For 16 years, Reagan Dunn has represented the Metropolitan King County Council’s District 9, which sprawls from southern Bellevue through the East Hill of Kent to the Enumclaw Plateau. Now, it’s up to voters to decide whether to make it an even two decades.
After four terms in office, Dunn’s opponents say a new approach is needed.
Renton City Councilmember and immigration attorney Kim-Khanh Van says she’s a nonpartisan listener who would keep meeting with Plateau leaders monthly after taking office. Van has hewn to center of the candidates on topics like police funding and has an attorney’s eye – and skepticism – toward many issues of the race.
“I would appeal to our neighbors in Enumclaw: Please give me a chance,” Van said. “We’ve had the same leadership for 16 years, and I can provide better and more by listening to them. … I know how to govern in a non-partisan way.”
Look to Ubax Gardheere’s work as a community organizer for a sense of her leadership style. Overseeing Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative, her team directly distributes millions to community organizations with the goal of making the city a more equitable place to live. Whether in Bellevue or Enumclaw, Gardheere said she’d want the community to hold her accountable.
“I’m principled. I believe in what I believe in,” Gardheere said. “For me, measuring success is not about accumulating power or wealth but in the well-being of all of King County District 9. .. If the folks from District 9 cannot resonate with that yet, and will not vote for me based on my principles … Maybe they’ll be ready some other time. … I’m not a dictator, and I’m not a socialist, but I think folks really need to know where I’m coming from.”
U.S. Army veteran and county Office of Equity and Social Justice employee Chris Franco said he’s sick of politics and a lack of collaboration stalling the region’s progress. His inspiration to run is based in part, he said, on his experience serving under a toxic leader in the military whose neglect led to the death of two fellow soldiers.
He’s an ideas guy who said “hell yeah” to the idea of light rail one day connecting the Plateau to Seattle and who likes the idea of a tax code “more reflective of Eisenhower’s time.”
Dunn, Franco said, is “kind of the epitome of a career politician.”
“If I’m being honest, I really struggle with how he’s shown up for the last 16 years,” Franco said. “He comes from a wealthy, established political family and has a reputation for showing up only during the election years. He’s had 16 years to address a number of really big issues … (and) things have gotten worse.”
But Dunn, a former federal prosecutor and co-author of former President George W. Bush’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, says he’s the only person in the race fighting for the way of life that District 9 residents want. He said he’ll be a voice of reason as the council wields greater power over local law enforcement.
“I don’t believe that the folks in downtown Seattle grabbing ahold of the microphone and yelling the loudest are the ones that represent our community’s interests, and I am not afraid to offer the opposition view of the way government should run,” Dunn said. “Failed policies in Seattle aren’t working, and I do not want to see them spread out to the suburban and rural areas of King County.”
Voters will have their say soon enough. Ballots for the Aug. 3 primary election are already arriving in mailboxes. You can still register to vote for the primary as late as 8 p.m. on election day at a county elections office.
Only the top two from the primary will advance to the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
The Metropolitan King County Council seats are nonpartisan, but Dunn’s opponents each advocate for generally Democrat-leaning policies and have earned endorsements from the left side of the aisle.
Dunn, a Republican, will likely earn a primary victory as his challengers divide up the left-of-center vote. He currently leads in campaign contributions with around $270,000 raised. Van has raised about $120,000, Franco roughly $100,000 and Gardheere about $85,000.
Whoever wins the seat will wield historic power over the King County Sheriff’s Office due to two voter-approved ballot measures passed last year, which gave council members the power to appoint the Sheriff and more authority over the department. They’ll also manage the county’s continued COVID-19 response, investments in infrastructure and transportation, and rising cost of housing.
Housing and livability
All candidates agreed the state housing crisis is fueled largely by a severe shortage of places to live. Building more housing, especially in urban and suburban areas, is a part of each candidate’s platform, though they approach it in different ways.
Each candidate also said they generally support the governor’s timeline on evictions. A moratorium on evicting tenants ended in June, but a current “bridge” policy still limits certain evictions over unpaid rent through September 30.
Dunn last month voted against a package of rental regulations which will require landlords to justify the eviction of a tenant, such as failure to pay rent or criminal activity. The legislation passed the council 6 to 3. Dunn unsuccessfully lobbied to exempt small landlords who have four or fewer units from those rules, and he cautioned against delaying evictions for too long as it could unintentionally harm renters, too.
“If it’s too much of a burden (for property owners) to continue to rent and provide that critical rental housing stock … they’re going to sell, and we’re going to get less housing stock,” Dunn said.
The county should continue putting federal stimulus money directly into rental subsidies so the tenants can stay and the landlords can pay their bills, he said. Dunn also pointed blame at over-regulation for inflating house prices and said he’d oppose new regulations on home construction. He cited a University of Washington economist’s finding in 2008 that land-use regulations alone had driven up Seattle home prices by $200,000.
Gardheere said she’d work on legislation to offer rent abatement when landlords fail to make repairs, stronger interventions when property owners violate local ordinances, and stronger protections for renters from evictions.
“I will continue working, extending the eviction moratorium until the communities actually start healing from this pandemic,” Gardheere said.
She said she’s also looking at San Francisco’s “Community Opportunity to Purchase Act,” which gives nonprofits a first right of purchase when landlords sell residential buildings. In essence, it’s a way of taking homes out of the speculative market so low-income families aren’t pushed out by gentrification.
“I would love to look at that program and see if we can apply a similar mechanism,” Gardheere said.
Urban and suburban areas need to increase density while allowing rural areas to maintain their quieter character, Franco said. Federal relief money offers a “massive opportunity” to build more affordable housing and improve infrastructure, he said.
For Van: “I’ve been a renter, a homeowner, and also a landlord,” she said. “I see all sides.”
More affordable housing, education on home ownership and financial literacy and investments in workforce training programs like internships and apprentices will be the key, Van said. Squeezing small landlords could mean rent increases trickle to tenants, Van said, but there still need to be incentives for property owners to make housing affordable.
The solution for Franco and Van also includes pushing for “liveable wages” – otherwise, as Franco said, it simply “doesn’t make sense mathematically” for ordinary people to be able to keep living here.
Franco said he’s open to exploring a county-wide minimum wage. (Washington’s minimum wage is $13.69, and Seattle’s is $16.69 for most workers.)
“We have the most regressive tax code in the nation,” Franco said. “These taxes overburden our lower income residents and even our middle class.”
Gardheere agreed and said she’d explore a payroll tax on large tech corporations with the goal of reducing sales and property taxes on lower income people.
The foundation of Dunn’s campaign has been his stated commitment to supporting law enforcement.
“If I am not reelected to the King County Council, you will have a defund the police (council member) representing Enumclaw and the Plateau,” Dunn said, which would be “literally destroying our community’s ability to keep itself safe. I’m not mincing words there because it’s really serious.”
Dunn said there needs to be an immediate 30 percent increase in funding to the criminal justice system to get cops back on the street.
Police leaders like Enumclaw Chief Tim Floyd have raised concerns about a criminal justice bottleneck in the county prosecutor’s office; the police department can make arrests and forward cases, Floyd has said, but there aren’t enough prosecutors to handle those cases in a timely manner.
“You need to dramatically increase funding for the entire pipeline of criminal justice,” Dunn said. “Police, prosecution, public defense, but also the courts as well as incarceration.””
Dunn pointed to Franco’s signature last year on an open letter calling on Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan to resign. That letter also called for “her successor, and all local elected officials, to heed community demands to defund the police (referring specifically to the Seattle Police Department).”
Franco said he stands by signing the letter and did so primarily to call for Durkan’s resignation. As far as “defunding,” budget cuts to a police department should mean a corresponding shift of responsibilities from that department so officers aren’t overburdened, he said.
“I don’t want to throw an arbitrary number out there,” Franco said. “I’d rather make an informed decision about what is going to meaningfully help staff, SPD … so we’re not asking officers to respond to every single incident, and instead we’re prioritizing the most important public safety issues for our law enforcement officers to respond to.”
Franco said Dunn is “trying to weaponize” his stance on law-and-order to scare voters into his camp.
“My sister-in-law is going through the Seattle PD academy now,” Franco said. “I certainly have a great deal of respect for our law enforcement officers, and call many friends.”
Gardheere denies the “defund the police” label” but believes the county should avoid investing more resources into the current crime and justice system.
On her own website, she says: “We need to reduce the size of the carceral system and invest in direct community investment in BIPOC (black, indigenous and other people of color) communities, including investing in neighborhood infrastructure and community-based alternatives to policing. “
Gardheere, Franco and Van all said police shouldn’t be responding to the volume and variety of situations we currently ask of them, such as certain mental health crises.
Prosecuting crimes is “absolutely important,” Franco said, but in the midst of crises over health, housing, the economy and a global pandemic, “we need to be really careful and conservative about how we are spending our taxpayer money.”
“Even though I’m a Democrat … I look at what’s pragmatic, what’s needed for our community,” Van said. “My record is community policing. I’ve hired police officers this past year in Renton.”
Some communities might need more officers, and others might need more social workers, Van said. Dunn’s proposal in March to hire four deputies for a new dedicated hate crime unit in the sheriff’s office would have been a costly, unwise use of taxpayer resources, Van argued, and she’s glad it wasn’t passed. Hiring an additional prosecutor instead makes more sense, she said.
Perhaps the biggest single decision the council will make is who the next sheriff will be. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s term runs through 2021, and the council will be able to select whoever comes next.
Gardheere said they should have “a demonstrated commitment to racial equity,” a record of building relationships with communities, and a new vision for public safety. They don’t need to have a law enforcement background, she said, but it would help.
For Franco, “bottom line, we need a sheriff in the KCSO that is accountable to the same laws that we are as citizens.” Ideally they’d have some form of law enforcement experience as well as “the lived experience of enduring injustice from our system.” If the best possible candidate didn’t come from a policing background, he’d still be willing to consider them, Franco said.
Van said the next sheriff must come from a law enforcement background: “They need to understand what it means to put their life on the line.” But she agreed they must also prioritize transparency and serving the community’s needs.
Dunn said he won’t accept an “anti-police activist slash bureaucrat” for the role. Instead, he’s looking for a chief with a lot of law enforcement experience – such as from overseeing a large U.S. city – who can prove they can handle the job. They ought to advocate for their employees but still be willing to embrace reform.