SEATTLE – Michael Shiosaki hadn’t given much thought to titles before a reporter stuck a microphone in his face as the first election night results in this city’s mayor’s race showed his husband, Ed Murray, headed for victory.
What do we call you? the reporter asked.
Interesting question, and a unique one for Seattle and most of the nation’s cities. What title does the same-sex spouse of the mayor-elect have?
“I think it’s first gentleman or something like that,” Shiosaki answered, half joking.
The title was as good as any, and it stuck. The Spokane Valley native, third-generation member of one of Spokane’s most prominent Japanese-American families, a person who has been ringside for most of the fights over equality for sexual orientation, is Seattle’s first gentleman.
“It has been an interesting transition,” he said of the past nine months in that role.
It’s a position that has offered incredible opportunities, such as meeting President Barack Obama both in Seattle and at the White House and riding in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory parade. But it also comes with demands “to be everywhere, all the time” and the need for a security detail.
Shiosaki still works as planning and development director for Seattle Parks and Recreation, in a third-floor office in the International District with a view of CenturyLink Field, a position he’s had for about three years. Technically, Murray is his boss. “But I remind people I’ve worked for the city a lot longer than Ed,” he said.
Inland Northwest roots
Michael Shiosaki, 53, grew up in the Spokane Valley. His grandfather Kisaburo Shiosaki came to the United States from Japan in 1904 to work on the railroads, went back to Japan after 11 years for his bride Tori, and the two settled in Hillyard. There they opened a laundry that is now on the Spokane Register of Historic Places. Michael’s father, Fred, and uncles worked in the laundry growing up, and when World War II came along Fred enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the much-decorated Japanese-American Army unit. He was wounded in France, came home, earned a chemistry degree from Gonzaga and married Lily. They had two children, Nancy and Michael, moved to East Dean Avenue in the Valley in 1961 and lived there until recently.
Shiosaki learned the importance of civic involvement from his father, a former environmental manager for the old Washington Water Power Co. who served on the state Fish and Wildlife Commission for many years.
Growing up in mostly white Spokane Valley, Shiosaki recalls his University High School graduating class having three Asian-Americans, one African-American and about 370 Caucasians. “I had a great childhood in the ’burbs,” he said. “In some ways, it made me feel I needed to fit in. It makes you adapt.”
After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in landscape architecture, he worked first for the city of Bellevue planning parks, and in 2001 he was hired by Seattle Parks and Recreation. It’s a job that lets him design public spaces people will use for 100 years, he said.
Fight for gay rights
Murray and Shiosaki, who have been together since shortly after meeting on a camping trip to Mount Rainier with mutual friends in August 1991, have long been in the public eye. They were “an out, gay couple” as Murray spent 17 years in the Legislature, first in the House and later in the Senate where he rose to be majority leader. During that time Murray helped push the ball forward on equality for sexual orientation, first with anti-discrimination laws, then domestic partnership and finally with a bill that legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.
George Bakan, senior editor and publisher of Seattle Gay News for the last 30 years, described Shiosaki and Murray as a power couple who worked together through what was known as the “small steps approach” to reach equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens.
“I’ve always admired that crusading sense both of them have,” Bakan said. “They were committed to each other and both were willing to make a commitment to the political point.”
Shiosaki recalls being in Murray’s office on the morning the same-sex marriage bill was scheduled for a vote. There were only 24 sure “yes” votes, so the outcome was in doubt until Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who had been undecided, came to say she’d vote for it. “It was a huge day,” said Shiosaki, who stood in the wings as the vote was taken and joined Murray on the floor after the results were announced.
The law survived a referendum challenge at the polls and went into effect that December. Shiosaki and Murray were among the state’s most prominent same-sex couples, but they weren’t among the first to get married, scheduling it instead for the anniversary of their meeting 22 years earlier, which fell on a Saturday last year. It also fell in the middle of the Seattle mayoral campaign, four days after the primary that had narrowed the field to Murray and incumbent Mike McGinn.
His parents walked him down the aisle. “They have always been wonderfully supportive,” he said. “After a little bump in the road (when he told them he was gay) they quickly got there.”
‘Quintessential Seattle couple’
Sandeep Kaushik, a Seattle political consultant who worked on the Murray campaign, called Shiosaki “our secret weapon” in the race. Whenever he could make it to a political event, people gathered around him.
“He’s quiet, a calming presence, but people connect with Michael,” Kaushik said. “The two of them together just seemed like a quintessential Seattle couple – gay, straight, it made no difference.”
Seattle is a progressive city that has long been supportive of gay rights, Bakan said, but that wasn’t the only factor in the race. As a longtime legislator from one of the city’s key districts, Murray was a politician also known for tackling tough issues like transportation and budgets. But having a mayor with a same-sex spouse elected in a major American city was “icing on the cake,” he said.
Seattle and Houston are the only two U.S. cities with a mayor married to a same-sex spouse.
With his parents aging, Shiosaki said he was back in the Spokane area about every other month during the last couple of years until just recently, when they relocated to a senior living facility in Seattle. He still has a handful of high school friends he sees there, but “for the most part, I’m pretty incognito.”
The first year of Murray’s term has been marked with some big political stories: selecting a new police chief and pushing for police reform; a compromise over a $15-an-hour minimum wage; and the fight between taxi companies and Internet-based driving services like Uber. Murray was able to use skills like building coalitions he developed from years in the Legislature, but Shiosaki believes city politics are more personal than legislative politics.
“The local stuff is what people touch and feel,” he said, adding he and Murray don’t always agree on issues. “Growing up in Spokane, I do have a more conservative streak than Ed.”