Democrat Dawn Mason served in the Washington State House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, representing the 37th District encompassing much of Central and Southeast Seattle. She was assistant minority whip and ranking chair of the Higher Education Committee, and in 1995 successfully argued against an anti-affirmative-action bill. A New Jersey native, Mason first moved to Seattle in the 1960s and settled in the city for good in the early 1980s. She raised six children, earned a B.A. in public policy from Evergreen State College, had a long career with the City of Seattle as a management systems analyst, and served on the city's Human Rights Commission. In 1989 Mason co-founded Parents for Student Success, dedicated to helping families with children who were failing in the public school system. Following her legislative service, Mason continued to work for better schools and traveled to Africa, where she helped establish women- and family-owned businesses. Mason received a master's degree in education from Antioch University in 2002, and then served on its board of directors. She served First Place Scholars, which in 2014 became Washington's first charter school, as development director and as board president.
From Jersey to Seattle
Dawn Taylor was born July 2, 1945, in Jersey City, New Jersey, the youngest of the three children of Deotis Taylor and Helen Gordon Taylor, both of whom were educators. Deotis, a track coach who built and owned race cars, founded the Blazer Automotive Training School in Newark. Helen was a specialist in working with developmentally challenged children. Both followed the teachings of Malcolm X (1925-1965) when he was a spokesman for the Nation of Islam (also called Black Nationalists or Black Muslims), which advocated separatism, not integration, for African Americans. Dawn Taylor followed these teachings as well, and she participated in the riots that shook Newark, New Jersey, and captured headlines for five days in July 1967. In later years she expressed great respect for Rev. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and his calls for non-violent resistance, but never abandoned the early beliefs that taught her self-reliance and self-respect.
In 1968 Dawn Taylor vacationed in Seattle -- when the rhododendrons were in bloom -- and fell in love with the city. She cashed in her return ticket, rented an apartment, and lived in the city for five years. She then married, moved to Chicago, and began a family. When the marriage ended, Taylor took work with an airline and moved to Los Angeles. In about 1980 she returned to the Pacific Northwest and married Joseph Mason, an electrician at the University of Washington. The couple moved to South Seattle and raised six children there.
Despite the demands of parenting, Dawn Mason earned a B.A. degree in public policy from Evergreen State College in 1989 and began a long career with the City of Seattle, working as a management systems analyst for the police, fire, and utility departments. Mason also helped form the African American City Employees Union and served on the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
A Changing City
While African Americans were a part of Seattle from its earliest years, their numbers were small, and for decades racial prejudice led to restrictive housing covenants and de facto segregation in the city. In the 1940s and 1950s, most of Seattle's African Americans lived in the Central Area neighborhood. The civil rights movement, and particularly passage of Seattle's Open Housing Ordinance in 1968, opened the way for change. Through the work of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, and other groups, it became possible for many Seattle African Americans to settle in other parts of the city.
By the time Mason moved back to Seattle, the city had a sizable African American population, with most, according to the 1980 U.S. census, living in the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. Dawn and Joseph Mason resided in Rainier Valley and became involved with their children's public schools. When Mason's 17-year-old daughter was in danger of being expelled, a talk with teachers resolved the issue, but Mason was aware that many parents were unable to give their children the support they needed. Many of her friends and neighbors were poor, and some were recent immigrants struggling to get along. Mason found that the schools they attended were often substandard and that students were not expected to excel.
In a letter to the editor published in The Seattle Times in January 1988, written in response to an earlier article with which she took issue, Mason wrote:
"I am the parent of six African-American children. We are not losers by any context of the word; by values, culture or class. Just by virtue of our historical past, we would have to be labeled hard-working and determined people. As an ethnic group we are victims of racism, not the perpetrators. Culturally we are not an ethnic group that has a history of 'lower-class values and culture'" ("Culture, Not Race … ").
Desegregation Is Not Enough
Mason concluded that education was the most important political and economic issue facing Seattle's Central Area and Rainier Valley neighborhoods, and she became an important voice in the community for improving the schools. Despite good intentions, attempts to achieve desegregation with mandatory busing had created problems. Many children of primary-school age were being bused far from their homes, making it difficult for their parents to participate in their schooling. In the mid-1980s, the busing issue was a hotly-debated topic, and the Seattle School Board struggled with various plans and fixes.
In 1989 Dawn Mason and Ellie Graham, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, cofounded Parents for Student Success, and Mason became the group's executive director. Believing that each child needs at least one supportive parent in order to succeed, the organization aimed to involve parents in their children's learning. As the group expressed it, every child has both gifts and challenges, and when the gifts are magnified, the challenges disappear.
Through her work for the city and her involvement in Parents for Student Success and the Democratic Party, Dawn Mason became well-known in Seattle and well-positioned for public office. In 1992 she ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives, but finished third in the Democratic primary for a 37th District seat behind two House incumbents forced by redistricting to run against each other -- John L. O'Brien (1911-2007), then the longest-serving state legislator in the entire nation, and Jesse Wineberry (b. 1955), who won the race.
Two years later in 1994 Mason got another opportunity when Representative Wineberry left his state legislature position to run for the U.S. Senate. Wineberry lost the senate race, but Mason ran as a Democrat for his 37th District House seat and won, defeating Republican Donna Larsen. With Wineberry's departure and Kip Tokuda's defeat of Vivian Caver for the other 37th District seat (which Caver had briefly held by appointment after Gary Locke [b. 1950] resigned upon being elected King County Executive), Mason was the only African American in the House of Representatives during the 1995 legislative session.
Mason served two consecutive terms in the House, from 1995 to 1999. During her time in office, she served as assistant minority whip and as ranking chair of the higher-education committee, and was also chosen to be a part of the Clinton administration's Women's Economic Roundtable. In 1996 the Washington Student Lobby named her Legislator of the Year in recognition of her work in support of providing greater student access to higher education. One of her noted accomplishments as a legislator came in 1995 when she argued successfully against passage of an anti-affirmative action bill (HB1999).
After the House
In 1998, rather than again seeking re-election to her seat in the House, a race that she would have been expected to win easily, Mason announced that she would run instead for the 37th District's state senate seat, taking on the Democratic incumbent, Senator Adam Kline (b. 1944). It was a bold move, pitting Democrat against Democrat. Mason contended that it should not have been surprising that she was running against a fellow party member, since the district was overwhelmingly Democrat. The district included Madison Park and extended down through the Rainier Valley into Renton, and its residents at the time included roughly equal proportions of African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites. Kline, who was white, defeated Mason in a tight primary race in 1998, and also won when she challenged him again in 2002. In between those races, Mason ran for Position 9 on the Seattle City Council in 1999, but was defeated by popular news commentator Jim Compton (1941-2014).
Mason continued her work with Parents for Student Success and made frequent trips to Africa, where she helped to shape public policy and build support for women's issues and small family businesses. She received a master's degree in education from Antioch University in 2002, and went on to serve on its board of directors.
Mason also served on, and as president of, the board of First Place Scholars, a non-profit school in Seattle started in 1989 to serve students less than 18 years of age who suffered from homelessness, domestic violence, or other serious trauma. As Director of Charter School Development, Mason helped lead the effort to make First Place the first charter school in Washington. Shortly after First Place Scholars Charter School opened on September 3, 2014, Mason returned to the board of directors and was again chosen as board chair.