King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan during a Sept 2021 event. (Photo: Alex Garland)

King County Conservatives Discredit Progressive POC Candidates as ‘Defund’ Extremists

by Nathalie Graham

Earlier this month, King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert faced repercussions for a racist campaign ad she funded. The ad depicted her colleague, Councilmember Girmay Zahilay as a socialist puppeteer pulling the strings of Sarah Perry. Perry, Lambert’s opponent, is bringing Lambert the first real fight for a seat she’s held comfortably for 20 years. 

Lambert’s ad also associated Zahilay, who is not a socialist, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. After public outcry, Lambert resigned from the King County Council committees she chaired.

In the age of Trump and social media-fueled polarization, “conflict and sensationalism” sells, says Zahilay. Politicians have pivoted to “divisiveness and scare tactics” to “rile up their base.” Zahilay sees this trend emerging across all levels of politics, local King County elections included. 

Lambert’s ad, while perhaps the most explicitly racist this year, is far from the only racism leveled against politicians of color this campaign cycle. 

Renton candidates Carmen Rivera and Joseph Todd have been smeared on Instagram and Facebook. A coalition of former Bothell mayors just wrote a joint letter calling the Bothell grassroots candidates “defund the police extremists.” Across King County, candidates of color, many knee deep in their first-ever campaigns, have dealt with the normal stressors of running for office while also fighting off misinformation campaigns from their often white, more conservative opponents. 

“What happened to Sarah Perry is happening to all of us,” says Carmen Rivera, a candidate for Renton City Council Position 2. 

What’s Going Down in Renton?

Renton is at a crossroads this election cycle. As Renton grows with the growing region, the city has quickly become one of the most diverse cities in King County with large populations of Black, Asian, and Hispanic residents. But Renton’s politics have not changed with the demographic shifts. 

Despite progressive strongholds on the Renton City Council (RCC) such as Ed Prince and Kim- KhanhVan, who is running for King County Council against Republican Reagan Dunn, Renton continues to be a bastion of conservative politics. For example, it recently enacted legislation restricting which properties can be used to shelter the homeless. The Council took up this legislation in response to the County using the local Red Lion Hotel to house homeless people during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rivera, who is Latina, and Joseph Todd, who is Black, are progressive candidates who, if elected, will shift the political make-up of the RCC. The conservatives on the Council, they say, are making their path to the election a living hell.

Rivera’s and Todd’s opponents latched onto rhetoric claiming both candidates are “radical Seattleites.” Seattle candidates such as Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a candidate for Seattle city attorney, and Nikkita Oliver, a candidate for Seattle City Council, have had their anti-police tweets from 2020 plastered on mailers from their oppositions and used as fuel in Seattle Times editorials. This playbook now extends beyond Seattle and into the suburbs. Political messaging in Renton and across King County relies on the boogeyman of “defunding the police” to discredit candidates. 

Rivera, a former social services worker at King County, currently works as full-time lecturer for the criminal justice department at Seattle University (SU). She teaches abolition through a racial equity lens. Rivera’s passion for criminal justice is personal as well as political. Her father served as a Seattle Police Department officer for over 30 years. He was one of four officers accused of beating a jaywalking teenager in 2009. He was later exonerated

“Police are my family and I know the toxicity that exists in that department,” says Rivera.

Rivera finished in the lead after the August primary with nearly 38% of the vote. Since then, her opponents have been using her curriculum at SU against her. 

In September, the Instagram page “Seattle Police Defenders” circulated multiple posts about Rivera in mid-September labeling her as a proponent of defunding the police. Rivera opposed this characterization. 

According to Rivera, a private Renton public safety Facebook group spread a heavily-edited video of an hour-long academic panel discussion Rivera participated in about the difference between abolishing, reforming, and defunding the police. The edited video lasts less than two minutes and only includes out-of-context quotes from Rivera. 

“It’s a clickbait-y fear-monger-y video,” Rivera said. “It’s fucking disgusting. They’re twisting educational content.”

Rivera said she supports funding police alternatives and holistic public safety reform which will take funding “not defunding,” she said. She believes Renton’s underfunded social services program couldn’t support a system without police. Last year, Renton only spent $800,000 of its nearly $1 billion budget on social services. 

Rivera believes this campaign against her started when her opponent, Ben Johnson, who serves on the Renton Airport Committee, started receiving negative press regarding a history of racist comments on Renton Councilmember Randy Corman’s blog. 

When Joseph Todd, deputy chief technology officer at King County, originally ran for Renton City Council Position 1, he ran against Randy Corman, the 27-year incumbent. But Corman dropped out in the spring and endorsed James Alberson, the former chairman of the board for the Renton Chamber of Commerce. Alberson is Black. He claims to be a moderate.

Todd, who is also Black, says that while Alberson is a BIPOC candidate, he doesn’t have “the BIPOC values that are trying to push for marginalized and vulnerable communities.” 

Alberson is endorsed by every conservative on the Renton City Council, including former City Councilmember Marcie Palmer who recently came under fire for liking some QAnon conspiracy theories on Twitter. Yet Todd’s opposition paints him as the more extreme candidate. 

Even though he hasn’t listed defunding the police as one of his priorities, he says people “go after the trope” that POC candidates must support defunding the police.

For instance, Todd spoke out against the Renton Police Department for clearing an officer who had business ties to the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group. Todd called the officer a “liability.” He says even when he had a legitimate concern, because Todd is a BIPOC candidate, he was accused of extremism. 

“People discount the actual point to say I’m just disparaging the guy’s name and then they tie it to Black Lives Matter,” Todd says.

The Song Remains the Same in Bothell

Han Tran is a tech engineer and first-time candidate running for Bothell City Council. When asked if she’d faced any discrimination during her campaign she laughed, “Oh yeah, we’ve definitely been dealing with our fair share.” 

A vocal group of former Bothell mayors including Joshua Freed, Andy Rheaume, Mark Lamb, Jeff Merrill, and Mike Noblet —all white men — formed a coalition to oppose the slate of three progressive candidates including Tran, Jenne Alderks, and Rami Al-Kabra running for Bothell City Council. The mayors also lumped in a fourth candidate, Democrat Matt Kuehn, with the progressive slate. 

On his personal Facebook page, Rheaume said he had “never seen a more racist group of people than [the progressive candidates] trying to get elected.” Rheaume said the candidates called any police supporters racist and called it “ironic” that many of them “are leadership in a group called “Anti-Racist Communities Bothell” because he has “never seen anyone more racist than them trying to be elected.” Rheaume did not explain how this was an example of racism. Two of the four left-leaning candidates Rheaume referred to are People of Color. Both of them, including Tran, are immigrants. 

In a joint letter posted on a Facebook group, all five of these former mayors who allegedly put aside their political differences to oppose these grassroots candidates wrote that Tran and her fellow progressives were “defund the police extremists” who “asserted that if you support the Bothell police you are also racist.” 

Lamb later went on conservative talk show host Jason Rantz’s show on MyNorthwest. On the show he connected the progressive candidates’ policies with a man who Lamb — inaccurately — said killed Bothell Police Officer Jonathan Shoop this past July.

“Officer Jonathan Shoop was murdered in [Bothell] by somebody who subscribed to the defund the police, anti-police mentality,” Lamb told Rantz. 

Lamb continued: “This is a national movement [of] a very, very sinister nature that is trying to infect local politics with racial division, with hatred and with collectivist animosity towards those who have dedicated their lives to law enforcement.”

In reality, Shoop died by friendly fire from another officer while engaged in a gunfight with a suspect. 

Even though Tran said she considered this effort from these mayors a distraction, she said she thinks people are listening to it. “That’s the dangerous thing, right?”

Tran continued: “This is a dog whistle and it can escalate. It goes beyond the election. I am not fearful so much for myself but fearful for BIPOC in the community in Bothell, or anyone who dares to question the police and dare question any form of authoritarian power. No one is able to do this without being called an extremist.” Tran, similar to Rivera, supports funding public safety alternatives. 

Tran feels as if this division is abnormal for Bothell politics. Though, she mused, usually the elections are two white people running against each other. 

Politicians Contend With Misinformation Even After Election

As evidenced by Lambert’s attack ad featuring Zahilay, these attacks and misinformation campaigns don’t stop once a candidate becomes an elected official. Sen. Joe Nguyen, who is running for King County Executive against long-time incumbent Dow Constantine, said people constantly hold him responsible for the actions of other non-white, progressive elected officials.

“That’s what they did with Girmay and linking him with Kshama Sawant and Kamala Harris,” Nguyen says. “You get blamed for things that other people who are similar to you or have similar funny names.” 

Nguyen said the racism he’s faced in his campaign so far has been “sly.” Things like local democratic districts telling him he should stay in the Senate because he’s been so good there or people saying he’s playing up his Asian identity too much or not enough. 

An ad funded by Equal Opportunity PAC, a PAC originally formed in 2020 to oppose affirmative action, ran in the pages of the International Examiner accusing Nguyen of “playing the Asian card.” The ad used testimonials from anonymous comments on The Seattle Times to prove its point.

The Equal Opportunity PAC’s top donors include the I-200 PAC and the American Coalition for Equality, two groups opposed to affirmative action. During his first session in the legislature in 2019, Nguyen supported Initiative 1000 to repeal the affirmative action ban. Now, the Equal Opportunity PAC has published ads against Nguyen and hosts an anti-Nguyen website.

Nguyen said he sees a double-standard with coverage of white politicians. “Ann Davison supports insurrectionists and that barely gets covered,” Nguyen said, referring to how the Seattle City Attorney candidate switched her party to Republican during the Trump administration and did not decry the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

“There’s a different bar for tolerance of this type of vitriol,” Nguyen said. “That’s why these tactics conservatives are leveraging against non-white candidates are particularly effective.” 

The ad Lambert sent out against her white opponent, Perry, relied on imagery of BIPOC elected officials such as Zahilay, Sawant, and Harris. These politicians sat above a marionette of Perry, grinning. Zahilay pulled her puppet strings. According to critics, Lambert’s ad seemed intended to make her constituents afraid of BIPOC candidates and their control of white people, white lives, and white cities. 

“It makes you wonder, if Lambert’s ad was targeted at Girmay rather than Perry would it have been picked up [by the media] the same way,” Nguyen said. 

Editors Note: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Carmen Rivera was  an adjunct law professor specializing in criminal justice at Seattle University. It has been updated to reflect that she is a full time lecturer for the criminal justice department at Seattle University.

Nathalie Graham is a freelance journalist in Seattle covering politics, science, and any particularly weird or niche neighborhood news. You may recognize her work from The Stranger. If you don’t, you can brush up on ithere. Contact Nathalie on Twitter @gramsofgnats.

📸 Featured Image: King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan during a Sept 2021 event. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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