In hindsight, it's not surprising that a question about safe or supervised consumption sites slightly derailed our Stranger Election Control Board endorsement meeting with the candidates running for the very suburban and rural King County Council District 9.
That district, currently represented by 16-year Republican incumbent Reagan Dunn, covers South Bellevue, Enumclaw, Kent, Renton, Newcastle, Maple Valley, Covington, and several unincorporated areas. In 2017, after the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force recommended that Seattle and King County open up facilities where drug users could use their drugs cleanly and safely, Kent, Renton, Bellevue, and some other suburbs enacted local bans against the still-hypothetical sites.
In council back then, Dunn proposed an amendment "preventing any county expenditures from funding heroin injection sites." The amendment failed 6-3, but the 2017 King County Council approved in a 5-4 vote a different amendment that only allowed funding for safe consumption sites in cities where elected leaders supported the idea.
The drug crisis isn't going anywhere. Last year, overdose deaths in King County hit an all-time high. Just six months into 2021, King County has already recorded 301 overdose deaths. Meanwhile, fentanyl overdoses along the West Coast are skyrocketing.
However, safe consumption sites could finally happen in our region. In the 2021 budget, the City of Seattle greenlit funding for sites based inside pre-existing social service buildings. Depending on how the races in the council's most conservative districts shake out this year, King County could be on track to developing a site that the task force recommended four years ago.
The candidates running against Dunn include Chris Franco, a combat veteran and the current program manager at King County's Office of Equity & Social Justice; Renton Councilmember Kim-Khanh Van; and Ubax Gardheere, the equitable development division director in the City of Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. Both Van and Gardheere immigrated as refugees. Dunn didn't attend our SECB meeting.
The three Democratic challengers mostly align on progressive issues, but Franco and Gardheere took a different tack than Van did when asked if they would all support a safe consumption site in the district.
During the meeting last week, Van said her answer would depend.
"As an attorney," Van said, "it would take further research for me. Each community has a unique culture. There are certain locations where [safe consumption sites] can be supported. We don’t want to just place them—having it next to the school? Is that something we want?"
Van said she didn't want safe consumption sites to end up like the Red Lion Inn in Renton, the hotel the county paid to shelter homeless people with wrap-around services during the pandemic. The Renton City Council ended up voting to evict the people living in the hotel and created emergency legislation that restricted homeless services in town. Van was one of two council members to vote against the legislation that evicted homeless people sheltering in the hotel, but she didn't seem thrilled with the county's process.
"They placed folks in Renton and called it a day," she said about the situation at the Red Lion. "They need to have more support in the sites. Are we going to have support? That’s what I want to know."
She also argued for the county to take more preventative measures regarding addiction.
Chris Franco said he supported the sites as a way to take a "holistic approach" to addiction, especially if the sites included other outreach services. That's the plan for the current safe consumption site iteration in Seattle.
"It’s already proven that [these sites are] effective," Franco said. The disinformation around the sites is "a political, fear-mongering bullshit game that’s being played particularly by conservative folks and I’m done with that."
Van chimed in to ask Franco whether he wanted to put safe consumption sites at schools.
"I don’t think at the school is the right answer," Franco said.
He then mentioned that Van had marked "no" on a questionnaire from the 31st Legislative District Democrats that asked about support for the sites.
Van gave a much clearer answer to the 31st LD Dems than she did to the SECB when asked about whether she'd support a site in her district: "No. Addiction is a public health challenge that we must address through proven, evidence-based policies. I support expanding treatment options, utilizing drug courts, and exploring other alternatives, which offer a path to progress and recovery for those suffering from addiction."
Franco's right on the science around consumption sites. No one has ever died from an overdose at Vancouver, B.C.'s facility, Insite, which has been around since 2003.
But Van ignored Franco's dig. "So you would agree with 'it depends?'" She said.
Franco said he'd put safe consumption sites in his district.
Gardheere, who hadn't had a chance to answer yet, enthusiastically supported safe consumption sites. "Let’s face it," Gardheere said, "we have had more deaths by an overdose in the last couple months than COVID deaths."
Gardheere said that when she lived in Bellevue she'd hear a lot of conservative talking points around safe consumption that sounded similar to Van's concerns. She called Van's question about whether the other candidates would locate sites near schools "just a stupid question, honestly, and you’ll get a stupid answer for that."
Van replied: "I don’t think it is a stupid question. It’s a legitimate question as a mother, as an aunt, as anyone who wants to talk about the safety of kids. These are concerns."
When he resisted safe consumption sites in the past, Dunn said he was just representing his constituents' interests.
“Trust me, you don’t treat alcoholism by inviting alcoholics to the bar,” said Dunn, who struggles with alcohol addiction, according to Publicola.
Historically, District 9 has been the most conservative of the King County Council districts. However, as with other conservative districts in the county, the politics are shifting. In 2020, District 9 voted for Biden and Harris with 61.5% of the vote.
Despite their differences of opinion, Dunn has lumped Van, Franco, and Gardheere together as a common progressive enemy.
In a letter to donors, Dunn called his competition "radical candidates who have filed in my race to enact their failed Seattle policies across the entire County and beyond." Dunn framed the race as a matter of public safety—he is for law and order, and the candidates running against him are sympathetic to criminals.
Right now, Dunn leads in fundraising with over $230,430. Four of his biggest donors include local Jeep, Nissan, and Chevrolet lots. He's also taken $1,000 from the King County Police Officers Guild, the WA Association of Realtors PAC, and Amazon. Failed congressional candidate Dino Rossi gave him $400.
Van leads in fundraising among the Dunn challengers with over $114,520. Franco is next with over $73,800, and Gardheere has over $38,600. Dunn referred to these funds as "war chests" in his donor letter.