I came to Seattle with my wife on October 13, 1973, about 29 years ago, and I celebrate every anniversary of that date. It was culture shock. I’d spent almost two years, fresh out of law school, working for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in the not-so-thriving town of Greenwood, in the Delta. My major project had been to help a senior lawyer enforce a federal judge’s ruling that stopped the warden of the infamous prison-farm, Parchman Farm, from having prisoners beaten, starved, over-worked, and otherwise mistreated.
Those two years were actually my second tour of duty in Mississippi. I’d been in that same town, Greenwood, during Freedom Summer, 1964. At the age of 20, I hadn’t a lick of sense, and had marched off to fight my generation’s battles in the same invincible spirit with which 20-year-olds do most everything. And in 1964, it seemed, everybody was 20 years old, and united in opposition to racial segregation and all its evils. My job in Greenwood was to register voters for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, to which all were welcome regardless of race. I was one of a dozen or so volunteers in Greenwood with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.
I was a foot-soldier in our generation’s battles, and the experience seems to have set the tone for the rest of my life. Back to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and still in the spirit, I decided to take that year off from study and work in an SDS-sponsored organizing project in East Baltimore’s slums. (Remember SDS–Students for a Democratic Society? We were radical, we were belligerent, and sometimes we were self-righteous. But you know something? By and large, we were right.) It was a year well spent for a young man interested in social policy, and the lessons I learned are still with me.
Then through Johns Hopkins, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and then law school, all in Baltimore. (Oh, let’s just hit fast-forward here, and cut straight to Seattle.)
After my time in the Delta, Seattle was a breath of fresh air, literally. I took a job with what’s now Columbia Legal Services, and spent the next three years representing people who were indigent and who needed legal help. For some of that time, I represented the residents of our state’s six institutions for the developmentally disabled. That was an eye-opening experience, to see the conditions under which we kept people who were born disabled. They weren’t much better off than prisoners in jails.
I was a lawyer in private practice in Seattle until I retired in 2004, representing injured folks in auto collisions, especially the victims of drunk drivers. From my office on Pioneer Square before it was chic, I got to see some of this city’s social ills firsthand. I’ve volunteered as a pro bono lawyer for the ACLU, and had the most fun of my almost 30-year legal career in a case challenging a Tacoma ordinance that banned political yard-signs. (I got the Washington Supreme Court to overturn it, on constitutional grounds.) But most of all, running my own little office on the Square gave me the freedom to get involved in the issues that define our current struggles: as a co-founder and chair of Washington Conservation Voter’s local chapter; as a board member and chair of the political-action committee of NARAL, the pro-choice advocacy group; and as a member of the Legislative Committee of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association. For many years, I was active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, both as its unofficial lobbyist in Olympia and later as its Seattle chapter president.
I’ve been your Senator now for 14 years. Check out my newsletters for commentary on my work in the legislature. I retired from my law practice in 2004, to take a job as an organizer with the Laborers Union, representing the guys and gals with shovels. My wife, Laura Gene Middaugh, is now in her third term as a judge on the King County Superior Court. My daughter, Genevieve, lives in Oakland with her husband, Matt, and their daughter, Sophie.
Political action is good for you.