By Erica C. Barnett
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who served in the state legislature and on the King County Council before beating eight other candidates for county executive in 2009, was supposed to run for governor—until the current governor, Jay Inslee, decided he wanted to keep the job. With a bid for higher office thwarted until at least 2024, many political observers expected Constantine to step down this year rather than seek a fourth term.
Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, all eyes were on King County and its public health department, whose capable response to a fast-moving, ever-evolving crisis made the county a model for the nation. Constantine decided to run again, and for the first time in 12 years, drew a credible opponent—Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents the same West Seattle district Constantine did in the state House and Senate. (In a further twist of internecine West Seattle politics, Nguyen defeated Shannon Braddock, who’s now Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.)
I sat down with Constantine over Zoom last week, and started out by asking him why he decided to seek another term.
Dow Constantine: I mean, I was thinking about running for governor, but then the governor ran for governor. And because I’m a good Democrat, and I want to ensure that we have Democratic leadership in Olympia, I chose not to run for governor along with all the other potential candidates.
I have lots of options in life. But the best opportunity right now coming out of this crisis is to advance the work we’ve been doing. I think this is a unique, exciting moment where the status quo has been upended. And a lot of the things that we have been dutifully building toward in equity and social justice and environmental restoration and police transformation and so forth become dramatically more possible. So, you know, once the, the COVID crisis started, we’ve been in it, and there’s really been no looking back.
PubliCola: Looking back over the last 14, 15 months of the pandemic, is there anything that you would have done differently in the early months, if you had known kind of how things would turn out?
With hindsight being 20/20, instead of trying to distance people in a congregate setting, like in shelters, we would know that having people just farther apart but all in the same room, was still going to be problematic. We [eventually] moved to the hotel model, which immediately and dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Obviously, if we had more knowledge at the time, we might have made different choices about requiring mask use early on, or getting people into hotels and single-room settings rather than shelters. But in general, I think that the people responded well to a crisis with a lot of unknowns.
“Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.”
PC: One of the things [Downtown Emergency Service Center director] Daniel Malone has said since early in the pandemic, when DESC moved people from their downtown shelter to the Red Lion in Renton, is that they’re never going to go back to the way things were, with people staying in overcrowded, congregate shelters. And yet it feels like that’s kind of what’s happening at the city level. Do you think that in a year or two years, we’re going to be right back where we were?
DC: That is not what the county is doing. Other than in isolated cases, for an immediate overnight emergency, we’re not going to be investing in mats-on-the-floor, get-kicked-out-in-the-morning shelters, because we have seen what having a room of your own, a place of your own, even just space of your own, can do for people.
It used to be that people were very focused on long-term, purpose-built, supportive housing, and it was sort of, we’ll just wait and let people rotate through these congregate shelters until those things are ready. With some exceptions, I think we’re moving much more toward a model where we try to get everyone a place that is genuinely a better alternative to the streets or a tent—a place that has a lock on the door with their own bathroom and some dignity and the ability to get rested and cleaned and centered. And that seems like kind of an obvious thing. But the pandemic created the opportunity to demonstrate how much better that works than a congregate shelter setting.
“I do think it’s likely that we want to find [a new sheriff] who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes.”
PC: The opiate task force came out with its recommendations almost five years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that, in particular, the [supervised consumption site] recommendation was never going to happen. And sure enough, it hasn’t. Why do you think that is? And do you think the county has come through as promised on the remaining recommendations, including access to treatment on demand?
DC: I do think that the task force was correct that a safe, monitored place would save lives. And we’re seeing continued deaths from heroin that’s tainted with fentanyl, for example. And for the parents, for the families who’ve lost their children, the moralizing that I come across in the media about not facilitating drug use rings kind of hollow. Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.
Will we, as a practical matter, be able to get one of these things up and running? I don’t think, unless there’s a significant political change, that it’s going to be possible to do. But I will say this. The advances in both treatment and the drugs to reverse overdose mean that it’s absolutely imperative that people not be in basements and alleys and other places where they don’t have eyes on and them can’t get help, because we can save lives in the short run. And we can save people from addiction over time. And we have much better mechanisms that we had even a decade ago to do that.
“It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.”
This is not your question, but this has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of people on the streets who have some level of opioid dependence. And some of them had it before they were homeless, and a lot of them developed it on the streets and are at grave risk because of tainted drugs that can come in to the community. And there have been plenty of suburban kids and parents who have died. But I continue, as I make calls, to hear this basic, moralistic perspective—like, they’ve just got to get off the junk, and then we can offer them all these services.
And we know that’s not how it works. Getting just some solid ground under people’s feet first is an almost indispensable prerequisite to people being able to succeed in treatment. When you’re fighting for survival every night, it’s very hard to adhere to some sort of program that’s going to help you get off of whatever you’re addicted to. Continue reading “County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended””