by Chetanya Robinson
While he was in Afghanistan as an executive officer during the Obama-era “surge,” Chris Franco’s life gave him a shove that would eventually inspire him to work in public service for the King County government and, in January this year, to run for a seat on the Metropolitan King County Council in Position 9 as a first-time candidate.
“Unfortunately I had a very toxic and self-serving leader that was responsible for helping us out and getting us what we needed during our deployment,” Franco recalled in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. This leader, Franco said, withheld engineering support for barriers to protect people from attacks. “Unfortunately because of that negligence, one of our interpreters was killed.”
Franco’s disdain for the poor leadership he experienced in Afghanistan grew over the years. “That was a wakeup call to what happens when you have leaders who don’t give a damn, that are vindictive or complacent or just apathetic,” he said.
Franco’s grandfather joined the Army shortly after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1950s, gained citizenship, and was able to bring his wife from Mexico. The family settled in the Bay Area.
When Franco’s own father joined the Army, the family relocated to Redmond, Washington, and later to the Kitsap Peninsula.
Franco joined the Army as an infantry officer in 2007 through Central Washington University’s ROTC program.
“I think I’ve always had a heart for public service, just seeing what my grandfather and my father did to serve our country and our communities,” he said.
Franco served in the Army for eight years, where he met his wife. He achieved the rank of captain by the time he left.
His experience in Afghanistan taught him about the importance of having leaders who “care” and of people working together to achieve goals.
He was inspired to run for office because he believes incumbent Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who has held the District 9 seat for more than 15 years, has been “complacent” and neglected the needs of the district.
Franco, his wife, and four children live in the district in east Renton, where Renton meets Issaquah and Maple Valley.
The district covers a swath of urban, suburban, and rural areas in south King County, including South Bellevue, parts of Kent, Renton, Newcastle, Covington, Maple Valley, Enumclaw, and unincorporated communities.
“Frankly, Councilmember Dunn hasn’t done much of anything over those 16 years,” Franco said. “So many people right now are suffering and struggling to make ends meet, and we need to be putting forward policies that will allow us to recover,” he said. “Frankly I’m just sick and damn tired of waiting for change and it’s time to be the change.”
The first to challenge Dunn in this election cycle was Renton City Councilmember Kim-Khánh Van, a Democrat, who launched her campaign in December.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 3. The deadline for candidates to file is May 21.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Franco’s campaign to focus mostly on digital outreach until it’s safe to knock on doors and have face-to-face discussions.
Franco has been endorsed by State Sen. Joe Nguyen, State Representatives David Hackney and Steve Bergquist, Burien Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx, and Black Diamond City Councilmember Kristina de Leon.
Franco is active in the King County Democrats and said his values make him a progressive Democrat.
“Bottom line, I put people first,” he said.
He is hoping to put together a policy platform in partnership with residents, to prioritize needs like housing, food security, jobs, and healthcare.
His top priorities are equitable economic recovery from COVID-19 and investing in the workforce for recovery and the future.
This should include food assistance for residents, ensuring frontline workers have personal protective equipment, and hazard pay, Franco said. He wants to see the vaccine rollout prioritize frontline workers and take a hard stance against people who try to jump the line by paying extra.
Coming up with funding sources to pay for COVID-19 recovery and investments might prove tricky, Franco said. A steep decline in sales tax revenue during the pandemic showed its unreliability as a funding source. Instead, Franco wants the County to work with state legislators to address Washington’s regressive tax structure.
He wants to invest in aging infrastructure, as well as public transportation and broadband.
Franco also wants to see the Council invest more in unincorporated areas.
“I think looking to Councilmember Zahilay’s work with Skyway is a great example of what can be done when our councilmembers show up in partnership with community and listen and act,” he said.
On public safety, Franco said it will be important that the King County Sheriff’s Office implement two charter amendments King County voters passed in November, which make the position of sheriff appointed rather than elected and allow the County Council to limit the sheriff’s power. The amendments were designed to shift the County’s public safety model away from armed officers. A goal of the amendments is to change the public safety model and have 911 responders include social workers and mental health specialists rather than just armed officers.
Franco is in favor of hiring more mental health specialists and other experts to respond to public safety needs. “Not every situation requires an officer with a gun.”
He also wants to see a community-based public safety model for County law enforcement. “Frankly we need community to be at the table as we re-imagine policing and public safety,” he said.
Beyond law enforcement, Franco said public safety includes things like environmental hazards that threaten clean water, land, and air, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seattle and King County’s efforts to address homelessness as a regional issue have recently been marred by disagreements between Seattle and suburban cities about how to use funding, and who bears responsibility for sheltering people experiencing homelessness.
Renton, part of which is situated in District 9, is a case in point. The Renton City Council passed new emergency zoning changes in mid-December last year that will evict more than 200 people living in Renton’s Red Lion Hotel. They were moved there during the pandemic by Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Center to prevent crowding at Seattle shelters. Advocates said the new laws make it difficult for shelters to operate in Renton at all.
Commenting on the decision from Renton’s City Council, Franco said, “We can’t zone out homelessness. We need to be looking to help our fellow community members.”
He said a long term solution to homelessness will require building more affordable housing in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike.
Franco has been working for the King County government for the past five years and is currently on the Office of Equity & Social Justice’s (ESJ) leadership team in the County Executive’s office. He was chosen to serve on the County’s anti-racism “Core Team” after the County declared racism a public health crisis. Franco’s takeaway from these experiences is that the Council needs to be aware of the impacts of the legislation it passes to avoid perpetuating systemic inequities.
“We’re Martin Luther King County. If we’re not leading in this work, if we’re not leading in the fight for racial justice and economic justice, then we’re doing something wrong,” Franco said. “Our efforts to become an anti-racist and pro-equity government need to be baked into everything that we do as a county.”
Chetanya Robinson is a freelance journalist and managing editor at the International Examiner newspaper in the Chinatown International District. He enjoys reporting on the rich variety of life in Seattle, including the hyper-local stories of individual communities and neighborhoods. Born and raised in Seattle, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Washington. His work has also appeared in Real Change News, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and the Muckleshoot Messenger, and he reported for Awoko Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone as a student journalism fellow. Chetanya currently serves as vice president for the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter. In his spare time he enjoys exploring nature and the city, learning languages, reading, and cooking. You can find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.
Featured image courtesy of Franco for King County.
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