After three tumultuous years of the COVID-19 pandemic — and all of the chaos that has unleashed on the world — a number of local politicians decided to not opt for reelection, including four members of the Seattle City Council and two from the King County Council. One of those King County Council members is two-term incumbent Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represents King County District 4, which spans Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard.
The open seat attracted a handful of first-time candidates, two of whom made it through the primaries: Jorge Barón, the former executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and Washington assistant attorney general Sarah Reyneveld. The race between the two lawyers remains friendly, if spirited. Both candidates identify as progressives, which makes sense given District 4’s heavily Democratic electorate; when Kohl-Welles was first elected to the seat, she won 85% of the vote against a right-wing, anti-tax candidate.
With relatively little daylight between the two in terms of policy, Barón has stressed his credentials as a leader of a major nonprofit organization that took on the Trump administration’s cruel anti-immigrant policies. For now, his strategy seems to have worked, earning the rare dual endorsement of The Seattle Times and The Stranger. Barón netted just under 51% of the vote in the primary, though ultimately the decision will be up to the voters.
Barón stopped by the Real Change office to lay out his platform for King County.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for King County Council?
Jorge Barón: I’ve spent the last 17 years working in the immigrant rights field. I would have probably been happy staying in that [role] as an advocate. But there were a couple of things that kind of prompted me to pursue this path. I think one, frankly, the Trump administration years. That was a very painful period, primarily because of the impact that the Trump policies had on people that I was working with and seeing the human cost of those policies. But the other thing that I saw was how local and state governments could not only defend against some of those policies but also take a more progressive approach.
What do you think makes you better than your opponent, Sarah Reyneveld?
I don’t like to think about it as better; both of us bring different skills. My professional experience and my lived experience is something that I would highlight that differentiates me. I’ve been an executive director; I’ve been in that kind of executive role where I’ve had to make the tough decisions in terms of running a large organization. I also have a track record of building coalitions at the state level in a successful way. I’m an immigrant; I came to the United States when I was 13 from Colombia. Having that lived experience is going to be important, particularly when we think about [how] a quarter of the population in King County was born outside of the United States.
If elected, are you willing to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? Do you envision yourself wanting to tax the rich more?
Yes is the short answer to your question. That’s actually one of the reasons that I got into this race. We were doing some advocacy around the veterans, seniors and human services levy that just passed. The debate that the council was having in the spring was about whether to increase the rate of the levy to be able to get more resources to a range of issues, including addressing the needs of our unhoused neighbors to increase affordable housing in the community. I was part of a coalition that was working with a range of advocates of human service providers, asking the council to increase the [tax] rate so we can have more resources invested.
We were actually able to convince a majority of the council to support that increased rate, but because of some intricacies of policy at the county level, the charter, we needed to get six votes instead of just five. And we couldn’t get the six votes. To be clear, property taxes are not the best mechanism to do this. But walking away from the opportunity of actually providing more resources to people in need, given all the challenges that we just talked about, was deeply frustrating. I felt like there wasn’t the energy to talk about the fact that we need more progressive taxation.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen 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 policymaking?
I would definitely push back, and I want to try to address this issue in a way that’s going to bring people in. First of all, we want to make sure that we’re treating every human being that resides in our county with dignity and respect and the recognition that we need to make sure that we have places where people can live safely inside. But I would also want to try to be proactive in trying to provide solutions as a council member, to make sure that we’re ramping up services, finding the resources to be able to support expanded capacity for emergency shelter options — and particularly non-congregate shelter options — so that people have a place to go.
Last year, the King County Auditor found that the King County Sheriff’s Office arrests people and uses force in a racially discriminatory manner. How do you address the disproportionality with the Sheriff’s Office?
One of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s always good to have policies, but you need to have oversight and accountability for government agencies. Just like any other entity, if you don’t have that, you’re going to have people failing to comply. So we need to have strong oversight of the Sheriff’s Office; we need to hold people accountable for engaging in discriminatory behavior — there needs to be consequences for that kind of action.
We need to question: Do we need to have the criminal legal system involved in so many areas? We need to move away from that. There’s a lot of areas where we’ve been relying on the criminal legal system, and substance use disorders is one of those where we’ve been trying this approach of using law enforcement — a punitive approach — and it just hasn’t worked. It leads to discriminatory enforcement and a lot of harm to marginalized communities.
There was also an auditor report exploring a number of different models for non-police crisis response to 911 calls around the country. Would you implement one of these alternatives similar to the ones they researched?
I would strongly support that kind of policy. In some ways, it’s almost like we’re asking law enforcement to do too much. Those are not the people [who] are trained for those kinds of situations, particularly when it’s involving somebody who is dealing with behavioral health issues. We’ve [already] seen so many examples of tragic circumstances where people are calling for help for a behavioral health crisis, and it leads to somebody being killed. We need to have a system of appropriate responses, depending on what the issue is.
King County Metro workers won a 17% pay increase in the recent labor contract over three years. However, many operators and mechanics still report worsening labor conditions, such as fewer breaks, less downtime between routes and just overall not enough support from the transit agency, leading to attrition in the workforce. How would you address the poor labor conditions and understaffing at King County Metro?
The compensation piece is important. The bottom line is we need to be able to make sure that the workers who are providing services in King County can afford to live in King County. So if people can’t afford to live in the communities they serve, that’s a problem. I think you’re always going to have a disconnect and a lack of ability to retain and recruit if people can’t afford to live in the communities that they’re serving.
Another policy priority at the county level is making sure that we have strong investments in child care. As somebody who had three kids, I was very fortunate to be able to afford that, but it was a big chunk of our income. We have made some good progress, particularly for very low income people. But for folks who are in union jobs, who are on moderate [incomes], I’ve had a number of conversations with folks who’ve said, “If I do the math, it almost doesn’t make sense for me to take a job because I’ll pay more in child care, almost as much as I would make.”
What is your long-term plan for King County Metro and our regional transportation system? For example, do you support a free-fare model? And how would you pay for any new investments in the transit system?
I would love to have a free-fare model because I would love to incentivize the use of transit as much as possible. We may need to take steps to get to that point. But ultimately, when you’re asking about the vision, we just need to have a reliable, accessible, safe mode of transportation with multiple modes.
I’ve been disappointed, as somebody who lives in District 4 where the Ballard [light rail] extension would be a huge help, it’s getting pushed back, that the timeline keeps shifting. We need to be more aggressive in making sure that we expedite the building and the implementation of what the voters already approved — seven years ago at this point. And frankly, I want to be somebody who is going to be like, “Look, I’m sorry this is going to be painful for the short term, but we’re talking about a system that we’re going to rely on for like decades in the future, and I need to be thinking about the future.” Even if it’s gonna make people unhappy in the short term, it’s actually the right long-term solution.
As a county council member, how would you address the lack of public restrooms in Seattle and King County?
For people who are living unsheltered, I want to make sure that we provide a robust, dignified place to live. But when it comes to human needs in the short term, I want to make sure that there are access points for people to be able to take care of themselves and have a place. Right now, there aren’t those places.
Our region is facing an escalating fentanyl and opioid crisis. If elected, how would you address the issue? Do you support certain harm-reduction policies such as public consumption sites or safe supply?
Yes, I support harm-reduction policies. We need to be responsive to the fact that we are in a different kind of crisis than we were in a few years ago. Science needs to guide what the appropriate response is. I would be supportive of safe consumption sites. With regard to safe supply, I know that the state is doing a task force that is going to be looking at those options. We need to have a regional approach to this because that’s kind of a new model. And it’s something that I’m definitely interested in learning more [about], to see what the science tells us about that.
Public Health — Seattle & King County could be facing budget cuts as soon as next year; how would you fill the gap?
There [are] so many needs in the county. The county put together this survey earlier this year about what we should cut — is it child care, is it human services, is it legal aid, is it public health — and the answer is none of the above, right? For me, the focus is on trying to make sure that we’re addressing the revenue situation, trying to get the resources to make sure that we don’t have to cut back on those services. The driving factor will be trying to protect services that are particularly focused on the most marginalized communities.
The King County jail has been deemed unsafe — one expert said the suicide rate in the facility is astronomical. If elected, how would you address that crisis?
That’s one of the issues that I absolutely think we need to be paying urgent attention to, and we have a tremendous responsibility for it. We need to make sure that we are providing support and making sure that we’re taking care of people in our custody. If we’re not able to take care of the people in the jail, then we need to reduce the number of people who are in the jail. We need to figure out ways that we can keep people from being there, to ramp up and provide services. We need to be thinking in those terms, to figure out what we can do to reduce the jail population, [so] that the people that we do put in custody are taken care of and we have sufficient staffing to make sure that they’re safe as we work on the other issues.
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.