A trio of liberal and progressive challengers, focusing on issues of equity, race, housing and homelessness, are trying to unseat incumbent Reagan Dunn on the Metropolitan King County Council.
Dunn, who’s made fighting rising crime rates the centerpiece of his campaign, has held the seat in County Council District 9 — which sprawls from south Bellevue and Newcastle through Maple Valley and Enumclaw to the Mount Rainier foothills — since it was created in 2005.
But he’s among the three members of the nine-person County Council’s conservative bloc facing a slew of challengers from the left, as King County, at least in national and state-level elections, continues to become more Democratic. The Council’s three conservative members — Dunn, Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer — have held office for a combined 62 years but all face serious challengers this year.
County Council seats are nonpartisan, but Dunn has previously run for office as a Republican and all three of his challengers consider themselves Democrats. Ballots must be returned or postmarked by the Aug. 3 primary. The top two finishers will face off in the November general election.
Dunn faces Chris Franco, a former Army captain and Afghanistan veteran who now works for the county Office of Equity and Social Justice; Ubax Gardheere, a former refugee and organizer who works for Seattle’s Office of Planning and Economic Development; and Kim-Khanh Van, a former refugee who’s now an attorney and member of the Renton City Council.
Dunn, 50, was appointed to fill the open Council seat in 2005, and subsequently was elected and reelected four times, never winning less than 57% of the vote. A former federal prosecutor and aide in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, he ran for state attorney general in 2012, losing to Bob Ferguson.
Dunn said he is “deeply concerned about the skyrocketing crime problem in King County.”
Dunn says he brings a “diversity of viewpoint” to the County Council and will advocate for funding the police. He says that, in responding to homelessness, the county is too focused on building housing, at the expense of spending money on mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“Those policies of just building houses, the decriminalization of almost any crime, the defunding of the police, are all combining to make drug use and homelessness much more prevalent,” Dunn said.
Van, 36, emigrated from Vietnam at age 6, first to refugee camps in the Philippines and then to the United States. She operates a solo law practice, focusing on immigration law, among other fields, and was elected to the Renton City Council in 2019, winning 65% of the vote.
When the Renton City Council in December passed an ordinance placing a time limit on how long a local hotel could be used to house the homeless, Van was one of two council members to vote no against shutting down the shelter.
She criticized Dunn for dropping off the governing board of the county’s newly functioning Regional Homeless Authority, although Dunn, who has been critical of the regional body, has said he was only scheduled to be on the board for one year.
She also criticized Dunn’s proposal to hire new sheriff’s deputies to create a dedicated hate crimes unit, saying not all communities affected by hate crimes want an increased police presence.
“Our District 9 is in need of experienced new leadership and leadership that is connected to our growing, diverse community,” Van said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are not buzzwords, they’re lived experiences for me.”
Franco, 35, joined the Army as a commissioned officer after college, spending eight years in service and rising to the rank of captain. For the last six years he’s worked for the county, most recently as a logistics manager for the county’s COVID-19 response and for its Office of Equity and Social Justice.
Franco said his first priority would be working with small businesses, among others, to make sure the county recovers equitably from the pandemic and that funds go to those most in need.
He criticized Dunn for several issues in particular: his vote last summer against declaring racism a public health crisis, his push to buy bus tickets to send homeless people to family or friends out of the region, and his recent vote against a suite of tenant protections.
“I’m getting frustrated with the lack of action, the lack of empathy, the lack of inclusion of our community in addressing these issues that we’re all dealing with,” Franco said.
Gardheere, 40, emigrated from Somalia at 15. She was a program director for East African Community Services, which provides education and mentoring programs, and for Puget Sound Sage, a progressive nonprofit. Since 2016, she has been the equitable development director for the city of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.
Earlier this year, she briefly took time off of her job with the city, writing an open letter saying she was “done working for a dictator posturing as a Mayor.”
Gardheere said her top priority, short-term, is making sure renters are able to stay in their homes, and potentially extending the eviction moratoriums that have been in place.
She wants a Green New Deal in King County and would look at implementing a countywide tax on big businesses, similar to Seattle’s JumpStart tax, so companies “don’t pit cities against each other.”
A decade ago, Gardheere pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor harassment, after she boarded a school bus and made threatening statements about potentially having a bomb or gun (she had neither). She was given a suspended sentence, community service and had to comply with mental health treatment.
Gardheere said she was in the midst of a mental health crisis, dealing with insomnia and PTSD and thought that getting arrested “was the safest place for me.”
“I honestly don’t know how to make sense of why I wanted to be arrested,” she said. “I have paid my fines, I have sought counseling, I have acknowledged the harm I caused and that’s why the platform I’m running on is about healing and restorative justice.”
Dunn, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to driving under the influence and has battled alcoholism, has recently expressed empathy for Gardheere, after conservative news outlets spotlighted her arrest.
The incumbent leads in fundraising, having raised more than $265,000. Van has raised more than $121,000, Franco has raised more than $99,000 and Gardheere has raised more than $78,000.
Dunn has the endorsement of the mayors of most of the cities in the district, including the mayors of Renton, Bellevue, Kent and Newcastle. He also has been endorsed by The Seattle Times editorial board (the news operation at The Times is independent from the editorial board) .
Van is endorsed by the MLK Labor Council, County Executive Dow Constantine and state Treasurer Mike Pellicciotti. Franco is endorsed by state Reps. David Hackney and Steve Bergquist and the Seattle Building Trades Unions. Franco also has been endorsed by The Stranger.
Gardheere is endorsed by state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales and Redmond City Councilmember Varisha Khan.