Ami Nguyen trekked through the godforsaken snow for our meeting at the Cortona Cafe. But, unlike me, she wasn't a red-faced ball of huffs when she sat down at the cafe's tiny tables to talk about her run for city council in District 3. In fact, she was excited to head back out into the blizzard to do a little door-knocking for Democracy Vouchers later on. A little tryhard in my view, but a testament to the fact that Nguyen knows how hard she has to work if she wants to defeat incumbent Kshama Sawant and the red-shirted Socialists who control her brain or whatever.
Nguyen moved to Seattle in late 2016 after serving as a staff attorney with Inner City Law Center’s Homelessness Prevention Project in Los Angeles, where she helped clients avoid eviction. She's currently a public defender with King County, where she works with mentally ill people who are held under the state Involuntary Treatment Act. She's also an active member of SEIU 925 and chair of its King County Department of Public Defense social justice committee. After a brief stint in Beacon Hill, she moved into a mixed-income apartment in Yesler Terrace.
She's running not because labor asked her to run (she says they didn't), but because she believes she has the personal background and the negotiation skills needed to represent "the working class, people of color, and people who are struggling" in the district.
Nguyen's parents were Vietnamese refugees who escaped Communist re-education camps after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Like many other families, they stole away on a fishing boat, got picked up by an industrial shipping vessel, and then made it to Hong Kong. Eventually, Mormons sponsored the family's move to Minnesota, but the state was too cold for their liking. "We're tropical people," Nguyen said. They wound up in Sacramento, California, where Nguyen was born. She's the youngest of four living children. She says her eldest sister, who was born in Vietnam, died from lack of nutrition.
Nguyen says she grew up with plenty of government assistance in a low-income neighborhood, along with other Southeast Asians and people of color. In retrospect, she says, a lot of her classmates' experiences with juvie and her parents' entire ordeal led her to want to become a public defender. "Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean our constitutional rights should be violated," she said. She studied Sociology at Stanford on scholarship and then went on to UCLA for law school.
In a profile on women who participated in Emerge America, a program that trains women candidates to run for office, Nguyen told Crosscut she was planning a city council run "perhaps in 2023." She said she thought she had to wait until she felt "good enough to run," but she's over that idea now. "I’m eligible now. I can run now," she said.
Nguyen thinks Sawant has "done a great job in the past of voicing things," but she now thinks the district needs "real, practical policies."
Nguyen offers the standard critique of Sawant, which is that she talks a lot but doesn't do anything. And she even hears Sawant claims credit for work that other organizers did. (Sawant would disagree.) Nguyen promises action, citing her history of tough negotiations with prosecutors, landlord attorneys, and so on. What kind of action are we talking about?? We're talking about "sitting at the table and having difficult discussions," a phrase she used approximately 14 times during our two-hour conversation.
She's also extremely aware of the demographic dynamic at play. "It’s going to be an interesting campaign because I’m running against her with my background," Nguyen said.
Politically, she identifies as a progressive Democrat who thinks "pure capitalism is not good for society." Other fun facts before we dive into her policy proposals: She doesn't remember who she voted for in the 2017 mayoral race, she likes the chicken wings at Nue, she thinks that Betsutenjin Ramen is excellent (and she's right to say so), and she likes the taro at Sharetea.
On Criminal Justice
Nguyen was fuzzy on the details of many issues facing the city, but she provided tons of detail on criminal justice issues and eviction policy. Kind of.
She says she wants to see more police officers from historically underserved neighborhoods represented on the force. To accomplish that goal she wants the city to provide cost-of-living scholarships in addition to tuition scholarships to people with those backgrounds in the police academy. Nguyen also wants current officers to be better trained on whether to send someone they have in custody to treatment or to jail.
How much would either of those things cost? Nguyen doesn't know. How would she pay for either of those things? Not sure, though her general answer to that question is a municipal capital gains (which is currently illegal) and taxing big corporations (which we'll talk about a little later).
Nguyen supports doing away with cash bail at municipal courts, but she thinks we need to be careful about what we replace it with. "If you create a system that catered toward a standard that assumes everyone has a full happy family and a job, you'll run into problems. We would need to have them released to community centers and nonprofits," she said.
She's against the youth jail, which is nearing completion. "Youth should never be confined in cells long-term or short-term," she said.
She didn't know much about the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which diverts drug offenders and underage sex workers to services rather than to jail, but she heartily approved of the program when I described it to her.
Speaking about the city's recently renegotiated police contract, Nguyen says she liked that the cops got a pay raise but thinks that the discussion about whether they could negotiate behind closed doors "needed further discussion."
In general, she'd like to use the city council office to highlight certain concerns with the courts that the city has no control over, but that Nguyen feels needs some more attention, such as the entire concept of mental health court. "Council members can’t tell judges what to do, but let’s have those conversations," Nguyen said.
On Housing and Homelessness
Nguyen draws much of her thinking on housing and homelessness from her experience as an eviction lawyer in California. Broadly, she says she thinks more funding should go toward "homelessness prevention and issues of displacement."
She spoke of homelessness prevention mostly in terms of eviction protections, and says she wants to "add tenants rights on top of what the state’s doing." Given that Democrats in the legislature have proposed sweeping eviction reforms this session, it's difficult for Nguyen to say what she'd add to the pile.
That said, Nguyen proposes some modest reforms. She wants to fund more code enforcers to respond to complaints about slumlords. If the landlords don't clean up their buildings within a reasonable time frame, Nguyen wants to decrease the tenant's rent and allow the city to hold that rent until the problem is addressed in order to prevent landlords from seeking retaliation on tenants. She'd also like to see mandatory mediation to settle rent lapses before they wind up in eviction court.
Nguyen would also push for more upzoning and more low-income housing, "ideally around large mass transit hubs." She'd also fight for more duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones.
On the Head Tax and Taxing Giant Corporations
Nguyen says she wouldn't have voted for the head tax because she considered it a "regressive tax." She adds that she didn't think there was "enough discussion of the impact on the community," and that she thinks people wanted "more details" about how the money was going to be spent.
Update: In a follow-up call Nguyen, says she misspoke when she called the head tax “regressive.” She thinks it’s progressive.
She says she'd revisit another head tax proposal so long as it didn't hurt businesses with high revenue but thin margins, such as grocery stores.
She ultimately believes we should be taxing wealthy people and corporations to pay for housing and homelessness services, but she didn't really provide much of a strategy for tipping the scales in the council's favor. "We’re going to press corporations to pay, and if at some point they’re not working well, we’re going to have difficult discussions," she said.
She thinks Amazon and other giant companies don't like bad PR, and she plans to leverage that advantage during these difficult discussions at the table. "I’m civil, but if the other side plays dirty, then I’m not going to play nice anymore," Nguyen said.
Other Stuff We Didn't Really Have Time To Get Into
Nguyen also wants to make sure the cost of child care doesn't represent more than 10 percent of a person’s income, and she says she wants to "work toward free transit."
And finally, though, Sawant says she's not going to use Democracy Vouchers for fear of big corporations choosing a candidate and dumping a bunch of money into their race, Nguyen says she will continue to participate in the program.