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'One of our heroes': Remembering trailblazing State Senator George Fleming

Late State Senator George Fleming is now helping a whole new group in a way he may never have anticipated.

SEATTLE — From football star to the trailblazing politician, the legacy of late State Senator George Fleming will continue to inspire and impact for generations to come.

Fleming died  on Dec. 6 at the age of 83.  A celebration of life was held Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Don James Center at Husky Stadium.

Football Legend

It was at Husky Stadium in 1960 and 1961 when George Fleming won the hearts of Husky fans. Fleming, a stand-out running back and kicker, helped lead the team to back-to-back Rose Bowl victories.

Fleming went on to play for the Oakland Raiders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before returning to Washington State in the mid-1960s.

That’s when Fleming pivoted from sports to politics.

“I even had a whole group of people campaigning for him. All girls we call ourselves ‘the girls’,” said Tina Fleming, George’s wife. “He was just a good guy and everyone liked him. Everybody knew him already anyway because he was a Husky."

First elected to the statehouse in 1968, Fleming was elected two years later to the state senate for the 37th district, becoming its second-ever African American member.

“I vividly remember as a kid, him practicing in front of the mirror and hearing him practice his speeches over and over and over again, you know, the same type of excellence that he had on the football field,” said Sonja Fleming Schuett, Fleming’s daughter.

Family members say while he encountered racism at the State Capitol in Olympia at the time, he never let that get in the way of his job of taking care of his constituents.

“We do know that there were times when folks, other legislators, would refuse to ride on the senate elevator with him or avoid him,” said Fleming Schuett. “His motto was to just keep on keeping on just do the right thing. Irrespective of what anyone else is doing. You do the right thing.”

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Lasting statewide impact

During his 22 years in the statehouse, Fleming established state offices to support women and minority business owners and was instrumental in making Dr. Martin Luther King's Day a state-wide holiday.

In 1986, Fleming helped create one of his most important and impactful legacies: the state's housing trust fund, which has since created 55,000 units of affordable housing. It’s a program that is still helping thousands of Washington families today and has become a national model for low-income housing.

“I think that he was the person that lived to do the right thing and to advocate for others. And that's how he lived his life as an advocate for underrepresented communities. And because he cared so much, and he really felt that everyone is entitled to basic fundamental rights,” said Yemi Fleming Jackson, Fleming’s daughter.

In October of 2021, the newly built George Fleming place apartments in Seattle’s Othello neighborhood officially opened. The building has 106 units serving families with children, veterans, people living with disabilities, low-wage workers and newly displaced Afghan refugees,

“Generations of people are living in housing that he created,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. “People look at the homeless problem like it can't ever be solved. Well, this is an example of how you can systematically house people who are previously homeless. Frankly, he is one of our heroes.”

His family says Fleming inspired many African Americans in the community to pursue civic service and political roles, including former king county executive Ron Sims and Renton city councilmember Ed Prince, who is Fleming’s nephew.

“He is the measurement of every person, every man that I've ever encountered, and no one's matched that. Sorry. But it's just true,” said Fleming Schuett.

Fleming is survived by Tina, his wife of 54 years, their daughters Sonja and Yemi and five grandchildren.

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