The campaign for King County executive, which is beginning to turn increasingly negative, is less about policy differences and more of an argument about competence, experience and urgency.
Three-term County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, both want to increase temporary housing options to help move people off the streets. They both want higher taxes, but through progressive sources targeted at the wealthy. They both want to increase transit service. They both want, eventually, to shutter the county’s new youth detention center.
Nguyen says Constantine, who’s been county executive for 12 years and in elected office for a quarter century, has had his chance. Homelessness, he says, is as bad as it’s ever been, the region’s mass transit system is insufficient and the county spends billions on the criminal legal system without adequately addressing the root causes of violence.
“After 12 years, a plan not acted upon becomes a broken promise,” Nguyen’s campaign says over ominous music in a new digital ad attacking Constantine’s record.
Nguyen points to the county’s struggle to quickly distribute federal rent relief. Its failed plan to end youth homelessness. Its move — only since the pandemic began — to turn hotels into housing for homeless people.
“It isn’t so much that there aren’t plans or resources in place, it’s being able to actually implement them,” Nguyen said. “It’s not enough to just have somebody who talks about these things that we shouldn’t be doing, you need to have somebody who’s actually going to create change.”
Constantine counters with a list of accomplishments that includes a mass transit system that added three new light rail stations just last weekend and is poised to add two dozen more in the next three years. The county’s COVID-19 response, he says, was the best “of any major jurisdiction in the country,” and the county is beginning to make meaningful progress on homelessness after securing new funding from the Legislature a couple years ago.
“He has a lot of challenges with the facts,” Constantine said of Nguyen. “He clearly has no idea what it takes to actually get big things done.”
Constantine says many of Nguyen’s specific areas of criticism are, in fact, out of the county’s control and require remedies from the state Legislature — remedies, he says, Nguyen could have helped provide.
The county’s new Children and Families Justice Center, which includes the new youth jail? The county is required, by state law, to have a youth detention facility. The old one was dilapidated and near inoperable, Constantine says, adding that the Legislature has made no moves to change the law requiring a facility.
It’s been six years since Constantine declared a state of emergency on homelessness. There’s been lots of action since then but little tangible progress on the underlying problem.
“Declaring it an emergency is intended to raise a red flag to ask for help from your federal and state government,” Constantine said. “That’s the point of declaring it an emergency.”
He says the county is beginning to make progress, with more help from the Biden administration and new funding from 0.1% sales tax that the Legislature approved in 2020.
A countywide tax on big businesses or wealth or high earners? That requires legislative approval.
“That is a perfect example of the way in which this legislator has not really stepped up to the challenges for which he now criticizes,” Constantine said.
Constantine, along with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, lobbied the Legislature last year to approve a tax on big businesses with high-salary employees. It didn’t pass.
Nguyen says that’s typical of Constantine’s tenure.
“That was one of the most eye-opening things for me in the Legislature,” Nguyen said. “You can’t do it top down. You can’t just say ‘I have this idea, I’m just gonna go ahead and propose it,’ and then not talk to anybody and then wonder why it failed.”
Constantine won the primary by nearly 20 percentage points and has raised more than $1.7 million, more than eight times Nguyen’s total of $203,000. Ballots for the Nov. 2 general election will be mailed Wednesday.
But Nguyen is also the first serious candidate Constantine has faced since he was first elected in 2009. Seattle has had six different mayors since then.
It’s a nonpartisan race, but both candidates are Democrats. Both live in West Seattle. (Nguyen is voting for M. Lorena González for mayor and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy for city attorney; Constantine is undecided in both races, saying he likes both mayoral candidates and is “deeply disappointed with our choices” for city attorney.)
Nguyen, 38, a program manager at Microsoft, was elected to the state Senate in 2018. The son of Vietnamese refugees, he has been part of the most racially diverse Legislature in Washington’s history, something he said he’s especially proud of.
The Legislature, this year, passed long-stymied Democratic goals, including a capital gains tax, a clean-fuels standard, a slate of police reforms and a low-income tax credit. Nguyen sponsored successful legislation making it easier for homeless families with children to continue receiving cash assistance.
“As a person who relied on social services, as a person from South King County, as a person who has experienced the negative impacts by policy, I truly have a desire to fix some of these things,” Nguyen said. “This moment requires someone who is impatient but also has a history of getting things done.”
State Sen. Emily Randall, the Democratic majority whip, calls Nguyen strategic and data-driven, but says he also brings “a lot of heart” to legislating.
She said Nguyen is the only male member of the Legislature who’s been invited to feminist caucus meetings, because “he’s always there to stand up in support of women colleagues.”
“Joe brings his full self as a dad to work,” said Randall, D-Bremerton. “He’ll bust out the pictures of his three kids and advocate for working parents and bring his personal experience as a parent and as a kid who had a tough upbringing.”
Constantine, 59, a lawyer, served in the state Legislature and on the Metropolitan King County Council before becoming executive. He flirted with running for governor in 2020 — before Gov. Jay Inslee announced he’d run for a third term — and says he won’t rule out running for a higher office if that becomes a possibility.
Along with helping make possible Sound Transit’s continued expansion, Constantine cited his Best Starts for Kids levy, “the nation’s most comprehensive early childhood program” as among his major accomplishments.
He says his experience has enabled him to “take high-minded policy, progressive ideas and make them real for people.”
“Running a major government like this and being able to use it to accomplish big things is a tremendously difficult and challenging feat, and we have become really successful,” he said. “It is not something that can be accomplished with an ideological pose and a tweet storm.”
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said Constantine has been “a champion” in pushing the Legislature to try to make the state’s tax code less regressive.
“When I think about Dow, I think about quiet competence,” Pedersen said. “He’s super effective, smart, works really hard, and there’s, I think, probably with all politicians there’s some amount of ego, but there’s less of an ego than with some people, you know what I mean?”