Danni Askini is a Seattle-based super activist running for a seat representing Washington’s 43rd District. She is the Executive Director of Gender Justice League and she is also a hometown hero who is originally from Portland, Maine. I just so happened to be in Seattle when Askini announced that she’d be running, and so I asked her about her candidacy and how the issues she represents impact the lives, experiences and economies of entrepreneurs and professionals she hopes to represent.
Why are you running for the Washington State House?
There are a number of issues that are facing the 43rd District that made me feel that this was the right time to run.
The number one issue is about affordability. Seattle is experiencing one of the fastest rent and housing cost increases in the country. Wages have definitely not kept pace and this has led to an incredible amount of displacement. We also have the highest percentage of college aged students living in poverty in the United States. This is surprising because Seattle is also one of the richest cities per capita in the United States.
We have also seen an immense amount of distraction bills in Olympia that are targeting transgender people. As a transgender woman, I know how vital it is to have representatives that can fight back these bills with personal experience and to really show that transgender people are people too.
Can you explain what a distraction bill is?
A distraction bill is a social issue bill that is really inconsequential. They are not really targeted at any real problems; they are instead focused on a particular community as a way to shift the conversation from more difficult issues to address—issues such as funding primary and secondary education. The Washington State Supreme Court has found the Legislature to be in contempt of court for failing to meet their constitutional obligation to fund education and so they are focusing on where transgender people can use the bathroom is much more sensationalistic for legislators to do than to talk about how they’re going to raise funds to pay for education.
Beyond serving as a distraction from actually substantial issues, how do laws that promote regressive views of gender negatively affect entrepreneurs and small business people?
There are a lot of different ways that these bills are harmful. They instill fear in the community and a feeling that they are not safe. If any one of the six bills that we have faced—or the two amendments and now a third—passed, it would basically give businesses the opportunity to say “No, you cannot use the bathroom that is safest for you. You have to use the one we tell you to use.” That’s scary. It’s hard to feel safe going out of your house knowing that any movie theater or store or restaurant could just openly tell you, “You don’t look right to me so you have to use this other bathroom.” And these bills take an immense amount of resources from our community. People have had to contribute a lot of money for us to have to mobilize and educate the public and really react strongly to these attacks. It really disrupts the day-to-day sense of safety that people have and it tells trans people that we’re unsafe, unwanted and dangerous and this is ultimately very wrong.
And so that occupies some part of your bandwidth at any given time.
Exactly. And you can’t live your life if you’re always like, “Oh my God; where am I going to pee tomorrow?” When you’re worried someone is going to call the cops because they see you in a bathroom they’ve decided you shouldn’t be in, it’s hard to focus on everything else. It affects people. There is that minority stress aspect. Nobody else has to worry about where they go to the bathroom. They just go. Trans people literally have to, on top of already having to navigate their safety, work out details excruciatingly just to have to do this simple thing.
I know people who are trans who when they came out felt compelled to leave their jobs because many laws still don’t favor them and they didn’t know if their workplace would be accommodating.
It’s part of why I left Maine. I love Portland. I love going back. In my memory it’s always good but it is such a small place and everybody watched me transition. I was always going to be a trans person and that was always going to end up defining me. It limited the possibilities that people saw for me. And then after leaving Maine a lot of possibilities opened for me because when I opened doors there wasn’t this assumption of what I was and was not capable of. It’s somewhat sad, but I think that’s real for a lot of people.
With income disparity being a primary issue of yours, I wonder if you can talk about why focusing on elevating lower incomes is a positive move for the larger economy? Chambers of Commerce and many of the businesses they represent will often buck back against this focus.
I run a small business. I have an organization that I have to raise funds for and I have to pay employees. What people don’t really consider is that having money in your pocket to get beyond your most basic needs—say moving your rent to be about 30% of your expenses which is more sustainable than the 51% it’s at in Seattle—means that you shop more, spend more, go out to eat more and tip more. It’s a virtuous cycle. We have one of the fastest growing economies, and [since the start of the roll out of the new elevated minimum wage] my organization has gotten more donors and donations. We have seen an increase of 20% and that’s amazing. I think it is attributable to the fact that people working service jobs are doing a lot better and so they’re able to give more. People have more, they spend more, and businesses get more business.
We’ve been stuck for decades in this misguided idea that an elevated minimum wage will deprive businesses of the capital they need to invest in and grow their businesses. Especially in a time when interest rates are unprecedentedly low and capital is readily available. A lot of the fears businesses put out there are wrong-minded. I think that we will continue to see here in Seattle a continued decrease in unemployment as the role out continues.
Why are you especially well poised for this office?
I have worked with so many people in this district. Seattle has one of the highest per capita rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the country. Most people don’t know that and see Seattle as incredibly liberal like San Francisco but we’ve had an extraordinary number of bashings. I have been leading the charge to address this, which is actually a continuation of work I had been doing in Maine with Steve Wessler at the Center for Preventing Hate. Through this work, I have come to understand people experiencing homelessness, people who are marginalized, and others. Trans people come from all walks of life, true, but are more likely to experience the most severe effects of discrimination and poverty. I’ve been fighting and taking on some of the toughest issues in this city and some of the most recalcitrant, powerful politicians to push them to the mat in order to get structural change. I think that’s what we need in our state legislature.
Progressives in our state legislature have been slipping—and I think this is the case in Maine too—in articulating a forward thinking vision that expands opportunity and ties to the realities on the ground. That has been a lot of what my work has been focused on—helping the most marginalized people organize, mobilize and fight for the things we need. $15 an hour. Paid sick and safe leave. Healthcare expansion for trans people. I think I’ve done a pretty good job mobilizing people to see to these changes getting made, and I am going to apply that to the affordability crisis here.