By Erica C. Barnett
Now that the 2021 Washington state legislative session has ended, Sen. Joe Nguyen has made it official: He’s running against three-term King County Executive Dow Constantine, who hasn’t had a serious challenger since he first beat Republican Susan Hutchinson in 2009. PubliCola first reported that Nguyen was considering a run for county executive.
PubliCola spoke with Nguyen on Monday about his time in the legislature (just two years so far), his ambitious platform, and his path to victory over a fellow Democrat who has sailed to reelection twice with double-digit margins. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
PubliCola: Lay out the case against the county executive for me: Why should voters get rid of a progressive, popular, experienced leader and hire you instead?
Joe Nguyen: I’m running for this position because the pandemic has exposed so many of the inequities that our communities have experienced for so long. Coming from a community that has historically been marginalized [White Center and Burien], I see the impact when you have failures in policy that have been exacerbated by this pandemic.
We’ve had an emergency in homelessness for almost a decade at this point and they’re just now getting [the regional homelessness authority] set up. I do think the regional approach is right and Marc Dones is going to do a fantastic job in that role. … [But] one of the biggest failures of the regional approach is… the fact that they have not had trust between local leaders to get it done. Instead of making a decision and then telling local leaders after the fact, imagine if they had been part of the conversation all along.
Right after Renton passed their ordinance [attempting to shut down a homeless shelter at the Red Lion hotel], which I didn’t agree with, instead of trying to flame them, I called them to find out what they didn’t agree with it. And it was kind of eye-opening: While they supported having the facility there, the resources and the follow-up didn’t flow. The reason there was that tension was because of how that engagement happened. You can’t just make decisions and then back out—there has to be an ongoing partnership.
“I had been fighting to get those resources to my communities and was being ignored, and the only time anyone listened to me was when I signed the letter” urging Gov. Inslee not to close restaurants.
PC: The regional homelessness authority is at least seven months behind schedule at this point, and the city of Seattle and some of the suburban members fundamentally disagree on basics like causes and solutions. Some of the suburban cities seem to believe that Seattle wants to impose its Seattle solutions on them. Do you think the regional approach can still work at this point, given some of those very basic disagreements?
JN: I do think it’s going to work, because it has to work—because that’s the best option we have. I think we have to have leaders who are truly engaged in the fight and not just when it’s convenient. At the legislature, you’d be surprised at how much you get done when you aren’t trying to just get credit and when you actually engage in the local communities.
PC: You signed a letter last year that urged Gov. Inslee not to close down restaurants in response to a resurgence of COVID cases across the state. Why did you sign that letter, and how would you have responded to the pandemic differently than the Executive?
JN: What I was frustrated by was in my district, in White Center, in South King County, you had some of the highest rates of COVID in Washington state because of the inequities that already existed. I had been fighting to get those resources to my communities and was being ignored, and the only time anyone listened to me was when I signed the letter with the moderate Democrats. [Other Democrats who signed the letter included Steve Hobbs, D-44 (Everett), Mark Mullet, D-45. Tukwila, and Southeast Seattle Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-37.] I supported keeping restaurants closed, but I was saying that people are having to choose between their health and their livelihood.
After that, we were able to get $100 million and tens of thousands of dollars to local restaurants and workers. I made a big show out of it and, frankly, it worked.
“If your approach to ending youth incarceration is to build a bigger jail, that’s a fundamental difference between you and me.”
One of the things I get frustrated by is when leaders declare that the mission is accomplished while ignoring that there are still gross inequities in society. We declared racism a public health issue last summer and then the [vaccine] rollout was inequitable. Being from White Center, being from this community, I had connections with the local leaders I met and talked to local leaders to help with the vaccine distribution. Being able to partner behind the scenes with some of the agencies to get the vaccine out to certain areas, partnering with community organizations, and doing that quickly without fanfare was important, because it wasn’t time for photos ops, it was time to get things done because people are literally dying.
PC: One area where you’ve disagreed vocally with the executive is on youth incarceration. Executive Constantine has said he wants to empty out the new youth jail by 2025. Tell me how your approach would differ.
JN: If your approach to ending youth incarceration is to build a bigger jail, that’s a fundamental difference between you and me. Spending $240 million on a youth jail when that could have been spent on programs instead is one of the biggest problems [with the current administration]. The fact that the average per night is about 12 [youths]— we certainly could figure out a way to house 12 individuals, on average, per night.
One of the bills I helped pass this year was Jesse Johnson’s bill to make sure any youth who encounters law enforcement has access to a lawyer. We can also do things that are more humane to divert youth to community programs—to get kids out of the incarceration system and the legal system because that creates a snowball effect.
PC: Metro bus drivers complained early in the pandemic that the county wasn’t taking their safety seriously. What do you think of the way the county handled driver safety, and what, in retrospect, could they done better or differently?
JN: I feel bad that we put those bus drivers in that position in the first place. We should be listening to them and should be making it as safe as possible. I think it was a good idea to not charge fares, and we should keep that model, not only because it’s more equitable but because that’s the cause of a lot of tensions between riders and bus drivers. Their job is to drive the bus, not to deal with people who are deniers of the pandemic or who refuse to wear a mask.
PC: Fares make up about a quarter of Metro’s revenues; how would you propose making up that shortfall?
JN: Half of the budget goes to the criminal justice system, so I think when we are able to address the systemic problems I think we will have the resources to pay for [making fares free]. I serve on the [senate] transportation committee. The state should also be a partner. King County is the largest county in Washington state. It should be at the table negotiating with the state. We can’t just sit on our laurels and say, ‘This is too expensive.’ We need to figure it out.
PC: As county executive, you’d sit on the Sound Transit board. As a West Seattleite, I’m sure you have an opinion about whether the agency should build a tunnel or the preferred elevated option, given the recent cost estimate increase for the elevated option. So which would you push for if you were on the board?
JN: I support the options that exist. The reason the tunnel option was not on the table was the cost associated with it and I was like, at what point do they converge, where the elevated option is going to be as expensive as the tunnel? I know my community in West Seattle would love a tunnel option, and given unlimited resources I would support, that but given the circumstances I would rather get light rail to West Seattle than not get light rail.