Headshot depicting Sofia Aragon.

King County District 8 Candidate Sofia Aragon Talks to Real Change

by Guy Oron

(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

In addition to candidate Sofia Aragon, Real Change also interviewed candidate Teresa Mosqueda.

King County is the largest county in the state of Washington, and its government is responsible for providing key services like public health and bus transportation to more than 2.25 million residents. In most of the county, which overlaps with 39 cities and towns, the King County Council has limited authority. However, for about a quarter million residents of the county’s unincorporated areas, the council has direct control.

Because of this limited reach, the King County Council has historically been a less attractive post for politicians. This year, however, there are multiple contested races.

Incumbent Joe McDermott is retiring after 13 years of representing King County’s District 8, which encompasses West Seattle, White Center, Vashon Island, Burien and Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. Two candidates have made it through to the general election: Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon.

A registered nurse whose day job is in nursing workforce development, Aragon says that she can bring her clinical expertise into politics. However, many Real Change readers will be more familiar with her role as Burien’s mayor and that city’s perceived lack of urgency in providing services for its unhoused residents. Aragon spoke with Real Change over a Zoom call to share her priorities if elected to the King County Council.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Real Change: What motivated you to run for King County Council?

Sofia Aragon: I’m running for King County Council because our region’s leaders really need to do better. The county should be a safe, healthy, and inclusive place, but unfortunately we’re putting grandstanding before results. What I want to do is focus on the proven, common-sense solutions on homelessness and other really important issues like public safety and public health. I’m an immigrant from the Philippines, I grew up in South Seattle, and I know our biggest challenges, having grown up in the area.

What makes you better than your opponent, Teresa Mosqueda?

I’m the only one that did not support defund the police. As a mayor in Burien, I’ve seen how that’s really hurt us to be able to adequately provide for public safety. Like any system, there needs to be improvement. We need to be more culturally competent. I know that there’s been issues with excessive use of force in the past, and we need to keep working on improving those things.

The other one is my clinical background as a registered nurse. And so that fits really well with public health. I would love to put that expertise to use.

In your opinion, what are the biggest issues that King County is facing right now?

No one is talking about the epidemic that has been growing since 2019, and that is the drug overdose epidemic. And that’s really affecting our communities. So we just need to put awareness and priority on that issue.

An ongoing issue, of course, is affordable housing, and the county and its resources are there to support the different cities and unincorporated areas to meet those housing goals.

The Seattle area has the third largest homeless population behind New York and Los Angeles. We have to really appreciate the gravity of that issue. Four years ago, the connection between how the homelessness population is affected by drug use [wasn’t] so prominent [as it is] now. Those who are unhoused are one of the largest populations at risk from the opioid epidemic. And so we really need to adjust our strategies in addressing homeless[ness] to at least account for that.

If elected, are you willing to take on the rich and powerful in order to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?

There should be more equitable taxes, yes.

Is there anything you want to elaborate about that?

I’ve actually worked with coalitions to work at the Legislature for more equitable tax structures, and that is something that continues to need to be done. For example, our state is dependent on the sales tax and property tax, and so the greater burden is on people with lower incomes.

Over the last decade, we’ve been seeing more and more cities like Bellevue, Mercer Island, and now Burien pass or consider anti-homeless ordinances and camping bans. If elected, how would you push back against this type of discriminatory policy making?

Well first of all, the appellate court decision in the Ninth Circuit puts limits; you don’t criminalize homelessness. So by virtue of being outside, you don’t have anywhere to go, if you’re simply sitting or sleeping, that’s not a basis for arresting anyone.

We need to have a balanced approach to how we manage our streets, which is publicly available to everyone. We need to keep those sidewalks clear for safety purposes, not only for people who are not unhoused, but also for those who are [un]housed. If there is shelter and housing and services available, then what a [camping ban] is [meant] to do is [be] a tool to urge people into those services.

As a King County Councilmember, you would have a bully pulpit. Would you ask cities like Bellevue to reconsider? To maybe not push people around who are the most vulnerable?

We shouldn’t be pushing people around. We should have adequate shelter for them at whatever stage they’re in. When we studied the Bellevue ordinance and other ordinances, that’s contingent only if there is shelter available. And if there’s not shelter available, then people can camp, because there’s nowhere to go.

When we asked the same question, your opponent was very critical of the way you’ve handled the situation in Burien and said that this policy-making almost encourages this hostility toward homeless people. Do you think —

Guy, homelessness was declared an emergency by the City of Seattle seven years ago. My opponent’s been in office longer [than me]. She’s been in office for six years, and our homelessness issues have only gotten worse. My job as a mayor is to make sure I have a forum so that all ideas can be put forward by councilmembers. I don’t think it’s fair to be critical, because as I mentioned before, this is a really difficult problem.

As a King County Councilmember, what would be your relationship with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA)?

The KCRHA, I hope, would be collaborative, coordinating. It’s still a very young agency, so I think it needs a lot of support. What I supported was the idea of a regional approach to homelessness; it’s all of our issues, not just one city’s issue. And I feel like we’re sliding a little backwards there, and that’s really disappointing.

Last year, the King County Auditor found that the sheriff’s office arrests people and uses force in a racially discriminatory manner. How do you address this disproportionality?

I’m glad to know that there’s three independent agencies now looking and watching the actions of the Seattle police. I would make sure at the King County level that we have a similar process where there are independent organizations always looking at the work of the sheriff’s office, particularly looking at whether or not any actions appear to be based in bias or racism. We need to address that, either with training or looking more closely about where we recruit officers and their backgrounds.

The auditor also explored a number of different models around the country for civilian crisis response to 911 calls. If elected, would you implement any of the non-police alternatives?

Actually, Burien was ahead of Seattle in implementing a co-response model. And this is a recognition that a lot of the calls were medically based, not based on criminal behavior. We do have a social worker working with both fire and police for many months now, so that they can address those medical and mental health substance use issues.

Earlier last month, King County Metro workers won a 17% pay increase over three years, yet many still report worsening labor conditions. How would you address poor conditions and understaffing at King County Metro?

I support paying the Metro bus drivers the wage that they have, because that’s frankly what you need to live in Seattle and King County. There are [safety] standards in operating rooms or patient rooms. I would expect [that] there are some standards in buses that would protect the workers as well as the passengers.

What is your long-term plan for King County Metro and our regional transportation system as a whole? Do you support a fare-free model? And most importantly, how would you pay for the investments needed to improve public transit?

If we were going to go to a fare-free model, a couple of things need to happen. Number one is that we need to be really clear as a body that’s where we’re going. And also, how are we going to finance? Because it needs to be supported well with resources.

My overall vision for transportation is that, simply, we need to have a more connected region and people need to go wherever they need to go.

Where did you stand on the free fare? Are you not sure where you stand?

We need to know how much that costs. And if that’s where we’re going to go, how do we cover that cost? But I think once that question is answered, having a free fare definitely decreases the barriers for public transportation for a lot of people.

Either way, you’ll need to raise more revenue, right, if you want to improve this system?

Yes and, you know, systems age.

Do you have any ideas about that?

The County can allocate its funds. The County also has a good history of local ballot initiatives as an option and also working with the state Legislature in terms of funding from the state to assist in that policy change.

Some people have talked about going to the Legislature and asking for the statutory authority to pass a payroll tax like Seattle has on the wealthiest corporations that rely on public transit: to have them pay for these improvements for everyone. Do you agree with that?

Oh, that’s interesting. So what is this proposal, having the wealthiest corporations pay for free public transit?

Yeah, imposing tax on high-earning corporations in the region to improve public transit.

I’ll have to look into that just because I have not heard of that proposal, but it’s something to consider, right? We always have to consider who is going to pay for free transit and to what extent do those companies’ employees use transit.

There is a big lack of public restrooms, both in Seattle and King County as a whole. Do you think King County agencies like Public Health or KCRHA have a role to play in fixing this issue? And if so, how many new 24-hour public restrooms would you fund?

I don’t know how many [are] needed; I wouldn’t know how to calculate that. This is an environmental health, sanitation [and] public health issue. What you would do is definitely use the knowledge and expertise of Public Health to try to figure that out.

Our region is facing an escalating fentanyl and opioid crisis. If elected, how do you address this issue?

I think we need to go upstream more. What I’m doing right now as the mayor is reaching out to Highline schools and seeing where can we work together to increase education and awareness among our students.

Do you support any harm reduction policies such as public consumption sites, safe supply, providing more drugs like methadone or suboxone?

Methadone and suboxone, yes absolutely. Medically oriented recovery medication or medication-assisted therapy is really key. Allowing someone to continue to use without the pathway to recovery, to me, falls really short. I think we need to go beyond making sure people don’t die of an overdose. I think harm reduction’s place is a pathway to recovery so that people can lead those lives that they’ve dreamed of and not be trapped by the disease.

Public Health – Seattle & King County could be facing budget cuts as soon as 2025. How would you fill this gap?

I would look at other services in the county to make sure that these public health cuts are actually warranted. Because that is a central function of the County — it’s one of those things that nobody else is going to do for our community. We need to make sure we have a robust public health system.

What other revenue options would you explore?

We’re kind of stuck. We just need more of a robust system that’s more fair, so that we have these resources for everyone.

The King County Correctional Facility has been deemed unsafe. We’ve seen a number of people die in the facility; one expert labeled the suicide rate as “astronomical.” If elected, how would you address the crisis in the jail?

I know that they’ve had a real shortage in getting nurses and I would imagine other health care providers needed in the jail system. That is a reflection of the crisis that we’re facing in mental health. They’re under a unique type of trauma, and mental health services need to be provided to them equitably as well.

If elected, what are three things that you would do to immediately improve the lives of Real Change vendors?

In the City of Burien, we invested a lot of our ARPA funds into apprenticeship training, in the hope that we equip people with the skills that they need, so that they continue to be as productive as they want in their future.

Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.

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