Democrats have been itching to oust Republican Reagan Dunn from the King County Council since he was appointed to fill fellow Republican Rob McKenna's council seat in 2005. Yet the Hollywood-haired Dunn represents the county's 9th District, a mountainous, sprawling, largely rural swath southeast of Bellevue. For years, the district has been pegged a Republican haven, and Dunn is a Republican's Republican. The kind of representative who opposes all taxes—even those funding firefighters, law enforcement officers, and parks—on principle. Because of this conventional wisdom, Dunn's challengers have largely been long shots, dismissed with little institutional support or money.
But now Democrats think they have a chance at capturing Dunn's seat, thanks to the changing demographics of the district and a challenger named Shari Song. Last year, the 9th District "voted for marriage equality, for Obama, and it's pro-choice... and none of these are Reagan Dunn," Song says. "The perception of this being a hardcore Republican district is wrong." [Eds note: Dunn actually bucked his party to back gay marriage in 2012.]
Song has raised more than $143,000 to Dunn's $293,000, and her relatively strong showing during the August primary has earned her a $2,000 pledge from state Democrats (who threw only $250 her way before the primary). "I don't have a lot of money to donate to candidates, but she's a hard worker and very impressive," explains Washington State Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz. "I think she's got a shot."
The Korean-born businesswoman's decades of community advocacy have honed her for office. It began, the mother of two says, over coffee-table talks with other parents in the 1990s. "I was hearing horror stories of children starting kindergarten not knowing a word of English," she says. "Our kids weren't prepared, culturally or linguistically." So she started a bilingual preschool program to prepare them for kindergarten. Then in 1994, she joined Federal Way's diversity commission, where she helped mediate between immigrant parents and their kids' schools. Now Song serves on a number of advisory councils, including the Korean American Coalition, a nonprofit that encourages political involvement, and the Korean Advisory Council to the Seattle Police Department.
Song was compelled to challenge Dunn after his run for attorney general last year made damning headlines: For example, he had the council's worst voting record, having missed a whopping 491 votes. Dunn eventually lost his attorney general bid by seven points. Worse, he barely carried his own district with only 51 percent of the vote, when typically, politicians running for statewide office do much better in their own districts (even former 9th District council member and failed gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna won more of the electorate last year, indicating that voters made a conscious choice to vote against Dunn).
However, in the August 6 primary election, Song earned just 35 percent of the vote to Dunn's 55 percent. Dunn publicly called it a "convincing landslide primary victory" in a press release, but Song's campaign says the primary numbers don't tell the full story.
For one thing, the third-place contender in the primary ran as a Democrat, and those voters may gravitate to Song in November. Second, voter turnout was only 26 percent—in other words, a very conservative, old, white, Republican electorate. Song hopes the district's diversity and younger Democratic voters will be better represented in the general election.
The district grew by more than 17 percent in the last decade, according to 2010 census records, making it the second-fastest- growing district in the county. And in South King County, white populations dropped by 14 percent from 2002 to 2012, while those identifying as Asian, African American, Native American, and Hispanic jumped by 66 percent.
If Song were elected, it would create a six-person Democratic majority on the nominally nonpartisan King County Council, all but assuring that measures like tax increases to fund Metro buses and criminal justice services (cops, courts, and the prosecutors office) would pass. "I'd definitely work harder than the incumbent to fight for transportation packages," Song says, noting that King County executive Dow Constantine and many council members made trips to Olympia to advocate for transportation taxing authority last year, while Dunn was notably absent.
And despite Dunn's posturing, insiders say he's sweating Song. "He's lobbying council Democrats to get Shari to run for Marcie Maxwell's recently vacated 41st Legislative District state house seat," one person said on the condition of anonymity. "He's told Dems that he'd get all the Republicans to vote for Shari, which is a sign that he's taking her candidacy very seriously."
This article has been updated since its original publication.