On November 3, 1992 Velma Veloria became not only the first Filipino American but the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Washington State Legislature. That achievement was powered by the 16 years she had spent as a labor organizer seeking fair pay and working conditions for downtrodden immigrant workers. During her 12 years in the state legislature Veloria inspired fellow Asian Americans by the passion she brought to her crusade to win better living conditions for her lower-income constituents.
Velma Veloria was born in Bani, Pangasinan in the Philippines around 1939. Her family immigrated to San Francisco when she was 11. She received a BA in medical technology from San Francisco State University. Seeing friends drafted into the Vietnam War and either dying on the front or returning to the States disabled, prompted Veloria to become active in the anti-war movement.
A vacation trip back to the Philippines in 1976 allowed Veloria to witness the mass suffering produced by the corrupt and oppressive Marcos regime. The experience awakened Veloria to the importance of democratic institutions and, more importantly, of using them to secure social justice for the masses. Upon returning to San Francisco Veloria joined the KDP (Union of Democratic Philipinos) which was at the forefront of the anti-Marcos movement. Veloria was lab technician by day and activist by night.
Before long Veloria became a full-time internal organizer for several unions: the Office of Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), the ILWU Local 37 for cannery workers (the majority of whom were of Filipino decent), and the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU).
Veloria was sent to Seattle to keep the union reform movement in the Alaska cannery industry alive after Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo—high profile KDP and ILWU Local 37 leaders—were assassinated on June 1981. She became prominent in the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes. She also stayed active in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.
Managing the cannery unions in Seattle gave Veloria visibility in Seattle’s Asian American community and earned her a reputation as an effective organizer. In 1989 she was approached to run Dolores Sibonda’s mayoral campaign. Sibonda didn’t win but Veloria took away lessons that would prove valuable for her own run several years later for a seat in the state legislature.
From 1990 to 1991 Veloria worked as a legislative aide to Art Wang, a State Representative who chaired the Finance Committee. In 1992 Veloria channeled her political experience and connections to run for the 11th Legislative District. Veloria won and ultimately served 12 years as a state legislator. She became well known for championing causes important to minority groups, including bilingual education, economic development, worker’s rights, racial justice, women and minority businesses and universal health care.
“I remember when Velma, on the floor of the House of Representatives, crying tears of frustration because the House had just passed a bill during a budget crunch that stripped away health care for thousands of kids.” recalls Heyok Kim, a colleague in the House Democratic Caucus. “I remember the conviction in her voice that justice had not been served that day.”
“Having Velma on your side is great,” recalls Ron Chew, a Seattle community leader, “because she’s a relentless and fearless advocate for the community. She makes things happen.”
Veloria organized and led trade missions to the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cuba and Indonesia. A 1994 mission prompted the Philippine Government to open a trade office in Seattle. In 1995 Veloria led the first state trade mission to Vietnam and signed an agreement to improve commercial ties between Washington and Vietnam.
Veloria left her legislative seat in 2004 to lobby for a small business in Olympia before becoming Executive Director of the International District Housing Alliance. In 2006 she joined Homesight, an organization dedicated to helping moderate and lower income families achieve home ownership.
Veloria is married to community and labor activist Alonzo Suson.