Happy Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! In celebration of this month, APACEvotes volunteer, Edwin Ong, reflects on the memory of Ruth Woo.
Article by Edwin Ong
Ruth Woo has long been one of the unsung heroes of the Seattle Asian Pacific Islander community. Many influential politicians in Washington state politics were under her mentorship, and she was a powerhouse in the political arena despite never holding office. Famed for her avoidance of press and awards, it is hard to find much information on her, beyond the basics. She was Japanese American and was interned at the Minidoka Relocation Center during the 1950s. She initially worked as an assistant for state and local politicians before going on to run a vehicle licensing firm while mentoring and supporting Asians in politics. She passed away in 2016, and Governor Inslee’s office recently named a civic engagement fellowship after her. It’s hard to pull out wisdom from these factoids, but I figured that there must be a lot to be learned from such a storied person. To get firsthand perspectives of Ruth Woo, I interviewed two Asian American figureheads who knew her well, Assunta Ng, publisher for Northwest Asian Weekly and Conrad Lee, former Bellevue mayor and current councilman.
How has Ruth Woo personally affected your life/career?
Assunta: Ruth was the biggest champion for the Asian community. She promoted our community tirelessly. She recognized people who can make a difference in the community, and even groomed, lifted up and mentored younger generations to fulfill their potential. She had contributed many news tips to the Asian Weekly like who planned to run for office, and rising stars in the Asian community.
She didn’t use empty words to support the Asian Weekly. She introduced me to many mainstream politicians. She told many politicians to advertise in the Asian Weekly when they run for office. Her business also advertised in the Asian Weekly off and on. And she loved to galvanize the Asian community to support both Asian and mainstream candidates by putting an advertisement, and announcing who their supporters were. Her message was clear, support Asian media —an important part of the Asian community.
Despite her support for the Asian Weekly and giving me all the “scoops,” she never wanted to be quoted. That’s her genius and her style.
She was well-respected, a person of integrity and selflessness.
Conrad: Ruth was an amazing individual in Washington state politics. She worked for and supported Republicans and Democrats alike. She knew everybody from governors and senators to city councilmembers. She helped them when they called. She was one of the first persons to help my Bellevue City Council campaign. She not only gave money but more importantly her time and valuable advice and visible presence. Many politicians owe her.
What are the lasting impacts Ruth Woo made on Washington State and its AAPI community?
A: She was a powerful genius, getting things done behind the scene for the Asian community. For Ruth, it’s all about the Asian community and not her. Why she was able to achieve all she had done in her lifetime, read my next answer.
C: Ruth encouraged and helped many AAPI politicians to get into politics to gain direct influence in policy-making. She also helped gaining many friends in both the political community as well as the community at-large to address AAPI issues. She was a mover and shaker. She was a person of influence.
Why was Ruth Woo so effective?
A: Being a giver all her life, she constantly found ways to support Asian community leaders and regular people with her own finance, connections and resources. She was always generous in donating to Asian organizations, Asian political campaigns and mainstream candidates who supported the Asian community.
She had chaired and managed many Asian candidates’ political campaigns. She knew how to use her connections and influence to pull strings for our community, and seldom for herself. In other words, she did all the dirty work without wanting any credit. She shunned awards and recognitions, and she was extremely loyal. Once she committed to you and your causes, she never wavered.
She was very generous. She bought tables for many community organizations’ galas over the decades, and filled them with influential guests and introduced them to Asian community leaders. She was a bridge builder in every sense of the word. She treated many politicians and Asians for lunch and dinner so she could find out what’s going on, and connect them with others in the community. She had empowered the Asian community without wanting anything for herself. There was and never will be another person like Ruth Woo in the Asian community.
She had a great attitude, she always smiled and was cheerful all the time.
Lastly, she loved politics. She is a wise political guru and many people listened to her advice. She understood the importance of politics and how it affected ethnic communities especially the Asian community. She used to work for our former governor Dan Evans, as secretary. Under her wings, she has mentored many, including former King Country Executive Ron Sims, governor Gary Locke, Dolores Sibonga, late Kip Tokuda, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Martha Choe.
C: Ruth was effective because she served and worked tirelessly her whole life for the community and people of influence. She was likable, always willing to listen and help without prejudice but with a single focus on her value to better her community. We all can do well to emulate these qualities in our lives.