Political Notebook: Former Oakland resident aims to make US congressional history

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 20, 2023
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Washington state Senator Emily Randall is seeking an open congressional seat next year. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Washington state Senator Emily Randall is seeking an open congressional seat next year. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

Along the West Coast just California has sent LGBTQ people to serve in Congress. At the moment two gay male House members and one lesbian U.S. senator are among the Golden State's congressional delegation.

Now a queer Washington state senator with Bay Area ties is aiming to add the Evergreen State to the list of those with out congressional members. Democratic Senator Emily Randall, 38, is vying to succeed Congressmember Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) in the Puget Sound region.

As the Bay Area Reporter's online Political Notes column first reported last month, Randall was born and raised in Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula, which is part of Kilmer's 6th Congressional District. It also includes the cities of Tacoma and Bremerton, where Randall now owns a home with her partner of 18 years, Alison Leahey.

Should she win the House seat in 2024, Randall would not only expand the ranks of West Coast congressional members but also be the first queer Latina to serve in Congress. But she is facing a tough campaign next year, as Kilmer endorsed Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz to succeed him.

As a courtesy, Kilmer had called Randall to tell her the news about his retirement about 45 minutes before he made it public on November 9. Almost immediately afterward Randall was fielding queries on if she would run for his seat.

"It was a real surprise to me when he called me and told me he wasn't going to run," Randall told the Bay Area Reporter. "My phone was blowing up for at least 12 hours, and not just because of my friends but also calls from other elected officials and residents in the district. I felt I needed to listen to those calls from my neighbors."

She also received Leahey's permission to seek the seat since if she is elected next November, it would mean her having to live part-time in Washington, D.C. and her wife also possibly needing to relocate across the country. Leahey works in the construction field and is in a pre-apprenticeship class for carpenters.

"It definitely was a family decision and if this would be best for us," Randall told the B.A.R. over breakfast November 22 at The Cove restaurant in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district.

The couple were in the Bay Area to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with Leahey's sister and her family, who live on the Peninsula south of the city. Back in 2015 and 2016 Randall had managed institutional partnerships for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Her time at the agency coincided with its opening the Strut health clinic in the Castro just down the street from The Cove. Back then Randall and Leahey lived in West Oakland.

The women first met at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and eventually moved together out west. Randall left the AIDS agency to become a major gifts officer with Planned Parenthood.

In 2017, with Leahey working at the time for Microsoft, the women had relocated to Washington state. Upset by the election the previous year of Donald Trump as president, Randall decided to seek public office herself.

She won her 2018 race for the 26th Senate District in her state Legislature and became the first Latina elected to represent it. Claire Wilson, a lesbian who grew up in Seattle, also won a Senate seat that November.

They became the first out women elected to their Legislature's upper chamber and both won second terms last year. (Wilson has yet to endorse in the House race.)

Both times Randall faced a tough contest against her Republican opponent. She is viewed as an underdog in the House race, which so far has drawn a third Democratic candidate, Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean.

The August 8 primary for the open seat has also drawn Republican state Senator Drew MacEwen; candidates have until May to file. Like in California, Washington state uses a top-two primary voting system so the two candidates with the most votes regardless of party affiliation will move on to the general election next November.

"It is very unlikely two Democrats will make it," Randall told the B.A.R. despite the district having a 6% Democratic voter registration advantage and President Joe Biden (D) carrying it by 57% of the vote in 2020.

Randall is the second 2024 House candidate in the West Coast outside of California with Bay Area ties. Running again for Oregon's 5th Congressional District seat is lesbian former Santa Clara city councilmember Jamie McLeod-Skinner, having fallen short last year.

She would be the Beaver State's first LGBTQ member of Congress if she wins her race. Oregon uses a primary party system, and McLeod-Skinner is the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic Party's candidate in 2024 running against the Republican incumbent, Congressmember Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Happy Valley.

Seeing all three West Coast states have out representation in Congress come January 2025 "would be amazing," said Randall.


The national LGBTQ Victory Fund; Equality PAC, the political action committee for the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus; and LPAC, which works to elect LGBTQ women and nonbinary candidates, have endorsed both McLeod-Skinner and Randall in their respective House races.

"Emily has worked tirelessly to make Washington state one of the most inclusive and accepting places for LGBTQ Americans to live their best lives," stated gay Democratic Congressmembers Mark Takano of California and Ritchie Torres of New York, who co-chair Equality PAC.

Like Torres, Takano is running for reelection in 2024 to his Riverside County seat. California's other gay member of the House, Congressmember Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach), is also seeking a second term next year. (Senator Laphonza Butler (D), the first out Black woman in the U.S. Senate, opted not to seek a full term after being appointed to fill the vacancy created by the death in September of Dianne Feinstein.)

Many of the issues facing Takano's and Garcia's Southern California constituents are also top-of-mind for those of the House district Randall is running in, she told the B.A.R. From housing costs and the price of health care to infrastructure needs and addressing the impacts of climate change, Randall wants to seek federal solutions for the various concerns that will benefit residents all along the West Coast, she said.

"We need partners," said Randall of having like-minded members of Congress for the three-state region.

Asked why she had determined it was a winnable race for herself, despite not having the support of the incumbent, Randall replied that her family has long roots in the Puget Sound area. A grandfather of hers owned a cabin on land he leased from one of the region's Native American tribes, while her mom worked at a local resort.

The House district also mirrors her state Senate district in myriad ways, such as having dense urban areas and vast rural sections, she noted. Both have seen changes in the local business sector present problems for residents who needed to find new work or switch careers, added Randall.

"Having someone able to represent both those communities is important. I also have a strong record in the Senate," said Randall, who is her chamber's deputy majority leader.

She pointed to her passing bills that protected reproductive freedoms, expanded heath care coverage, and made education more accessible. Randall also noted she has worked across the aisle with her GOP counterparts, which she would continue to aim to do in the House, she said, despite its partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

"I will work to make sure all my neighbors' voices are heard," said Randall.

Having been endorsed by the trio of national LGBTQ organizations the day prior to meeting up with the B.A.R., Randall said she was honored to have their support of her historic candidacy. She added she is aware of the significance of her seeking the seat for both the LGBTQ and Latino communities.

"I know this matters to so many in our community, especially youth who don't see themselves in government," said Randall. "I think having more doorways we can open for people to enter our system of government is really exciting."

Part of her strategy for winning the House seat is to connect with younger voters below the age of 25; it is partly why she has an account on the social app TikTok. In her past races for her state Senate seat, Randall's legislative district had the highest turnout of voters age 18 to 22 of any in Washington state, she noted.

"I want to continue to give them a reason to be involved in our politics," said Randall.

To learn more about Randall, visit her campaign website at electemilyrandall.com.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on two out Northern California candidates receiving key endorsements ahead of their March 2024 primary races.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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