If Washington state representative Brady Piñero Walkinshaw wins his bid for Congress on November 8, his vote could help push forward nationwide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. He would be the first openly gay Latino in Congress.
The 32-year-old currently represents Washington's 43rd district, which covers parts of Seattle. Walkinshaw has built a reputation for crossing partisan bridges in a state split by ideology and geography.
"The first thing I did when I came into office was I crossed the Cascades to meet with [conservative] colleagues from across the isle in their home districts," Walkinshaw told NBC OUT. The Cascade Range divides Washington voters who are predominantly conservative to the east from those who are predominantly liberal to the west, according to Walkinshaw.
"I think it's very important as an elected official, representing a district like the one that I do, and being openly gay, to build bridges with people to whom you disagree with [in] hopes that 2,4,6,8 years down the road you can come together, because it makes it more personal when you get to know somebody," Walkinshaw said.
The young progressive is proud to represent his district, which he was appointed to in 2013. He said all of his political predecessors have been openly LGBTQ since 1987, when Cal Anderson became the first openly gay person to get elected to the seat. (Seattle's Cal Anderson Park was named after him). Walkinshaw called the district "a leader on a lot of civil rights issues for a long time in Washington state."
"The push for marriage equality in Washington state began out of the 43rd district," he said. Walkinshaw vows to continue to fight for LGBTQ rights if he wins the congressional race. He said non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community are a high priority for him.
"I would be so honored to work beside the other six openly LGBTQ members in the U.S. House to make that happen. Absolutely. And [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton — hopefully soon to be President Clinton— will be a partner to us in that," he said. Clinton has pledged to work with Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would grant nationwide nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.
"When we do it, I think it's important that that includes those same protections for the transgender community, as well. And I think it's important that we move forward together," Walkinshaw added.
Walkinshaw has pushed for changes to Washington's foster care system, which he said could help curb Seattle's growing homeless youth population. Forty percent of those youth identify as LGBTQ, according to YouthCare, a Seattle nonprofit that provides shelter services.
"Our community is hugely disproportionately represented, and those are shortcomings in our foster care system, those are shortcomings in our ability to provide services to people, shortcomings in the reason that a lot of kids experience homelessness often stems from issues related to how they came out or what it means for them to be open in their family environment," Walkinshaw said.
Walkinshaw grew up Whatcom County, a rural region of farmers that runs along the Canadian border. He said he didn't have any LGBTQ role models growing up, and didn't come out until he was a senior at Princeton University.
"When you grow up in communities where you don't have role models — positive role models — I think it really impacts you, and for me that has left an indelible impression," he said. "My own experience growing up in a very deeply conservative community — and now representing a place that is deeply progressive — being able to push forward, being able to build bridges with others who might disagree, to extend protections, I think that's really important."
Walkinshaw won a Fulbright Scholarship after college to study in Honduras. He later worked for five years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he focused on economic opportunity for small farmers. He speaks fluent Spanish, which was all his mother, a Cuban immigrant, would speak to him until he was five years old. He pointed out that if elected, he will not only be one more LGBTQ representative in Congress, but one who is also Latino. That's significant to Walkinshaw, who said he sees things in a very intersectional way.
"We don't have enough people of color within the LGBTQ community also going into our political process," he said. "As a person of color, as well, I think that building those bridges between communities is really important. After the really horrific tragic shooting at the Pulse [Nightclub] in Orlando, it was alarming to hear from some members of Congress on the other side of the isle say, 'That wasn't a gay club, that was a Latino club…' Looking at the intersections between communities is so important for us."
Another top priority for Walkinshaw is mental health. LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition like major depression or generalized anxiety disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness. One of Walkinshaw's proudest achievements came in January 2015,when he formed a bipartisan coalition to pass "Joel's Law." The law makes it possible for family members to get access to treatment for loved ones when they've been denied access to the mental health care system, he said. It's named after Joel Reuter, a 28-year-old software designer with bipolar disorder who was shot and killed by Seattle police while experiencing a manic episode. Reuter's family had tried 48 times to admit him for treatment and evaluation but were unable to get him access, according to Walkinshaw.
"[Mental health] is something that is very important to me. We've also seen rates of suicide amongst LGBTQ youth, especially kids who identify as transgender. I think it's something we need to be addressing through federal policy with providing services and really reinvesting and fixing what we've been doing wrong in our country's mental health system," Walkinshaw said.
Environmental issues are also a cornerstone of Walkinshaw's campaign, which he called "front and center to why I'm running for Congress." He fondly remembers a childhood spent hiking and fishing with his dad and grandfather along the rugged peaks and rivers of America's Pacific Northwest. He took to Twitter recently to announce his support for Standing Rock protestors, who are fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
"I just believe passionately that the next 10-20 years need to be devoted to moving our country to a low-carbon economy and doing that in a way that really protects and saves and preserves our environment," he said.
Walkinshaw's husband, an ocean scientist, is managing the helm of his campaign's climate policies. The two met on a blind date in 2009 and married last summer in a wedding officiated by Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, who is also openly gay.
"We went on our first date in a bar called Sun Liquor," Walkinshaw said. "I knew he had me when he came in carrying a Harper's Magazine he'd been reading and I thought, 'This is someone I like.'"
With just a few days left in the race, organizing, canvassing, and talking to press, the busy young progressive jokingly acknowledged the first thing he plans to do if he wins is sleep.
"The second thing is start to get to know my colleagues," Walkinshaw said. "That is something I really look forward to."