NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

NPI bestows its highest honor, the Lynn Allen Award, on the late Tony Lee (1948–2020)

Last month, the pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty in the Pacif­ic North­west lost a liv­ing leg­end: Tony Lee. The for­mer Sol­id Ground Advo­ca­cy Direc­tor spent decades work­ing to raise every­one’s qual­i­ty of life as one of Wash­ing­ton State’s lead­ing pub­lic inter­est lob­by­ists. Known affec­tion­ate­ly as the “con­science of the Leg­is­la­ture,” Lee was pas­sion­ate about help­ing peo­ple. He believed, as all pro­gres­sives do, that no one should go hun­gry or be with­out shelter.

“I was sad­dened to hear of Tony Lee’s pass­ing last month,” Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee remarked a few weeks ago in a Face­book post. “He was a tire­less advo­cate for jus­tice. He was an incred­i­bly kind man. And he was a hero to me. Gen­er­a­tions of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans will ben­e­fit from the lega­cy of his incred­i­ble work.”

We whole­heart­ed­ly agree. That’s why we’ve decid­ed to posthu­mous­ly bestow upon Tony the Lynn Allen Award, our high­est hon­or, as our final act of 2020.

Named for our late sis­ter Lynn Allen, a found­ing board­mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, these awards rec­og­nize peo­ple who have made indis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tions to pro­gres­sive caus­es for a decade or more.

We lost Lynn to ovar­i­an can­cer in 2011, but her spir­it has remained with us. (And so have her pub­lished works, pre­served by NPI at Rebuild­ing Democ­ra­cy.)

Lynn emphat­i­cal­ly believed in the impor­tant work of orga­niz­ing rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and act­ing on issues of con­cern to peo­ple liv­ing far away from our big cities and urban areas. She preached and prac­ticed the pol­i­tics of inclusion.

As com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Washington’s Future, Lynn trav­eled reg­u­lar­ly to Washington’s rur­al coun­ties and small towns, cham­pi­oning sus­tain­able busi­ness and agri­cul­tur­al practices.

A skilled facil­i­ta­tor and gift­ed lis­ten­er, Lynn under­stood the impor­tance of and need for effec­tive activism. Not a day goes by when we don’t miss her.

We estab­lished the Lynn Allen Awards as part of our con­tin­u­ing effort to ensure that Lynn’s good works will be remem­bered and her lega­cy appreciated.

Each year, we hon­or two out­stand­ing indi­vid­u­als with a Lynn Allen Award.

In 2017, we pre­sent­ed the very first Lynn Allen Awards to Joni Earl and Paul Lawrence. In 2018, Major Gen­er­al Paul Eaton (Retired) and Alex Hen­drick­son became our third and fourth hon­orees. In 2019, Estela Orte­ga and Al Gar­man became our fifth and sixth hon­orees. Back in August, the leg­endary Jus­tice Mary Fairhurst became the sev­enth Lynn Allen Award recip­i­ent.

And today, Tony Lee becomes the eighth recipient.

For decades, Tony worked to com­bat harm­ful aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures and secure more fund­ing for essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices (espe­cial­ly human ser­vices) in Wash­ing­ton State. He saw the dam­age Ronald Rea­gan’s regime was inflict­ing on the coun­try and resolved to do some­thing about it. Michael Ramos, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Church Coun­cil of Greater Seat­tle, told The Seat­tle Times: “His legacy’s pret­ty vast — a lot of what the human ser­vices sec­tor is accom­plish­ing today is due to Tony.”

Dur­ing his near­ly two decades with Sol­id Ground, Lee worked earnest­ly with for­mer Speak­er Frank Chopp and oth­er leg­is­la­tors to secure fund­ing for human ser­vices in a long suc­ces­sion of Wash­ing­ton State budgets.

Diane Narasa­ki, the for­mer Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Asian Coun­sel­ing and Refer­ral Ser­vice (ACRS), had this to say about Tony before his pass­ing, as relayed in a trib­ute pub­lished by Sol­id Ground after his death in Novem­ber:

“Tony Lee is a real­ly spe­cial human being, with a huge laugh, and huge heart, and brains to go along with it, all of which are put to the ser­vice of improv­ing and sav­ing the lives of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in our state.”

Tony was beloved among leg­is­la­tors and oth­er pub­lic inter­est lob­by­ists alike.

“In Olympia, we talk about ‘white hat’ lob­by­ists (ver­sus ‘black hat’ lob­by­ists) … mean­ing lob­by­ists that are sim­ply advo­cates for the pub­lic inter­est and all that is good,” said King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber Dave Upthe­grove, who was a state leg­is­la­tor before join­ing the Coun­cil as the 7th Dis­tric­t’s representative.

“I think of Tony as the epit­o­me of a white hat lob­by­ist. He was a cheer­ful per­sis­tent cham­pi­on of pro­grams and fund­ing to address pover­ty and inequal­i­ty– and he did so in such a pos­i­tive and enthu­si­as­tic way that I could­n’t help but lis­ten and want to work with him. He was an hon­est, com­pas­sion­ate, friend­ly man who we would be wise to con­sid­er a role mod­el for how to engage in leg­isla­tive politics.”

“Tony was my hero,” said Sameer Ranade. “He was a men­tor and went out of his way to help me when I ran for office. This is a sad loss for soci­ety, but his essence car­ries on through the many social jus­tice war­riors he led and inspired.”

“Tony Lee was a super­star advo­cate for low income peo­ple, ahead of his time con­nect­ing the dots on racial and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty — and above all a won­der­ful human being with a spir­it that stayed after he left the room,” said for­mer Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Lisa Brown, now Wash­ing­ton State’s Direc­tor of Com­merce.

“I met him as a cit­i­zen activist and Econ pro­fes­sor at East­ern well before I ran for the leg­is­la­ture, so when I got there, I knew I had a friend. Our meet­ings always involved sol­id strate­gic infor­ma­tion exchange, some com­mis­er­at­ing, some dish­ing, and some laugh­ter. Love and light to all like me, who are miss­ing him.”

“I worked with Tony at Sol­id Ground and he sim­ply emanat­ed authen­tic­i­ty, empa­thy, and true wis­dom,” said Group Health Foun­da­tion’s E.J. Juarez.

“He made me laugh so hard. He was as fun­ny as he was smart — very. I’m for­ev­er grate­ful to have learned from him and had the hon­or to work for him. This is a tremen­dous loss for our com­mu­ni­ty and the many peo­ple touched by his bril­liance and com­mit­ment to racial and eco­nom­ic justice.”

Reflect­ing on his life’s work and pas­sion for advo­ca­cy, Tony said: “Every day, peo­ple of col­or face dis­crim­i­na­tion in the hous­ing mar­ket, in lend­ing prac­tices, in our school sys­tem. That is real­ly one of the big rea­sons I’ve done what I’ve done.”

“One of the things that I think makes Sol­id Ground unique com­pared to many oth­er non­prof­its is our com­mit­ment not to just work with peo­ple that may need some assis­tance, often due to bar­ri­ers they face relat­ed to racism and oppres­sion, but our ded­i­ca­tion to also address the root caus­es of those bar­ri­ers, indi­vid­u­al­ly and sys­tem­i­cal­ly,” says NPI’s Doc­u­men­tary Advo­cate There­sa Cur­ry Almu­ti, who has worked on home­less­ness pre­ven­tion for Sol­id Ground since 2015.

“We have a full Advo­ca­cy Depart­ment, which Tony led for many years, that works to change laws and poli­cies at local and state lev­els to address sys­temic roots of prop­er­ty, and also includes the Statewide Pover­ty Action Net­work, which sup­ports peo­ple with lived expe­ri­ence of pover­ty to par­tic­i­pate in polit­i­cal process­es in Olympia. Most oth­er teams at Sol­id Ground also engage in some advo­ca­cy for laws and bud­gets at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment to bet­ter serve all mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly those most impact­ed by pover­ty and oppression.”

“Advo­ca­cy is in the DNA of Sol­id Ground, and so much of that is due to Tony. One can­not talk about the work of Sol­id Ground and its impact with­out hon­or­ing and acknowl­edg­ing Tony Lee.”

In 2015, short­ly after his retire­ment from Sol­id Ground, Tony became the lead plain­tiff in the law­suit to over­turn Tim Eyman’s hostage-tak­ing Ini­tia­tive 1366, which attempt­ed to wipe out bil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing for Wash­ing­ton’s essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices if leg­is­la­tors did not agree to sab­o­tage the State Con­sti­tu­tion to give Repub­li­cans a per­ma­nent veto over rev­enue bills.

The suit, Lee v. State, was suc­cess­ful in over­turn­ing Eyman’s mea­sure, which implod­ed and nev­er went into effect. Paci­fi­ca Law Group, which rep­re­sent­ed NPI in its appli­ca­tion for tax exempt sta­tus with the IRS, expert­ly rep­re­sent­ed Lee and the oth­er plain­tiffs, win­ning a com­plete and total legal vic­to­ry over Eyman.

It is so fit­ting that that case and great legal vic­to­ry will always be known as Lee.

In addi­tion to his work with Sol­id Ground, Tony was:

  • Board Pres­i­dent and Co-founder of the Equi­ty in Edu­ca­tion Coalition
  • Co-chair of the King Coun­ty Chap­ter of the Asian Pacif­ic Islander Coalition
  • Steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber of Front and Centered
  • Found­ing mem­ber of the Asian-Pacif­ic Islander Coali­tion of Washington
  • Advo­cate for the Wash­ing­ton Asso­ci­a­tion of Church­es and the Catholic Archdiocese

Tony’s award com­men­da­tion is as follows:

Known affec­tion­ate­ly as the “con­science of the Leg­is­la­ture,” Tony Lee (1948–2020) was a kind­heart­ed, leg­endary cham­pi­on for racial equal­i­ty and end­ing pover­ty with an instant­ly rec­og­niz­able boom­ing laugh. As the Advo­ca­cy Direc­tor of Sol­id Ground, he lob­bied patient­ly and effec­tive­ly for Wash­ing­ton State’s essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices, secur­ing fund­ing for pri­or­i­ties like hous­ing and nutri­tion assis­tance ini­tia­tives. Thanks to his efforts, nutri­tion assis­tance was extend­ed to tens of thou­sands of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who’d pre­vi­ous­ly been exclud­ed from food stamp eli­gi­bil­i­ty. Even after step­ping back in 2014, Lee con­tin­ued to be active in efforts to defend Wash­ing­ton’s future; he was the lead plain­tiff in the law­suit that suc­cess­ful­ly over­turned Tim Eyman’s hostage-tak­ing Ini­tia­tive 1366. Tony proved through his exem­plary work that pol­i­tics and pub­lic pol­i­cy­mak­ing can be about improv­ing peo­ple’s lives. His for­mi­da­ble con­tri­bu­tions will con­tin­ue to ben­e­fit our communities.

Tony’s oth­er hon­ors include:

  • Life­time Achieve­ment Award by the Seat­tle Human Ser­vices Coali­tion (SHSC) at their 30th anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion on June 8, 2018.
  • The Gold­mark Award for excep­tion­al lead­er­ship in social jus­tice from the Wash­ing­ton Legal Foundation.
  • The Tony Lee Apart­ments – The Low Income Hous­ing Institute’s new low-income hous­ing facil­i­ty, locat­ed in Lake City Way Village.

Thank you, Tony, for every­thing. We miss you, but you shall nev­er be for­got­ten, and nei­ther shall your indis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tions to pro­gres­sive advocacy.

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