Today at 11:30 a.m. Washington state Senator Joe Nguyen will stand before a physically distant, masked-up crowd at Hing Hay Park and announce his plan to run for King County Executive, a seat Dow Constantine has held without too much trouble since the last recession tore through budgets 12 years ago.
Over the phone, Nguyen said he wants to dip from the Legislature because "the pandemic exposed what so many in our communities already knew, which was that this was an inequitable system, and that for far too long we’ve had leaders that aren’t delivering for us."
Though he takes pride in the work he accomplished during his stint in the Senate, he said "the rubber meets the road at the local jurisdiction," especially for the things he's "most passionate about," which includes "police accountability, mass transit, and climate change." He argues he's got the "fierce sense of urgency," the lived experience, and the Zipfizz needed to win an election against a three-term incumbent, and to run the 12th largest county in the country.
Nguyen expressed some frustration with what he sees as the current administration's obsession with optics and its lack of "deep levels of engagement with community."
When pressed for an example, Nguyen pointed to a moment early on in the pandemic, when King County cited a 32-unit quarantine/isolation site in White Center without conducting a formal equity analysis beforehand. "They told me about it 10 mins before they announced it, and I said, 'Hey, you might want to give a couple folks in White Center a heads up, and they didn’t and it blew up.' It’s a necessary facility, but you have to give people a heads up," he said. The County ultimately stood up more quarantine sites on the east side and up in North Seattle.
In terms of policy, Nguyen said he and the incumbent "want similar things," but he criticized Constantine's current and past positions on the youth jail. He thinks the current five-year plan to depopulate the facility is "too slow of a timeline, and said he wouldn't have built a bigger jail to lower incidents of youth incarceration in the first place. Though voters approved the levy to build the jail in 2012, Nguyen said he felt as if the new "justice center" wasn't sold as a new jail at the time.
Nguyen also said he's "ready to go for progressive revenue" to fund "transit for all" and housing. Though the county's options to raise taxes remain extremely limited, he said he'd personally lobby the state for more authority to do stuff like propose a "high-earners payroll tax...a wealth tax...and maybe taking a look at making our estate tax more progressive." He emphasized, however, that he does "not want to raise property taxes for middle class families."
He cited homelessness as another issue where his impulse to "fight with a fierce sense of urgency" and his eagerness to "engage community" may help move the ball along.
While he agrees with the "regional approach" to tackling the crisis, and while he supports the new regional homelessness authority, which gives more say to suburban cities that have since criminalized homelessness, voted to evict homeless people from a hotel shelter, and drained a new tax for their own benefit, Nguyen said he felt as if he might be able to take a different approach with them. "I would love to understand how they came to those decisions, but it sounds like if we had more mutual trust—if we followed up our words with resources and action—it could be more cordial," he said.
In the Senate, Nguyen was known for his basic understanding of computer technology, for not sleeping very much, and for trying to push the famously creaky and conservative body to the left.
Over the course of his three years he introduced (what shouldn't be but are) aspirational bills to tax excess compensation and to eliminate bullshit traffic stops. He passed bills to expand the state's welfare program and to invest more money in its dried up coffers, create a better-trained pool of police arbitrators, place restrictions on attempts to scan our faces, and institute a progressive tweak to the real estate excise tax that raised cash money.
He credited the success of those bills with his ability to facilitate earnest engagement with community. He led the way, for instance, in allowing incarcerated people to testify on legislation by showing the caucus how the internet works. He also rented a bus to bring in people experiencing homelessness to testify on a bill that eased restrictions on shelter construction, and he partnered with Sen. Claire Wilson to consult with Stormy Daniels on a stripper protection bill. "You gotta show up and work hard, and not enough people do that," Nguyen said.
When I was 7, my dad was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Everytime we took him outside my family and I would have to pick him up and carry him the six steps outside of our house. 1/
— Joe (@meetjoenguyen) April 22, 2021
Growing up in White Center as the son of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen said access to public housing and adequate health care made the difference for his family. He eventually became class president at Seattle University, and went on to become a senior program manager at Microsoft. That experience, he said, will drive him to invest in places where the county purposefully divested in the past so that people in underserved communities have a chance to succeed the way he has.
Nguyen expects a tough race against a three-term incumbent with a $1 million head start, but he doesn't necessarily see himself as the underdog. He believes shifting demographics across the county, a resurgence of concern about police accountability and racial justice, and a general desire for change will buoy his campaign.
That said, he's done well in at least one uphill battle. In his state Senate run, he beat Constantine's deputy chief of staff, Shannon Braddock, 57 to 41, despite her clear fundraising advantage.
Constantine gave up his gubernatorial ambitions last year after Jay Inslee reasserted his own, and in November of 2020 announced his bid for a fourth term as County Exec.
At this point in the race, Constantine boasts endorsements from several State Senators and House Reps, including Reps. Eileen Cody and Joe Fitzgibbon, who represent the same district Nguyen represented. The MLK Labor council endorsed him back in February, and a bunch of suburban Mayors, plus Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have also supported his cause.
Constantine first took the office in 2009 after beating former TV news anchor Susan Hutchison, who, and I cannot believe I forgot about this, claimed reverse-racism and age discrimination after KIRO replaced her with a younger Asian American broadcaster. He hasn't faced a "serious" challenger since.