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The retirement of state Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson has triggered a scramble to fill her seat in the 34th Legislative District.

It’s been 18 years since the seat has been open in an election, and 11 candidates are vying for the job as the Aug. 7 primary nears.

Nelson, a Maury Island Democrat who announced her retirement in March, was first elected to the Senate in 2010 after serving in the House for three years. The district includes White Center, West Seattle, Vashon Island and part of Burien.

In a district known for electing progressive candidates, the top issues in the campaign are affordable housing and health care, equity in education, and tax reform. Many of the candidates are also touting their diversity and backgrounds in their bids for the state Senate, which is disproportionately white and male.

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Within the crowded field, four Democrats have attracted the most contributions and endorsements by politicians and advocacy groups.

Shannon Braddock leads in fundraising with more than $85,000 as of Tuesday. She is deputy chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine and said her experience working with the nonpartisan Metropolitan King County Council will help her work effectively with Democrats and Republicans.

Chief among her causes are gun safety, early education and tax reform. Braddock said she’ll fight for a capital-gains tax and lower property taxes for low- and fixed-income families, and critically examine corporate tax breaks. 

“The continuing challenge is all the competing priorities when we’re working under such a regressive tax structure,” she said.

Several candidates share Braddock’s views on taxes.

Braddock has been endorsed by Constantine, former 34th District state senator and current King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, the 34th District Democrats, Alliance for Gun Responsibility and several unions.

Lois Schipper, a nurse and resident of White Center, has raised almost $40,600 in contributions. With extensive public-health and education experience, Schipper is focused on closing achievement gaps in school, advancing gun-safety measures and pushing for more progressive taxes.

As a former PTSA president in the Seattle and Highline school districts, Schipper has led successful school-levy campaigns. She has spearheaded initiatives in public-health agencies, including programs that supported HIV-positive mothers and babies, and now oversees a team that helps non-English-speaking families navigate the health-care system at Seattle Children’s hospital.

Her experience developing programs based on research will help her make smart investments, Schipper said.

Olympia is a familiar place for Sofia Aragon, a former legislative liaison for the state Department of Health and a governmental-affairs adviser for the Washington State Nurses Association.

“Government financing has its own complexity,” Aragon said. “Someone with a knowledge of that can hit the ground running.”

Aragon worked as a nurse before getting a law degree and delving into health policy. She serves as the executive director of a nonprofit that aims to address the shortage of nurses and as a board member of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and said she hopes to “establish common interests” with Republicans in championing affordable housing, public health and women’s rights.

With nearly $36,500 in contributions, Aragon is supported by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and several lawmakers, especially women of color including Sen. Rebecca Saldana, Reps. Cindy Ryu and Sharon Tomiko Santos.

Born in White Center, raised in Burien by a single mother and now living in West Seattle, Joe Nguyen said his experience growing up in a poor immigrant family informed his decision to run for office. Among his top priorities are increasing teacher pay, making health care and housing affordable, strengthening public transit, and protecting the environment without placing an undue tax burden on low-income households.

Nguyen chairs Wellspring Family Services’ Associate Board and serves on the King County Community Advisory Committee on law enforcement.

As a senior manager at Microsoft, he leads a team in building learning resources for job training in a changing economy. He cites an “intense connection” to the local community — especially immigrant groups that historically have not had a voice in politics — as his greatest asset.

Nguyen is producing a podcast series about his experience running for office that he hopes will encourage others to run. “Beyond winning this election, my goal is to bring as many people like me into the fold as well,” he said.

 

The 34th District Democrats, King County Democrats, The Stranger, and Sens. Maralyn Chase and Bob Hasegawa have endorsed Nguyen, who has raised nearly $36,800 in contributions.

Democrat Lemuel Charleston, an associate chaplain with the Seattle Police Department and a former marine, has raised about $7,500; Democrat and education policy consultant Annabel Quintero about $2,500; and Deborah Wagner, an independent who previously served on Burien’s City Council, a few hundred dollars.

The remaining four candidates — two Republicans, one independent and one Democrat — have yet to raise any money.

Within the 34th District, the populations of White Center and Burien are more ethnically diverse and have lower median incomes and home values than those of West Seattle and Vashon Island.

“We’ve got rich people living on the water in the west and people homeless in tents in the east,” Charleston said.

The district has yet to send a person of color to the Senate, and several candidates said they hope to change that.

Aragon immigrated from the Philippines at age 3, Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam, and Quintero’s parents immigrated from Ecuador. For Charleston, “having a dark-skinned face in the Senate” is crucial for ensuring that the experiences of black people are addressed.

“They don’t have to worry about police lights going on behind them,” he said of nonblack senators.

Gender parity is also an issue.

“There’s a lot of excitement around electing women,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, noting that state Democrats are trying to elect more women. In 2017, 18 of Washington’s 49 state senators were women, making up 37 percent of the Senate body. Of the four front-runners  in this race, three are women.

Neither of the 34th District’s state representatives decided to run for the Senate seat, citing their current leadership roles in House committees. Fitzgibbon and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, have not endorsed anyone.

The two candidates with the most votes will advance to the Nov. 6 general election. In the meantime, candidates are ramping up efforts in the final stretch.

“It’s a lot of walking. I’ve lost about 5 pounds,” Schipper said as she biked off to a candidate forum.