By the time state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-West Seattle) announced his bid for King County executive, 12-year incumbent Dow Constantine already had a long list of endorsements.
Although the candidates are both Democrats and political insiders, Constantine is not only better funded but, according to his endorsements, better supported — even by Nguyen’s colleagues in the state Legislature. In fact, Constantine has earned the endorsements of 25 state representatives and, from Nguyen’s own Senate Democratic Caucus, nine state senators.
Nguyen is the senator of the 34th legislative district, which encompasses Vashon Island, West Seattle, west Burien and White Center, where the senator grew up. Coincidentally, this is the same district in which Constantine made his political debut as a state representative in 1996.
The membership of the 34th District Democrats chose Constantine over Nguyen during a June 9 endorsement meeting. Michael Fertakis, who is a consultant on Nguyen’s campaign, claims Constantine recruited “north of 100” people to join the 34th District Democrats for that endorsement vote during his months-long head start in campaigning.
The 34th district legislators other than Nguyen — Reps. Eileen Cody (D-Seattle) and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Seattle) — endorsed Constantine.
“This is all the same thing that happened in my Senate race and I still won by a landslide,” Nguyen said of his nearly 17-point victory over the better-funded Shannon Braddock in 2018, during which he says he was not supported by the House members of the 34th legislative district.
He explained, “When you’re in a position of power, supporting your other friends to be in positions of power, and you get a newcomer like me, who’s trying to disrupt the way that the political establishment works, obviously, we’re not going to get the same type of institutional support.”
Cody made her endorsement in the middle of the legislative session, before Nguyen announced his candidacy. She says she has “never reconsidered” her endorsement.
“It’s not that we haven’t gotten along,” Cody said of Nguyen. “I just have a long history with Dow. That’s really what it amounts to.”
Although they represent the same district, Cody says she has yet to work very closely with Nguyen as he has only been in the legislature for two years, one being the first session to be held remotely.
Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Newcastle) — one of the first two Vietnamese representatives elected to the state Legislature, alongside Nguyen — has worked closely with the King County executive challenger.
Last session, the two sponsored successful companion bills to fund the Working Families Tax Credit, which had been an unfunded mandate since 2008. Not only did they tie up 12-year-old loose ends, but they also expanded the support to folks who have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number rather than a social security number, who are often undocumented immigrants. This was an important addition for Thai, a refugee herself, and Nguyen, who is the son of refugees.
Despite this shared victory, Thai was among the early endorsers of Constantine.
According to Fertakis, who is also a political consultant at Upper Left Strategies, there’s a “real reluctance” among elected officials to endorse against an incumbent.
“People don’t necessarily want to set a precedent of speaking against the incumbent for endorsements because then that sets them up to potentially get taken out as well,” Fertakis said. “Legislators are toeing the fine line of being nice to their colleague and supporting the incumbent.”
Officials and organizations may issue dual endorsements. The Stonewall Democrats, for example, have endorsed both of the candidates for King County executive.
Thai, along with the other legislators who endorsed Constantine, has not made a dual endorsement. According to Nguyen, the two are still close friends and chatted about their families on the phone just the other day.
The Members of Color Caucus, which Nguyen is a part of, has been more supportive of Nguyen’s candidacy. Three of the seven other senators in the Members of Color Caucus — Sens. Mona Das (D-Kent), T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) and Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle) — have endorsed their colleague. The other four members are not listed in the endorsements for either candidate.
“We can see how powerful it is to have leaders with the lived experience now at the table,” Nguyen said. “And I think a lot of the success that we saw in the past few years is because we have so many great people who are impacted by policy now fighting for change.”
Nguyen also says that a number of legislators who publicly endorsed his opponent are volunteering on his campaign.
Endorsements are not the end-all-be-all in Washington. Last year in the 11th legislative district, elected officials largely threw their support behind 18-year incumbent Zack Hudgins, yet newcomer David Hackney won by 26 points. In 2019, Larry Gossett’s 25-year tenure on the King County Council was ended by Girmay Zahilay, even though the incumbent had virtually all of the institutional support.
Nguyen counted himself among these underdogs when he won his seat in the 34th legislative district without many endorsements.
“There are some key endorsements,” Nguyen said, looking forward to The Stranger’s take on the race. “But I think, for the most part, it’s mainly more important to get your message out and talk to voters themselves — which we’ve been doing.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.