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Sunday, September 8, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Ruth Woo's Way -- The Elusive Politics Of Ruth Woo -- No One Knows Quite How She Does It. But Council Members, Governors And Governor- Wannabes All Have Her On Their Lists Of People Who Make A Difference.

ENTERING RUTH WOO'S POLITICAL orbit can be a memorable event.

Dolores Sibonga got a surprise telephone call from Woo, whom she barely knew, telling her that a group of people had just decided Sibonga would make an ideal Seattle City Council candidate.

Former Seattle City Councilman Paul Kraabel helped Woo one winter night when her car locks froze in a parking lot. By his next campaign, she was reminding him to write thank-you notes to both the big-ticket donors and the volunteers who baked cookies.

State Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher, at the time a clerical worker with no political interests, got a dinner invitation from Woo. When she arrived, Woo announced they couldn't eat until they finished stuffing 200 letters for then-Gov. Dan Evans' reelection campaign.

Political consultant Dia Hujar got the most telling introduction to the ways of Woo. Driving to Woo's house years ago for a campaign-strategy meeting, Hujar heard on the radio that several hundred people were gathered at the Space Needle for a luncheon honoring among others, community activist Ruth Woo. Puzzled, Hujar figured there must be two Ruth Woos.

Woo was at home lunching on fried chicken. She assured Hujar that there was just one. "I told those people I don't accept awards," Woo scoffed. "They should have listened to me."

That Supreme court justices, would-be governors and City Hall hopefuls not only listen to this self-effacing Japanese-American

grandmother, but seek her blessings for their political ambitions, has made Woo among the most influential figures in state politics.

What no one can explain precisely is why. That's a more mysterious matter, with an answer that defies popular notions about political power. "I don't really understand it," says Seattle Democratic consultant Bob Gogerty. "She must have one hell of a Rolodex and speed dialer."

At just over 5 feet tall, with a round face, curly hair, oversized glasses and a wardrobe heavy on pastel sweatshirts, the sixtysomething Woo looks as though she'd be more comfortable among those early-morning mall walkers than the city's power brokers. She never went to college. She's held no job title loftier than "administrative assistant." Her political clubhouse - her cover, really - is the back room of a tiny vehicle-licensing agency that she runs in a Rainier Valley strip mall.

But in the 24 years since she first volunteered at Dan Evans for Governor headquarters, Woo's knack for organizing campaigns and making friends has turned her into a sought-after political commodity. She is one of a handful of people whose very name on an endorsement list brings candidates cash and credibility.

Though Woo laughs self-consciously at the notion she is driven by anything so idealistic, few traditional civil-rights leaders have worked more purposefully or been more effective at ushering minorities - particularly Asian Americans - to a seat at the table where policy is made.

A long list of people in both parties credit a portion - sometimes an extravagant portion - of their success to Woo: Evans, Supreme Court Justice James Dolliver, Kraabel, Sibonga, Belcher, state Reps. Kip Tokuda and Velma Veloria, Seattle City Council members John Manning and Martha Choe, former city attorney Doug Jewett and Metro King County Councilman Ron Sims.

How broad is Woo's network? Consider the personal dilemma of next week's gubernatorial primary.

A leading Democratic candidate, King County Executive Gary Locke, calls Woo "my second mom." But Woo isn't even working for Locke. She has cast her lot with Republican Jim Waldo, an old friend and bridge partner who worked with her in the Evans administration two decades ago.

TO SAY RUTH WOO WEARS HER influence lightly is like noting that Gov. Mike Lowry waves his arms a bit.

Whether helping sell the Seattle Art Museum to voters or lobbying for the University of Washington's Equal Opportunity Program or nurturing Locke's political career, Woo vanishes when the reporters show up. On election night, she skips the victory parties and goes to the movies or the Oregon coast.

When I visited her licensing agency in search of an interview, she let out a laugh that made me feel both like her newest friend and a heel.

"How can I convince you not to write this?" Woo implored. "Who can I call at The Times? If I really had all this influence, wouldn't I be able to stop this story?" She giggled again. The beginning and end of our first interview.

Don't get the wrong impression.

Woo, clad in black tights, once jumped out of a cake at a party for Justice Dolliver. (Hizzoner returned the favor at a Woo birthday celebration by leaping out of the pastry in something less dignified than judicial robes.) Her Mount Baker home is a salon where pols and community activists come to play bridge, eat her husband Ben's gourmet cooking and listen to Ruth laugh.

Her gregariousness masks a very private person who releases personal details reluctantly.

Her immigrant father, Tom Oya, worked on railroad gangs in Montana, where Woo was born. After her father died, the family moved to Seattle, where her mother eked out a living as a seamstress, and later, to an Oregon farm. Then came the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Woo's family was banished first to the Tule Lake internment camps in California, then to Camp Minidoka in the Idaho desert.

"Sad" is the only thing Woo will say about the camps.

Another experience left an equally big stamp on Woo.

In the 1950s, Woo landed a job as secretary in the office of then-Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton. She and her first husband, who died a few years later, saved up enough to buy a house. "We were feeling pretty smug about being on our way," Woo remembers. They fell for a small house on a hill in South Seattle with an orchard, plenty of room for expansion and a spectacular view. The next day, their agent called to tell her the neighbors didn't want "Japs" around.

Woo, whose personality was ill-suited to the angry protests of the civil-rights era that was gestating then, simply bought another house. But the story explains, in a way that Woo herself won't, her singular passion for opening the doors of power and public life to minorities and women.

"She's had every reason to go into the withdrawal mode," says Doug Hurley, who hired Woo for a 1985 Seattle Art Museum bond campaign. "Instead she's the epitome of the joyous citizen."

Such high-hat talk, naturally, prompts in Woo a dismissive fit of laughter.

Her introduction to politics was as unplanned as it was unlikely.

In the 1960s, Woo, by then a single mother raising two kids, went to work as a receptionist in the office of Gov. Evans. She could recognize the voices of virtually everyone who called the office a second time. When Evans would blow his top and fire off an angry letter, Woo had the good instinct to magically lose it for a few days. Another woman in the office, Esther Seering, did for the shy Woo what Woo has since done for so many others - dragged her along to political events, introduced her to important people and spotted a potential that Woo herself had never recognized.

In 1972, Woo quit her receptionist post for what she thought was the "glamorous chance" to work on Evans' second re-election campaign. It was the camaraderie, though, that hooked her - co-workers taught her to drink, taking her to a bar next door for a few pops after each campaign day. Woo proved to be an invaluable combination of organizational whiz and political junkie.

In those days, the only Asian-American political figure of note was the International District matriarch, King County Councilwoman Ruby Chow. "It was extraordinary for a Japanese-American lady to play any role in public life then," says state Rep. Kip Tokuda, who is of Japanese ancestry. "Politics was something to stay out of. It wasn't our business."

Woo eventually held a succession of administrative-assistant jobs for Republican officials - Rep. Joel Pritchard, Seattle City Attorney Doug Jewett, state Lands Commissioner Brian Boyle. Grander posts never interested her.

Woo instead stuck with the jobs where she got to meet everybody. And everybody told her most everything worth knowing.

WHEN THE TOPIC OF Seattle City Councilman John Manning came up, Woo mumbled to me, "I didn't really do any work for him."

Manning, an African-American cop from the Central District who knocked off incumbent Sherry Harris last year, sees things a bit differently. When he was first considering running, one of the people his advisers told him to see was Woo. She offered not just advice, but did the grunt work of stuffing envelopes and writing fund-raising letters.

What Woo's blessing really brought the Manning campaign was harder to measure: "It was amazing to me how many people would come up and say, `Oh, Ruth is supporting you,' " recalls Manning. "A lot of them wrote checks." By traditional methods of keeping score, Woo is no power broker. She doesn't represent interest groups. She doesn't get paid for campaign work. She has turned down countless appointments after once joining the board of KCTS, the public-television station. Bored with all the meetings, she quit after a few months.

In politics, where trust is as important a lubricant as money, Woo's influence derives in large part from what she doesn't possess - any ambitions of her own.

That helps her use her contacts like an old-fashioned ward pol, calling up friends to help bright young people get jobs. It also allows Woo to be a sort of community facilitator-at-large.

Backers of a proposed downtown Seattle Art Museum, whose numbers included the city's bluest bloods, hired Woo in 1985 to help get their campaign rolling. Her first task was prodding Locke, then a rising power in the state House, and Ron Sims, a former state Senate staffer, to rescue a floundering bill in Olympia to allow a bond issue for the museum to be placed on the ballot. Watching Woo cash in on countless relationships with Republicans and Democrats with her lobbying inspired Hurley, her boss, to write a less-than-epic poem: "We called on the Woo strategy. Woo to the left of them; Woo to the right of them."

What Woo does best is bring people together.

In the early 1980s, Woo insisted that Sims and the handful of other minority staffers in the state Legislature get together regularly for lunch. Soon enough, Woo had a project mapped out for them - persuading their bosses to pass a bill granting reparations to 38 Japanese Americans fired from state jobs during World War II.

Members of that group went on to be a King County Council member, a top congressional aide, a Jay Rockey Co. executive, a Seattle public-schools official, a city department head and a prominent Filipino activist. Most remain friends and confidantes to this day. And, says Sims, Woo doesn't hesitate to call any of them when something needs to get done.

But that vast network of contacts and her loyalty to friends did, on one occasion, create a ticklish perception problem.

A few years ago, Woo landed in a controversy surrounding Jesus Sanchez, former Kingdome director who left his job amid allegations of cronyism and loose ethical practices.

The Woos had both a good friendship and professional relationship with Sanchez. Sanchez, at the time director of King County executive administration, hired Ben Woo, an architect, as county facilities manager. In 1987, the Woos applied for a state vehicle-licensing franchise - a process overseen in King County by Sanchez. When the Woos scored among the highest of 12 applicants, Sanchez recommended them to the state for the franchise. Later, when Woo and her business partner, Dia Hujar, were looking for workers on a political campaign, Sanchez suggested hiring his nephew. After the election, Sanchez's nephew went to work at the licensing agency, where he is now the manager.

In another instance, Woo realized Sanchez would take heat if stadium concessionaires held a farewell party for him at the Kingdome. She intervened, moved the event out of the Kingdome and helped pick up the tab. When Locke came in as county executive, intent on firing Sanchez (who ultimately resigned), Woo says she unsuccessfully urged him to keep Sanchez on.

"It's made me incredibly sensitive every time I pick up the phone to ask people to do something," she says. "If Jesus weren't a friend, none of this would have been questionable. If you know a lot of people in high places, what are you supposed to do?"

No one accused Woo of wrongdoing. But the consequence was as bad as it gets for Woo: Her name wound up in the newspaper.

DOLORES SIBONGA MATCHED Ruth Woo giggle for giggle on that day in 1978 when she got her phone call. Sibonga loved her job at the state Human Rights Commission. She had met Woo only a handful of times in passing. Now, here was Woo announcing that a group of people had decided an Asian American should be appointed to fill the seat of a retiring City Council member - and that Sibonga was a terrific choice.

All Sibonga could do was laugh and ask, "Are you out of your mind?" Still, she mulled the idea. When she finally agreed, Sibonga discovered that Woo had already lined up support for her appointment among council members - notably her old pal, Paul Kraabel. Sibonga became the first Filipina American elected official in the city and spent 12 years on the council.

It is hyperbole to call Woo, as Dan Evans once did, the pivotal figure in Washington state politics of the past few decades.

No one though, has been more central to the emergence of Asian Americans as a political force in the state.

Ironically, the election of Locke - the candidate Woo is not working for - as the nation's first Asian-American governor outside of Hawaii would prove that point.

To Locke, Woo has been equal parts counselor and strategist, mentor and mother. When he first ran for the Legislature in 1982, Woo took the then-King County deputy prosecutor under her wing. Her kitchen table, stacked with Locke's campaign materials, was his election headquarters. They'd scour the papers looking for pancake feeds, community festivals and award banquets in the district to attend. Woo bought the tickets.

A smart and ambitious policy wonk, Locke entered politics in 1982 with limited social graces. His intensity often came across as rudeness; he would forget to say hello to friends at public events. Woo gave Locke what some jokingly call "Miss Manners" lessons - teaching him how to work a room and introduce himself, reminding him to write thank-you notes, even passing on dating tips. "I had to elbow Gary at these events to tell him, `Doesn't so-and-so have on a beautiful dress,' " says Woo, adding that Locke didn't always get the hint.

During his years in the Legislature, a vacant room at her licensing agency served as Locke's district office. When Locke, then a state legislator, and Sims were feuding over plans to overhaul the state mental-health system, Woo brought them together for a peace dinner at her house. Until he got married two years ago, Locke often ate dinner at Woo's house several times a week. Woo managed Locke's successful King County executive campaign last year.

"In a lot of ways," says Sutapa Basu, head of the University of Washington Women's Center and friend of both, "Ruth made Gary."

While Locke's candidacy gathers national publicity for its symbolism, Woo has taken flak in local Asian-American circles for not being on the team. Waldo, a moderate Republican attorney, sought her support nearly a year before Locke entered the race.

If both win in the primary she says it won't bother her to help Waldo run against her former protege and his chance to make history for Asian Americans.

"I don't need to make any apologies," she said.

THE TRACKS OF SEATTLE'S backroom heavyweights are usually easy to follow. Attorney Jim Ellis got Lake Washington cleaned up, the Metro bus system rolling and a state convention center built. Bob Gogerty, who tends to the interests of the state's biggest corporations and liberal Democratic politicians, cut the deals for a new baseball stadium.

Woo's "legacy" - a term that surely makes her cringe - is harder to define. It isn't buildings, legendary backroom deals or noteworthy legislation. It's at the other end of the political food chain, where she's helped first-time candidates get their start or prodded talented young people into civic activism.

"If you ran a computer program that weighed the number of people she has encouraged and advised and helped get into public life, and then figured what they've contributed," says Waldo, "the result would stun people."

Woo remains more interested in obliterating her tracks.

Paul Kraabel remembers years ago trying to appoint Woo to the Seattle Community College board. Woo sent him instead a list of better candidates - all people she knew, of course.

Before reluctantly agreeing to be interviewed for this story, Woo sent me a suggestion - through a third party, of course - that I write instead about a prominent Japanese-American businessman. Now that guy, she insisted, has really done something for the International District.

And, Woo added, he might even want to talk with you.

Jim Simon is a Seattle Times political reporter. Gary Settle is Pacific Magazine's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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