When Brady Walkinshaw was a young child growing up in rural Whatcom County, his parents noticed he had a particular affinity for politics.
By the age of 4 or 5, “I have vivid memories of him organizing books on the floor [about] states and trying to figure out where the capitals were,” his father Charlie said.
Walkinshaw named his first dog George Washington and also dressed up as the nation’s first president for Halloween.
“He would set up his little Playmobil people and they were different nations of the world, and he would hop from one nation to another to visit his different people,” his mother said.
Walkinshaw, 29, is the newest member of Seattle’s legislative delegation.
A Princeton graduate, Fulbright Scholar, and former Gates Foundation program officer whose career has focused mostly on international food programs and agricultural development, Walkinshaw had never before run for public office.
But last year, as former state Sen. Ed Murray mounted his campaign for Seattle mayor, Walkinshaw decided to try to win appointment to the legislature if Murray succeeded.
“I saw the race shaping up, and I thought, these opportunities don’t come very often,” said Walkinshaw in an interview. “What an inspiration it would be to represent this district in Olympia.”
Walkinshaw lives in a one-bedroom condo on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, but he grew up on about 20 acres of land in the Nooksack Valley in rural Whatcom County near the Canadian border. At the time, the town of Everson had fewer than 1,000 people.
His mother, Vicky, who emigrated from Cuba as a young child, teaches school to English language learners. His father, Charlie, hails from an old Seattle family – so old that two great-grandfathers have peaks named after them in the Olympic Mountains. Charlie Walkinshaw runs a non-profit that organizes international agricultural internships.
In high school, Walkinshaw was class president and prom king. He organized food drives for the local food bank, and tutored the children of migrant farm workers.
“In high school, if people were to guess who would be in political office, it would have been Brady,” his best friend Jacob McKissick said.
McKissick said Walkinshaw was popular in school and had friends from a variety of social groups.
But he was also unusual in a few ways. Walkinshaw was liberal in a mostly conservative town. He was half-Latino and bilingual in a place that was mostly white.
And he had a secret: He was gay at a time when there were no openly gay people at his high school. Even McKissick didn’t know.
“I can’t imagine what he was going through, being in a such a very conservative rural town,” McKissick said of that time. “It’s awful thinking about it, but looking back, some of the friends might not have been his friends if he would have been out and open with a lot of the things that he was going through.”
Walkinshaw doesn’t quite see it in those terms. “It was really hard,” he said. But coming out didn’t seem like a choice he could make.
“There were not role models that made me think that was an option,” Walkinshaw said. “It wasn’t until I got to college in a very different environment in central New Jersey that I realized that was an option. I saw other people who were positive role models for me that let me come out later in life when I did.”
In retrospect, Walkinshaw said he regrets not coming out sooner, so that he might have become one of those role models in his hometown of Everson. The town has become more accepting of gays and lesbians since he was in high school, he said.
‘A Social Justice Lens’
In the Legislature, Walkinshaw will be occupying a seat that has been held by a gay man since 1987. That’s when Cal Anderson was appointed to the post, making him the first openly gay state legislator.
“Personally, it’s quite emotional,” Walkinshaw said about assuming the seat. “It does come with this extraordinary history to it.”
Anderson relinquished his House seat when he was elected to the Senate in 1994. He died of AIDS less than a year later. Anderson was followed in office by Ed Murray and then Jamie Pedersen. All three have been leaders in the movement for gay civil rights.
After Murray’s election as Seattle mayor, Pedersen moved over to the Senate to assume Murray’s seat. That left Pedersen’s seat in the House up for grabs.
Walkinshaw beat out two other candidates, Cristina Gonzalez and Scott Forbes, to win appointment to the seat. By state law, the King County Council votes to fill vacant legislative seats, and they typically approve the candidate chosen by the political party of the outgoing legislator.
In this case, precinct committee officers from the 43rd Legislative District Democratic Party organization voted to endorse Walkinshaw. Walkinshaw had engaged in an aggressive campaign to recruit new precinct committee officers to the party.
Walkinshaw lists higher education, transportation, women’s reproductive rights and immigrant rights as his top priorities in the Legislature. He said he will look at issues “through a civil rights and social justice lens.”