EDITOR’S NOTE: A month has passed since the August primary, and general-election voting is a little more than a month away. Our election coverage continues with a closeup look at both candidates running for the open 34th District State Senate seat. We interviewed Shannon Braddock and Joe Nguyen separately before Labor Day; after featuring our conversation with her last night, tonight we’re reporting on our conversation with him.
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Joe Nguyen‘s 34th District State Senate campaign is his first try for public office – and while he says that “I knew we worked harder than anyone else” in the primary field of 11 contenders, he was still “shocked” to have ended up with the most votes.
Though he hasn’t run for office before, Nguyen says he has “been involved with politics for a long time … I actually paged for (now County Executive) Dow Constantine when he was in the Legislature.”
Our opening question in our conversation (which you can see above, in its entirety, in unedited video): Why do you want this job?
“It isn’t the job that I want, (but rather) representation for our community, and the ability for people here to realize they have the power, the authority, to actually make positive change. The Senate seat, to me, is honestly secondary – the main thing I want is for this community to be a place where everyone can succeed … this seat is one step in a whole host of things I believe is important to have happen to have a decent community.”
The Vietnamese-American West Seattle resident notes that he is the first person of color to win a primary in this district and would be its first legislator of color. That “weighs on my mind as well … My parents are refugees from Vietnam, and we were allowed to be here because of good public policy … and because of the community that helped me so much, we were able to thrive.” That community is the same one he is running to represent, Nguyen notes – including White Center and Burien. He tells the story of community support after a car crash left his father quadriplegic, with family members carrying him up and down the steps of their home “because we didn’t have a ramp.” After seeing this, Nguyen says, a neighbor mustered a group of friends to come over and build a ramp. “So the level of care and the level of passion I have for this community is because literally at our greatest time of need, they came to our help.” His family also received help from the Salvation Army and a food bank when he was growing up, he adds. “The community literally helped raise me. … I wouldn’t run in any other district but this one because of what they’ve done for me. I’m in a position to be able to help give back.”
But why the State Legislature as opposed to other ways of giving back? Nguyen is already involved with nonprofits, too. But the Legislature is a place where you can work on “getting health care for everybody, protecting immigrants and their rights, making sure that we have an equitable solution for tax reform (and) funding for education.” Why run now? He says his job and family responsibilities are “stable enough” that they would enable him to handle this role, though in addition to having two very small children (small enough that they were riding in a double stroller when we bumped into Nguyen and his family at Alki recenly), he is still caring for his mom as well. For years, he says, “my focus has been on surviving … these past few years are the first time I’ve worked only one job.”
Regarding his job, by the way, his campaign website describes him as “a Senior Manager at Microsoft working to provide job training that supports all people with the skills needed to succeed in this rapidly changing, technologically dependent economy.”
He adds that he feels it’s a rare opportunity because the seat hasn’t been open, no incumbent, in many years. He wouldn’t have run, he adds, if he felt there was another candidate who “reflected the community, that was going to fight as passionately as I would, that I felt was going to represent all our voices in the State Legislature …” A moment later, asked about the moment he decided to run, he confides that his original thought was to run in two years, for a possible open State House seat, and then suddenly Sen. Sharon Nelson announced her plan to retire, and after some assessment of the situation, he decided, “Why not?”
What ensued was a four-month primary campaign of doorknocking for all but two days, and phone calls he said went all the way up to the moment his wife said he’d better get ready to go to his Election Night party (at Ounces in North Delridge). He says he put in “about 120 hours a week between (his job) and campaigning.” Friends with more political experience warned him not to get discouraged if he finished in second, saying he would probably end up “pretty far behind,” but instead, the final count left him 2,900 votes ahead.
But enough about the past. Looking ahead, if he wins, we ask, what are the most-important issues he expects to take on?
First, he says, it’s about the attitude. Expecting a likely “decent majority” of Democrats in both houses of the Legislature, he says, “when you’re from a district like the 34th that’s ‘safe,’ you have to be even more bold in leadership.” With that said, “the first things are going to be health care for all” – so-called “single payer” – “and fixing our regressive tax structure … I think those two are causes for a lot of the issues we face in inequality in Washington state. … If you have the majority in the House, the Senate, the Governor’s office, there should be no excuse for being able to pass … things that just make sense.” He says it’s hard to understand why wanting progress on those issues is considered “progressive”: “I just think that means you’re a good human being.” He adds that education funding is near the top of the list too.
Even if single-payer health care isn’t immediately achievable, Nguyen suggests that Washington could partner with its other West Coast “blue wall” states (Oregon, California) to make progress by bargaining for better prescription-drug prices, for example, “and other economies of scale.” What it really takes is “prioritizing (this) as a society,” the same way we seem currently to be fine with, he uses as an example, tax breaks for large companies – “we’re one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation in the world; there’s no excuse for (allowing some) to be too poor to live.”
What legislation does he hope to propose and get passed? “Capital-gains (tax) is a very realistic thing,” he begins, while acknowledging that constituents will need to be reassured that the money would be spent wisely. So toward that end, he would seek to lower property and sales taxes and “get rid of B&O (business and occupation tax) for small and medium-sized businesses.” He also mentions “public safety” – including “common-sense gun legislation.” Beyond those issues, “there’s like 100 in my head that I’d be excited about tackling.”
What about the Sound Transit car-tab-fee controversy, which came before the Legislature last session? (The recent court ruling upholding the fee structure happened after our conversation with Nguyen.) He says he understands the concern and anger about the way the fees were structured, but the proposals to change it that were circulating didn’t make sense, and he supports keeping it the way it is now. “In my mind, we needed transit 40 years ago, when we gave federal funding to Atlanta vs. using it here.” He says that the proposed changes, including financing changes for the light-rail system, would end up costing more money, so continuing with the current structure would be wiser. In the end, he says, the problem remains our state’s regressive tax structure, overall. “If you really want to tackle that as a problem, you can’t just put a bandaid (on) this one fee structure. … We won’t have a good solution until we fix our regressive tax structure.”
What committees would he like to serve on, if elected?
What’s the difference between him and Braddock, since both are self-described progressive Democrats?
“I don’t take corporate PAC [political action committee] money …” He says that’s important because he doesn’t want anything to “muddle” his relationship with people. “If I’m a person that says I’d fight for minimum wage, that I’d fight for family leave, that I’d fight for working-class families, I for sure should not be taking money from organizations that do the exact opposite. … You can call yourself whatever you want; it’s your actions that define you.” He went on to list some of his actions as a volunteer, “on a nonprofit that does a lot of work with family homelessness” and other organizations including the Community Advisory Committee for the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.
A couple of very local issues, before our conversation concludes: What about the state tax credit for White Center annexation? While Nguyen was clear that the residents should decide whether to be annexed or not (the issue is currently simmering on one of Seattle’s back burners), he is concerned that annexation would further gentrify WC and the rest of unincorporated North Highline, and push out residents and businesses of color, “and we know that if they get pushed out, they’re probably never coming back.” He said an annexation proposal would have to address a variety of issues to keep that from happening.
And last but not least, the state ferry system, whose Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route has two of its three terminals in the 34th District: Nguyen says it’s a tough situation to navigate, plus he sees Washington State Ferries as “grossly underfunded.” He’s concerned about not only the aging boats but also the aging workforce. Overall, he says, he’s been working to “augment” his understanding of ferry issues.
Tonight, Joe Nguyen and opponent Shannon Braddock are debating during the 34th District Democrats’ meeting at The Hall at Fauntleroy; we’ll have coverage here on WSB tomorrow. Ballots for the November election, including this race, will be mailed October 17th.