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Peggy Maxie, first Black woman elected to WA state House, dies

By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, The Seattle Times
Published: March 1, 2024, 8:40am

SEATTLE — Peggy Joan Maxie, the first Black woman elected to the Washington House of Representatives who was known for her work to establish landmark tenants’ rights legislation, has died. She was 87.

Maxie was elected in 1970 to represent the 37th Legislative District — an area stretching from the Central District through Southeast Seattle — and would go on to serve six terms.

With a reserved but resolute manner, Maxie led the effort to pass the Landlord-Tenant Act, which defined for the first time in modern Washington history the legal rights of renters and responsibilities of landlords.

“Peggy had a sincere servant’s heart and deep humility,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, who now represents the same district and is a family friend of the Maxies. “Because she was so introverted and quiet, I think that was something that was easily overlooked, but she was smart and dedicated and she did the work.”

Maxie died Feb. 18.

Born on Aug. 18, 1936, in Amarillo, Texas, Maxie and her family moved to Seattle when she was 6, her mother drawn to the promise of a job at Boeing as were many other Black Americans during World War II.

Maxie grew up in the Central District, befriending neighbors who would also go on to become major figures in Seattle and Washington state, such as civil rights leader Bob Santos, Sharon Tomiko Santos’ husband.

Raised a devout Catholic, Maxie attended Immaculate Conception High School, and after graduation, spent eight months studying to become a nun.

“One of the things that really disturbed me when I was growing up and seeing how things had changed, it seemed like the neighborhood was going to pot, literally,” Maxie said, according to a transcript of a 2003 oral history recording made by Seattle University.

“And I did some soul-searching in terms of what my responsibility was, and I felt a calling, and I felt that I needed to explore that as an option, and I did.”

It was a formative period, one that left her inspired and hungry to go back to school. She graduated from Seattle University in 1970 with a degree in psychology.

Maxie’s path toward a career in politics wasn’t typical. As the story goes, it was her younger brother, Fred, who had his eye on elective office. He decided to go to law school instead, but by then, signs for his campaign had already been printed.

Maxie’s other brother, Bob, called her up.

“You’ve heard Fred is not going to run, and I’m down at a sign shop. I have a Maxie on the sign and I’m asking you, will you run for position No. 2, 37th District?” he told Maxie, according to the 2003 oral history recording.

“Bob, I don’t know anything about politics. I do know this much: I don’t have any money!” she responded. Don’t worry, he said, “I’ve got it all arranged.”

Before she knew it, Maxie was in. As a first-term lawmaker, she continued to pursue a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, which she earned in 1972.

Regarded as a pragmatic lawmaker, she described herself in interviews as empathetic toward her diverse constituents and their varied needs but realistic about the abilities and limits of state government.

Maxie did not openly complain of any pushback from her colleagues as one of the few Black and female legislators. “My colleagues in the Legislature pretty much left me alone,” she said in the 2003 oral history recording. “I didn’t get any negative vibes or anything of that nature.”

She did criticize the lack of diversity at the state Capitol, and after public life, would go on to co-found a nonprofit dedicated to helping the Black community, and particularly Black women, find employment and get involved in politics.

In a 1979 interview with The Seattle Times, Maxie pointed out that many of the issues she championed — civil rights, expanded welfare, affordable public education, tenant protections — were important to marginalized communities beyond Black residents.

“The community comes first, self-interest is secondary,” she told The Times in November 1970.

While door-knocking for that campaign, she found many residents in the Central District were living in squalid apartments, the result of absentee landlords failing to maintain the homes.

That experience motivated her to become the primary sponsor of the House version of the Landlord-Tenant Act in 1973, overhauling outdated state laws governing the relationship between landlords and renters from the 1800s that focused on leasing farmland.

Under the law, landlords were required to ensure homes were habitable and to perform specific maintenance. If landlords failed to keep up their properties, tenants could put their rent money toward repairs, or withhold a portion of their rent in cases of no heat or water.

“A lot of the work she started continues today,” said Rep. Chipalo Street, D-Seattle, who now represents the district. “It’s a base we continue to build on.”

“The toughness she had to not only endure in this place but also make change, I just find inspiring,” Street added.

As chair of the House Higher Education Committee, Maxie rejected calls to raise tuition at state colleges and universities outright. Instead, she established a citizens’ task force in 1976 to explore options for tuition increases and investigate impacts.

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“We need to have time for more citizen input because raising tuition has consequences for all kinds of people like veterans, working mothers, the poor,” she said at the time, according to The Times.

She also helped usher in the Displaced Homemakers Act in 1979, which established four centers at community and technical colleges that provided job training, counseling and legal help to divorced and widowed women who did not qualify for Social Security and did not have recent job experience or easily marketable skills.

“She believed in justice and opportunity for and equality for all people, and I think that was both a religiously held conviction but also a politically held conviction,” Santos said.

In 1982, she lost her bid for a seventh term to Gary Locke, who would later go on to be governor. After leaving the Legislature, Maxie worked as a consultant on community projects and as a mental health therapist and marriage counselor.

Maxie is survived by her brother, Fred Maxie, sister, Marcia Jackson, and sister-in-law, Sharon Miller Maxie. A funeral service will be held for family and friends at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 2, at Immaculate Conception Church.

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