Joe Nguyen Pushes Free Transit, Police Accountability in Run for County Executive

by M. Anthony Davis

The last time the Emerald spoke with State Sen. Joe Nguyen, we profiled him soon after he announced his candidacy for King County executive. Now that it is well-known that the incumbent, Dow Constantine, will face a significant challenge from Sen. Nguyen, we caught up with him again to dive deeper into some of the key issues facing King County.

In this interview, we cover how Sen. Nguyen plans to use minimal cuts from the law enforcement budget to fund much-needed services like free transit, his three-tier approach to addressing homelessness, his views on the youth jail and police accountability, and the significance of the King County executive choosing the county sheriff and how this position can be leveraged for culture shifts in law enforcement and building trust in the community.

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.

South Seattle Emerald: Can you tell me about your life growing up in White Center and how that influenced you politically?

Sen. Joe Nguyen: My parents were refugees from Vietnam. They fled a war on a boat to get here. We landed in White Center, because we had access to public housing. That was the foundation from which I existed, having a community to help uplift us. And what was interesting is that obviously, being new to the country, it was tough. We were very poor. When I was in the first grade, my father was in a car accident that left him quadriplegic. One of the most vivid memories that I had growing up was my dad in a wheelchair and my brother and I would have to carry him up and down the front steps of our house. There were six steps. And, one of our neighbors was driving by one day and said, “Hey, why are you guys carrying him? Why don’t you have a ramp?’ And honestly, the answer was because we couldn’t afford one. So him and his buddies came by the next weekend [and] built a ramp for us. And that moment has always stuck out to me, because that’s what we can do when we uplift one another.

And another thing, because I know that this might come up later, is the youth jail. The church where I grew up was right next to the old youth jail. You could see the cells from the parking lot where we lined up before we’d go to church. I would always look in those cells. And the youth pastors at that time would always say, ‘Hey, if you’re bad, you’re gonna end up there.’ And for me, it was so sad, because you see in and you see these kids, and you think: Those are kids like me. Are you saying that I’m bad? So I’ve always had this visceral disdain for that building, because I always felt that we deserve better. Our youth and our kids deserve better.

So a lot of that has really shaped my experience. Even transit. We lived right next to the highway. So I had asthma growing up. I thought that it was just because I had asthma; I didn’t realize it was because we lived next to the highway, and there’s pollution that’s there. But back then, I worked downtown at the waterfront. I had to take the bus to get to the waterfront in order to get to my job. I was a janitor at my high school to help pay for tuition, and then I’d work another job on the waterfront to be able to help pay for bills around the house, where we struggled. We struggled so hard. It was because of things like TANF, the basic needs program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that kept us stable and that kept us housed. I saw how hard it was for us growing up. But because we have the community, and we have the services that help uplift my family, we were able to be successful. My brother’s a doctor, my sister’s an engineer, and my other sister is an IT consultant. I’m the black sheep of the family. I’m a senator and went into politics. None of this would have been possible if not for the community.

SSE: Can you talk about homelessness and how you feel about the current regional approach? Do you feel it can be improved?

J.N.: The way that we tackle homelessness, we wait until there’s a problem, which is not good, because it is three times cheaper to keep somebody housed than it is to take them out of homelessness. The regional approach to homelessness is, in fact, really good. I do like that proposal. But that by itself won’t be enough. You have to fix the systemic issues that cause people to become homeless in the first place. Because if you don’t turn off the spigot of people becoming homeless, whatever resources and infrastructure that we put into place won’t be enough because it’s going to grow and grow and grow. So in my mind, it has to be a long-term solution and a short-term solution as well. In the legislature, what we’ve done a lot over the past few years, has been investing in basic needs programs, increasing funding for TANF — like I said, my family was on it — and we funded what’s called a working families tax credit. So basically, the families who need it the most are going to get a reduction in their tax liability. We funded a dedicated revenue stream for affordable housing and rent relief and stuff like that as well.

I serve on the Human Services, Reentry, and Rehabilitation Committee. A significant number of the people who are homeless are from our prison facilities — and once released, they don’t have other opportunities. So making sure that there’s housing vouchers for those leaving our facilities, and then fixing the broken criminal justice system, because those laws are antiquated and oftentimes racist. So trying to fix that system. Literally, my first bill, the first bill that I talked about on the senate floor, was a referral bill so that youth don’t have to go into juvenile detention at all. Instead of having law enforcement having to defer kids and go through the criminal legal system, they can then go to a more community-based, humane, safer therapeutic option. So in my mind, you have to tackle all the types of homelessness because it’s not just one. It’s everything from economic insecurity, to behavioral and mental health, then it’s fixing our criminal legal system because it is fundamentally flawed. You have to take care of all those things.

So when I see leaders who say, ‘I’m the best at fixing homelessness, and I’m setting up this regional approach,’ and it’s like, whoa, first off, it’s gonna take all of us, there is literally no one person that can solve this, because if there was, they would have done it already. So the regional approach to homelessness truly has to be a regional approach. And the fact that there’s eight jurisdictions who are choosing not to be a part of it concerns me a little bit because we can’t get this done without the partnerships that are out there. And when you dig in, there’s a lot of distrust in the system already. Marc Dones, I’ve met them, they are great, and I think they are going to be a great leader for that authority. But what I do worry about is the relationships with the counties and other jurisdictions needed to make it work. But the regional approach is great, because we have to be able to spread out our facilities and our services for a couple of reasons. One is that that’s just a more manageable way to administer [it]. But also, it’s easier for somebody to get stable when they’re within their own communities. So if somebody lives down in Algona Pacific, or Auburn, and you try to get them to a supportive living situation in Seattle, they’re too far from their communities. So they’re disconnected. You have to be close to your community. So I feel optimistic. I’m very nervous that it seems to be delayed. Also the fact that it’s six years after we’ve declared a state of emergency in homelessness. After the emergency has been a crisis for decades before that, and we’re just now standing this up makes me nervous. And I don’t feel like we’re doing enough to turn off the spigot. And that requires leadership across the jurisdictions.

SSE: We have a huge population of people who are homeless right now. What is your plan for those people? What do you do for the people who want housing, but are unable to find any available?

J.N.: That’s more of the near-term stuff, where we have to be talking about more affordable housing. One of the things is that we have a lot of civic properties in King County. King County has what is called “surplus lands” or “civic properties.” To build on these lands, it would be a lot cheaper, and I think that this should be social housing. We talked a lot about the missing middle, like housing for the missing middle. But we need, similar to what I grew up in, public housing for individuals who literally can’t afford to live here right now. There’s a desperate need to build more affordable housing. I would use civic properties to build more social housing that is truly subsidized, and then work with our planning and land use to build more dense urban housing as well, and then also you have to do it in a way that’s mindful of the growth that’s going to happen. So there’s three things: supported housing, social housing immediately, and temporary shelters if needed just to get people in a stable place. But then longer-term, you need to build more affordable housing and you have to do it in a way that is mindful of what’s called the GMA, the Growth Management Act. And then, you also do it in a way where you need to get 196,000 units, I think, to be truly appropriate for the community, which is not going to be easy. But we can also do it in a way that’s mindful of climate change. So for me, it’s kind of interesting, because I see homelessness being related to affordable housing and being related to climate change. We have to start thinking bigger — these things are all related. And if we aren’t smart enough, if we don’t have the vision to lay this out urgently, we’re gonna be in a tough spot.

SSE: You mentioned climate change, and I’ve heard you talk about the connection between free transit and climate change. Can you explain your thinking there?

J.N.: You know, it’s funny, I had somebody push back a little bit like, “Oh, if you do free transit, it’s gonna cut services.’ I’m like, what are you talking about? That makes no sense. Somebody thought that because you give away free transit, that means you have to lower revenue for transit. But you don’t have to cut revenue for transit in order to have free transit for all. If you look at the budget in King County, right now, transit is about 15% of the revenue associated with the operating expense for Metro. So it’s about $280 million. There’s a couple of things that we can do. We can have a Transit Benefit District, which we need to have anyways, in order to implement the KC Metros Connect. It’s a plan that they need to do in order to connect transit in various jurisdictions. You would have to have state authority, but I think you can actually do it in a way that is more progressive. Right now, it’s like your MVET, sales tax, or property tax, which I think people feel very much tax fatigue. But knowing that 60% of the businesses are the ones that cover the fair costs, you can feasibly have a progressive mechanism to implement a transit benefit district, but it would require authority from the State.

We have to think outside the box. We have the resources here and the people who are paying for it here. And it makes sense for these businesses as well. When Biden had this infrastructure plan, [Jeff] Bezos actually said, “Hey, I’m down with the business taxes if it’s going to go towards infrastructure.” I think that there’s an opportunity for us to work with our communities in order to pay for transit fares. So that’s one thing. You can have a transit benefit district that asks the State for authority to be able to help pay for revenue, as it relates to transit fees, because you’ll need it anyways to then pay for the infrastructure.

The other thing is that we have to be more efficient with how we allocate our money. Seventy-three percent of the general fund in King County goes towards our criminal legal system. Seventy-three percent! We went from trying to address the root causes of crime, which is oftentimes poverty, to simply criminalizing it. So now we spend 73% of our general fund on that legal system. That’s why I got into the legislature. That’s why I’ve been doing so much on the policies to undo some of these wrongs. That’s why I’m working to vacate marijuana convictions. That’s why I want graduated reentry. But you can only do so much at the State [level] — you have to implement at the local level. And it’s kind of a cop-out because I know that they’re gonna say, “Oh, that’s state mandated,’ Well, yes, and no, and also I serve on that committee and would love to have more support to push some of these legislations that we’re trying to get through because it is tough. So the other thing is, if we were able to lower the amount that we spend on our legal system, just by a fraction, just by like 10% or 15%, you know, not even cut it in half, not even do anything drastic. If we just lowered it a little bit, you can raise enough money to then pay for free transit for all. If we invested our money better, we can feasibly pay this with existing resources, but it’s going to take leadership.

The reason why I want transit for all is because, as a kid who grew up on the bus, and then as you know, after college, I would take the bus to go to work, it’s hard and it is expensive. If you’re taking the bus, you’re probably not a millionaire, so it does add up. So if you’re able to take transit, it’s economic mobility, in addition to just transit mobility, but also one of the key things that I was talking about is, if you had free transit, you can then lower the vehicle miles traveled, lower the number of people that are in cars, and lower the number of people there on the roads. So you can make it easier so all of the people that can take public transit, they wouldn’t be driving, and it alleviates the burden on our roads and it lowers emissions as well. So it’s an equity and a climate change issue.

The incumbent is going to say, “Oh, but we have these programs, they’re great.” I will be the first person to tell you, it’s not that easy. If you had transit for all, versus having to go to this office and sign up, make sure you qualify, do all these other things. As a kid, I had to translate documents for my mom; as a person who spoke English as a second language, I had to translate all these documents for my mom. So I love that there are programs in place to help subsidize these things, but if you just made it free, and there were no barriers associated with it, you’ll see a higher consumption rate. But it has to be done in tandem. You need to have the connected communities, free transit —  that’s how you lower the vehicle miles traveled, which then also gives you less emissions [of] greenhouses. We can do this. None of this is hard. It just takes political will. But the plan is there.

SSE: I want to shift here and talk about the youth jail. This is a hot topic, and King County Executive Constantine vowed to get rid of it by 2025. Many feel this is not good enough. What is your stance here?

J.N.: What’s frustrating is that even the fact that they’ve made that decision now to close it down, community, when this was being built, said, “Hey, there are better options. There are ways to mitigate youth incarceration. If you do it this way, you wouldn’t have to have a youth jail.’ They built the jail anyway. And now they implemented some of those ideas and said, “Oh, yeah, we actually don’t need to have a jail.” If we had just listened to community in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess, we wouldn’t have spent $240 million. So again, this is this one, I feel a little bit personal, which is because I hate that building so much. And I say that in the most loving, and statesmanlike way, but it’s just an unnecessary facility. We need to be reducing the length of stays to allow youth to reenter into the communities as quickly and safely as possible. And there are ways to do it. You can do supervised release programs. You can do home detentions. You can do day-evening reporting centers, you can do local treatment options, even respites centers where you can have behavioral and mental health on site. And in very extreme cases, if you truly need it, you can even do electric electronic home monitoring, which I don’t personally like. But a lot of this requires using risk assessments to guide detention decision making and providing courts with options other than detention.

So what I will say is that, yes, we have lowered youth incarceration rates. We know, because the community said we should have done it that way. So that’s why I get a little bit frustrated, like, yes, if we do the things that community asks us to do, it works. You shouldn’t take credit for things that the community is doing and told you to do. And then now say, “Okay, yeah, after we spent $240 million, we’re now going to shut it down.’ The average night’s stay is about 20 youths. They are required by law to publish it on the dashboard, and I look at it in the mornings, and you didn’t need to build whatever 100-or-so-bed facility when you only have a handful of folks there. There should be smaller, therapeutic, community-based and more focus on treatment, not necessarily punishment. And people are gonna say, “What do you do with the toughest kids?” There’s a small percentage of them. You can’t treat every kid as if they are all bad, right? So if there are ones that truly have behavioral health issues or whatever health issues, we can put them in respite centers that have behavior and mental health treatment on site, and we can make them secure. But if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And it has to be done in a more therapeutic way. And there will be tough cases and those cases can be handled if we use a risk assessment for each one, and make sure that we’re giving people the services they need to actually be successful, and not just traumatizing them in our system.

SSE: Last time we talked, you said Tommy Le is what got you into politics. What is your current stance on police accountability and what is your plan to build more trust in the community with police?

J.N.: Yes, I got involved in politics because of that. Tommy Le, when he was killed by law enforcement, was the reason why I got involved. At that point, I was doing stuff in the community. I was doing advocacy work, but I wasn’t like, on fire in it. And when that happened, it just lit something in me, where you just see the injustice. And at a certain point it’s like, you have to be part of the solution. Because, you’re complicit if you aren’t. That’s one of my areas of focus. I worked with Rep. Jesse Johnson, from Federal Way, on these issues significantly. We could talk about the bills that we passed, we can talk about banning no-knock warrants and choke holds, and limiting tear gas and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, it’s a cultural shift that we need. And the fact that the King County executive is now able to pick the next sheriff — I think is one of the biggest things because you have to work within communities. We’ve seen how decisions are made in the past, right? Oftentimes, it’s top down. Oftentimes, it’s you know, a decision gets made, they tell community, “Yep, this is what we’re gonna do.’ I would be completely different. Communities would be involved, and we’d be engaged the entire time. It will be collaborative, and it will be transparent. And we would pick somebody that had the mindset of being a guardian and not a warrior. Because right now, law enforcement is seen as being warriors. We have to change the culture of policing. And that includes the sheriff’s office as a whole. It won’t be easy. I really don’t think that it will be easy. But if you aren’t pushing for that type of change, it will never happen.

I was very honored to work with legislators at the State in order to pass some of the more progressive policies probably in the entire United States. The bill that I passed on arbitration was modeled after what Minnesota did following the murder of George Floyd. And we’re not done. Like I said earlier, as a society, we used to spend the same amount of money on law enforcement and policing as we do on human services. Now, we spend four times as much on law enforcement. I’m not even asking us to do anything radical, I’m just saying, let’s go back to what we were doing before the war on drugs, before these tough-on-crime laws that disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities. Let’s treat people like humans that solve actual problems, don’t just put them in jail.

SEE: You’ve done a great deal of speaking on your progressive policies. Where will the funding for these policies come from? Is drawing from the budget of law enforcement your primary source for paying for your ideas?

J.N.: I have other ideas as well. Our tax structure is so messed up. And I sit on what’s called the tax structure workgroup. And it’s especially difficult for counties, because they oftentimes will have mandates to do something and not necessarily be able to raise revenue to do it. So without going too much into the details, just because I could talk tax policy all day long, we need to reform our tax code, period. We made a significant step, and we’ve been talking about passing capital gains for over a decade. Over a decade! And now when you have one of the more diverse legislatures, and they are the most diverse legislature in history, Washington State pushing on these things, we saw it actually happen. We have literally some of the wealthiest individuals to ever exist in the history of humanity living in this area right now benefiting from this area. So I do believe that we have the resources here to do it. We have to reform our tax code. And we have to be able to make sure that local jurisdictions have the support that they need as well.

One of the examples is that we passed capital gains. For folks who don’t know what capital gains is, don’t worry about it, you probably don’t pay it. So it’s okay. Less than 0.2% of people are paying it, so unless you have an accountant team, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But that went towards childcare, early learning, and the working families tax credit. So if we’re able to solve for the root causes of some of these issues, you can free up more money from our law and justice system. So again, no one person can do this alone. No one jurisdiction can do this alone.

King County, being the 12th largest county in the United States, bigger than 14 states, should be the leader on all of this. The [county] executive should have a bully pulpit pushing for this, because that’s the only way to solve our problems. We can’t just point fingers and say the State needs to do this, the federal government’s got do that. It’s like we are a part of the solution. So for me, it would be getting authority from the State, which I’ve proven we can do, because we’ve been able to pass policies to show for it. One of the proposals that the county actually had a couple of years ago, which is very eye-opening, was modeled after a bill that I had dropped in the legislature for a high earners’ excise tax. So essentially, if you made over a million dollars a year, above that, it would be 1%. And that’s something about numbers right now. But for instance, if you made $1,001,000, your tax liability is $100, right? Like, not a lot. Although there are so many people that make over a million dollars in Washington State that raises like, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. So there are progressive ways to do this that are, in fact, still constitutional. If we got authority from the State to implement something like this, we can use that in order to fund things in King County as well.

That was kind of an interesting process that I saw as it played out. When you are trying to do something like that, it’s always a good idea to talk to the people who are impacted by that policy. So as that bill was being negotiated, it was funny because they specifically kept me out of the conversations, which is to say they kept out the senate as a whole. And, it’s odd to think that you’re gonna be able to pass legislation when you don’t include the people who have to vote on it. So that was one of the first times where I saw like, “Oh, interesting. We’re talking about all these things. But in order for us to pass legislation, you’ve got to make sure you have enough votes. And if you haven’t talked to the people who have to vote on it, I don’t know how it’s gonna pass.” But I already have proposals in place that would allow for the county to have more revenue, and not necessarily through property taxes, not through sales taxes, not through gas taxes, but progressive revenue streams so that we can invest in communities who need it the most. And the folks who are making a significant amount of money, who are paying a lot less in taxes, can help push if they pitch in their fair share. We’re not even asking them to pay far more than what they were paying for before, just a little bit more than what they were paying when they got all these tax breaks because of the previous administration. So there are a number of proposals in place.

SSE: Before I let you go, can you speak about your plans to support South King County? Things that are not Seattle-specific.

J.N.: Well, it’s funny, right? Because I’m actually from South King County. I am from unincorporated King County in White Center, and I spent most of my life in Burien. So as a kid from those areas, you saw where investments happen. And you saw where investments did not happen. Right now, one of the biggest things that I worry about is that there’s this tension between local jurisdictions and the County in terms of how decisions are made. So I can give you more detail, but fundamentally, it’s listening to people and talking to people. So often, we are seeing people who are impacted by policies not at the table. And I’ve heard that from councilmembers, from mayors, from people that are not in Seattle, feeling as if decisions are being made that impact them, that they aren’t part of the conversation. And, you know, some of that is politics. Some of that is maybe not necessarily true, some of that is very much true. 

And really, the thing that I think we need is leaders who are from the community, and are trusted within the community and have a history of fighting for community as well. So the high level is to listen to people. But look, we need to make more investments in White Center and Skyway. We know that we need to have transit in areas that historically haven’t had transit. We know that we need to make investments in our communities in things like roads and potholes, and like sidewalks and our bridges, right. So a lot of it is making sure that the communities that even though they don’t have a lot of wealthy people there that make a lot of noise, they should also be getting helped. The South Park bridge should never have been closed down. There are things where it’s clearly an equity issue. But it’s so painfully obvious to people who live there. So what I would do is I would have a person in charge, literally just working with jurisdictions not named Seattle, and then partner with them to figure out what their issues are, and make sure that those are being elevated as well. And again, I live in West Seattle, so I love the community here as well. But I do feel as if we need to have a better eye and a better ear towards what’s going on outside.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

📸 Featured Image: Image courtesy of Friends of Joe Nguyen.

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