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.