King County voters will have a real choice this year as they select an executive to lead the state’s largest county for the next four years.
That doesn’t seem like it should be news. It’s a pretty low bar to clear — can we get just two people, running serious, funded campaigns, who want to lead the 12th largest county in the country, overseeing an annual budget of more than $6 billion?
But we haven’t cleared that bar in more than a decade.
This year, as state Sen. Joe Nguyen challenges incumbent County Executive Dow Constantine, marks the first time in 12 years that two candidates are seeking the office and fundraising and campaigning like they actually hope to win.
Constantine is seeking a fourth term as county executive, which, if he wins and serves the full term, would make him the longest-serving executive since King County adopted its current governance system in the late 1960s. He ran essentially unopposed in 2013 and 2017, facing candidates who raised little or no money.
Nguyen, a first-term state senator, is trying to position himself as the more progressive choice, pushing for free public transit, a wealth tax on the richest county residents and the closure of the county’s new youth jail and justice center.
“It’s being proactive versus reactive,” Nguyen said. “You need somebody who is willing to have a bit of urgency to actually get these things done.”
Ballots for the Aug. 3 primary will be mailed to voters this week.
Constantine says his record of progressive achievements is “ample.” He cites his role in creating Sound Transit 3 to expand mass transit; in transitioning county buses toward (eventually) an all-electric fleet; and in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. He says, more than just coming up with ideas, he has the experience to turn them into action.
“I have shown that I can take our broadly shared progressive values here in this community and make them real in policy, in budgets, in infrastructure,” Constantine said.
While county executive is technically a nonpartisan office, both candidates are Democrats.
There are three other candidates on the primary ballot. Johnathon Crines, a security guard, who says we need better leadership and that he is “committed in my entirety to providing liberty and justice for everyone.” Perennial candidate Bill Hirt is running with “no expectation or desire to win” but as a way to bring attention to his criticism of Sound Transit. Perennial candidate Goodspaceguy wants to abolish the minimum wage and “imagines many of your descendants moving up to the greatness of the orbital space colonies.”
None of the three other candidates has reported raising any money, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.
Constantine has significantly out-fundraised Nguyen to date, raising more than $1.4 million to about $140,000 for Nguyen, according to PDC filings.
Constantine has also collected the bulk of the union endorsements, including the MLK Labor Council. He’s endorsed by Washington’s last three governors: Jay Inslee, Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke.
Nguyen has the endorsement of several of his legislative colleagues, including South Seattle lawmakers state Sen. Bob Hasegawa and Reps. David Hackney and Kirsten Harris-Talley.
“Any race where you have an incumbent, particularly a longer-term incumbent, the issue is really about their job performance,” said Dean Nielsen, a Seattle-area political consultant not involved with either candidate. “To both establish yourself, tell your story, and also tell voters why they should fire your opponent and hire you on a shoestring budget is almost impossible.”
True politicians compete
Constantine, 59, and Nguyen, 37, live about 10 blocks apart in West Seattle.
Constantine, a lawyer, has been in public office for the last quarter-century. First elected to the state House in 1996, he served five years in the House and the Senate before he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Metropolitan King County Council in 2002. He was reelected to the County Council and won an eight-person race for county executive in 2009, after then-Executive Ron Sims stepped down to join the Obama administration.
In that 2009 election, Constantine faced longtime TV news anchor Susan Hutchison in the general election. Hutchison has since chaired the state Republican Party and was an early supporter of Donald Trump, but at the time was a bit of a political unknown. Constantine won by branding her as an archconservative and an opponent of abortion rights.
If Constantine and Nguyen end up facing off in the general election, it will be a far different campaign.
Nguyen, a program manager at Microsoft, was elected to the state Senate in 2018, winning an open seat over a better-funded opponent who also happened to be Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.
Nguyen was born in White Center, the son of Vietnamese refugees. He talks about his life experience — caring for a father who was paralyzed in a car accident; taking the bus to work as a teenager — as providing the framework for his policy objectives.
He says he and state legislators elected with him — the most diverse class in Washington history — “changed the dynamics of how things operated,” because they were working on issues that had impacted them personally.
“What I think we need are people with the lived experiences and an urgency to fix these problems,” Nguyen said. “Homelessness isn’t waiting, you know, climate change isn’t waiting; the racial inequities in our societies aren’t waiting.”
Nguyen criticizes Constantine for King County’s failure to follow through on a 2019 pledge to end youth homelessness by last month and for not acting with enough urgency on homelessness, five years after Constantine declared it an emergency.
Constantine said we’re “turning the tide” on homelessness. He cited the recent creation — after years of delays — of the regional authority to coordinate spending among the county and its 39 cities. And he said new resources — a new 0.1% sales tax the state approved two years ago and federal emergency COVID funding — have allowed the county to do things like buy hotels to use as emergency housing that it couldn’t do previously.
“I believe that we have now what we need to be able to get folks who’ve been on the streets housed, to clean up our neighborhoods, and our parks, and I think to create a new expectation that folks will not be sleeping outside,” Constantine said.
Nguyen wants to make public transit free for everyone. He says the county could get permission from the state to create a new tax on big business to replace the lost fare revenue, much of which is already paid by businesses who subsidizing their employees’ ORCA cards.
Constantine says the state has not offered funding or a new tax, and so making transit free would represent a cost savings to big businesses and would mean cuts in bus service.
Nguyen says King County never should have built its new youth jail and legal center, which Constantine supported, and now should shut it down as quickly as possible, and move the few youth incarcerated there to smaller, community-based facilities.
Constantine has pledged to close the juvenile detention facility by 2025 and noted that its average population has fallen from around 80 when he took office to 24 last month.
As two progressive Democrats, Constantine and Nguyen agree on a lot of policy. Nguyen says he would be more proactive than Constantine has been. Constantine says he’s proved he can go “beyond ideas” and form the partnerships to get things done.
“After 12 years, I appreciate the incumbent’s years of service for the county, but it’s just simply time for change,” Nguyen said.
Constantine, who flirted with a run for governor before Gov. Jay Inslee announced he’d seek a third term, didn’t rule out running for higher office in 2024.
“It’s hard to say what the future holds,” he said. “But I’m certain that whatever comes next, the opportunity to serve will be at the center of it, the opportunity to make this place better will continue to drive my work.”