2005, much of his legal work has been focused on immigration issues. His older brother Anthony Shadid, a New York Times journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, died during an asthma attack while on assignment in Syria in 2012.
Shadid says these experiences deeply inform his work and his desire to help represent international communities as a Seattle Municipal Court judge, a position he hopes to gain by challenging the seat of a 25-year veteran of the court, Judge Fred Bonner.
“It’s an unfortunate fact that immigrant and refugee communities often have a hard time assimilating and end up in our courts,” says Shadid, who will officially kick off his campaign next week. If elected, he will be what is believed to be the first Arab American to hold the position. “It’s essential that they see that it is not a completely alien and foreign system and that they see judges like myself there.”
OK, so few of us are on the edge of our seats following Municipal Court judicial races. But this race — with its focus on political representation and potential to make state history — may be an exception.
According to the Arab American Institute, Washington state has one of the fastest growing Arab-American populations in the country (the population has more than doubled since 1980 and is now estimated to be near 60,000), but political representation of this community has remained underwhelming, says Shadid.
“For a long time, the Arab-American community has flown under the radar,” he says after counting on one hand the number of local politicians of Middle Eastern descent he can name. “They haven’t wanted to be noticed because they feel like there has been a lot of discrimination out there, especially since 9/11.”
And if you’re skeptical that such discrimination might discourage Arab Americans from running for political positions, Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, would remind you of an exchange between Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a supporter at a political rally in 2008:
McCain supporter: “I can’t trust Obama. … He’s an Arab.”
McCain: “No ma’am, no he’s not. He’s a decent family man.”
“‘Arab Baiting’ and anti-Islam sentiments are still with us,” says Berry, who also acknowledges major gains in Arab-American political representation nationally. “Things are certainly better, but we have a long way to go.”
Shadid may want to be part of that change, but Monisha Harrell, who is managing Judge Bonner’s campaign, says he’s chosen the wrong opponent.
“He’s one of the founders of community courts here in Seattle,” she says, referring to Bonner’s role in implementing a system of neighborhood-focused courts that are often seen as more sensitive to the specific needs of communities than traditional courts. Harrell says Bonner, who is African American, has made a career of reaching out to underrepresented groups, including veterans and people of color, and that the conversation in this campaign should be about “vision and direction,” not candidates’ racial or ethnic backgrounds.
But for Shadid, that background is important.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about bias in the criminal-justice system and providing leadership roles when it comes to that,” he says. “There’s a lot of talk about immigration on a federal level, but also on the local level … all of these are issues I’ve either dealt with directly or tangentially.”
And it’s those experiences he’d like to take to the other side of the bench.