By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After coasting to re-election twice, King County Executive Dow Constantine has a fight ahead in his bid for a fourth term.
As of today, it’s a battle of two West Seattleites.
This morning, two days after this year’s legislative session wrapped up, State Sen. Joe Nguyen announced that he’s running for county executive. Nothing personal, he says – saying that he even volunteered for Constantine’s first campaign in 2009 – but Nguyen says it’s time for a change. Without using the exact words, his pitch is that while the incumbent is the past, he is the future – and the person to fight for the future of even the youngest King County residents, his three small children among them.
We spoke with Nguyen before this morning’s announcement.
It’s his second run for office, and it’ll be the first time Constantine has faced significant opposition since that initial campaign for county executive a dozen years ago – he was first elected with 59 percent of the vote over Republican ex-TV news anchor Susan Hutchinson in 2009. Four years later, with only nominal opposition, Constantine won a second term with 78 percent of the vote, and again had no major challenger four years ago, winning with 77 percent. Nguyen was a first-time candidate when he won election to the 34th District State Senate seat in 2018, with 59 percent of the vote in a no-incumbent race.
With one year left in his State Senate term, Nguyen says the pandemic galvanized his decision to try to move from a part-time elected position to full time. It “has exposed gross inequities in our society that were long ignored. We have to tackle not just COVID but the racial inequities too. What we’ve been doing doesn’t work for a lot of people. We need leadership that reflects the values of the future of King County.”
Not everyone may be aware of the scope of the job. Nguyen acknowledges he’s had to explain it to some of his family members. Though most King County residents live in cities, and the county only provides municipal-type services for unincorporated-area residents (including White Center and the rest of unincorporated North Highline to West Seattle’s south), its scope for all within its borders includes much of the criminal-justice system as well as transit – Metro, the Water Taxi – and wastewater treatment.It’s the 12th-largest county in the nation, bigger than 14 states, Nguyen notes.
With a decade of work in the private sector – including management at Microsoft – he says his path has prepared him to lead on those issues. He says the more-common path to elected office is by becoming a lawyer – without naming names, that would cover Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, among others – and he feels the current overall leadership “doesn’t reflect the people.” The groundbreaking action taken by this year’s Legislature, including the capital-gains tax bill he co-sponsored, was possible because, observes Nguyen – who made history as the state’s first Vietnamese-American senator – it was “the most diverse legislative body in the history of Washington state.”
“I was born in White Center, where we’ve seen underinvestment,” he says. “We know how that affects families. Homelessness is gtting worse … The executive’s office (can) lead on so many issues, and that’s why I want to run … it affects so many parts of people’s lives. I just want to get stuff done.”
Big “stuff” awaiting the King County Executive after the election includes appointing a King County Sheriff, after voters passed a change in the county charter making that an appointed rather than an elected job (the term of the current elected sheriff, West Seattleite Mitzi Johanknecht, ends this year). The next sheriff needs to “reflect the future of policing that’s more humane,” law enforcers who are more “guardians” than “warriors.”
The death of Tommy Le, a 20-year-old Burien man killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2017, stoked Nguyen’s anger at the system and quest to fix “things we should have done decades ago. … broken systems that we an fix,” systems “nobody cared about … nobody in power was affected by them. … We need to actually fight for our future because lives are at risk.”
We bring the conversation back to White Center, where he was born into an immigrant family, where the future of government remains unsettled – after years of insisting somebody had to annex the area, Constantine created the Department of Local Services in recognition that it wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. Nguyen said that while White Center ultimately has to decide its future – annexed or not – he’s glad to see “investment” in the area, and the county would need to continue that. Community investment is the achievement this past season of which he says he’s proudest – increased assistance for renter families in need, the kind of assistance he says benefited his family in his childhood.
He was elected from one of the bluest areas of the county, so how will he make his pitch to the more-conservative areas? Nguyen says he had “good relationships with Republicans in the Legislature despite differences on certain things … they appreciate that I show up and do the work and get things done. … But more fundamentally, I think people are tired of how politics works … I have a business background and have fought for, will fight for communities. Honestly, the demographics have shifted … more people than ever identify as Democrats.” And he’s worked in east King County for the past decade.
What does his wife Tallie, a former teacher, think about the possible new job? “Excited but nervous … it’s hard but we’re not just fighting for ‘now,’ we’re fighting for the future, fighting for our kids … who will be affected by climate change, child care, education … This moment is big. It’s time for transformative change.”
The formal filing period isn’t until next month, so we won’t know the final lineup for the August 3rd primary until then. But Nguyen is off and running with his first public campaign event at Hing Hay Park later this morning.