Vaccine mandates, safe injection sites, homelessness — these topics and more were on the table during last week’s debate between the candidates for the King County Council’s ninth district.
Hosted by the Courier-Herald at the Enumclaw Expo Center’s Fieldhouse on Oct. 6, the forum gave local residents a chance to scrutinize the positions of Councilmember Reagan Dunn, the incumbent, and challenger Kim-Khanh Van, a Renton city councilmember, before casting their votes in the upcoming November general election.
Dunn, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, has been on the King County Council since 2005, and is endorsed by The Seattle Times and all the mayors that reside in District 9 (including the city of Renton).
Van was elected to the Renton City Council in 2019, and is endorsed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, Congresswoman Kim Schrier, and the Washington Education Association. She’s also an immigration lawyer and the co-founder of AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Against Hate.
MASKS AND VACCINE MANDATES
While Van and Dunn have different positions on myriad issues, they are arguably the furthest apart when it comes to vaccine mandates.
Van supports the current mandate, which requires all King County employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“For me, I believe in science. We need to follow the science,” she said. “I want our kids back in school. I want our businesses to open up… we don’t want to go back to a lockdown. So for me, I believe in experts.”
Dunn, who has supported much of the COVID public health mitigation efforts so far, said he did not support the county’s current vaccine mandate.
“Let me say, at the top, that everybody who can should be vaccinated,” Dunn said. “It’s very, very important. … (But) we are forcing every one of our 18,000 employees to inject a substance into their body, without a safe harbor provision, and I think that is too hardline.”
Rather than force all county employees to get the shot, he continued, the county needs to follow other jurisdictions which have offered weekly testing as an alternative to vaccination.
Dunn also added that there’s a “growing body of science” that natural immunity is “superior” to an mRNA vaccine, but cautioned that local public health experts are still researching the differences.
Van countered by saying that before he was president, George Washington mandated the Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox.
Similarly, Van and Dunn found themselves on opposite sides when it came to King County’s vaccine verification program, which will require everyone 12 and older to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to be able to go to restaurants and bars, attend indoor recreational events, or even outdoor events if more than 500 people are gathering together. These requirements go into effect Oct. 25.
“For that 10 percent of the population that no matter what will not get the vaccine, we can’t say … ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that, without a vaccine card,’” Dunn said, adding that a program like this needs to focus on the “least restrictive means necessary” to accomplish driving down COVID rates, like requiring masks.
On that note, both Dunn and Van said they both continue to support a mask mandate as long as COVID rates continue to be high.
The candidates traded jabs when the topic of police funding was addressed.
According to Dunn, the “defund the police” movement, and the decriminalization of some offenses in the county, have allowed crime to flourish in Seattle — and that those strategies shouldn’t be utilized in District 9.
Instead, “We need to provide a 30 percent increase in funding to the King County Sheriff’s Office, and a 20 percent increase to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and start holding people accountable for the commission of crimes,” he said.
Van also appeared to support additional funding for police, saying that on the Renton City Council, she voted to hire police officers who met the cultural needs of the communities they served and gave bonuses to lateral officers to maintain skilled policing in the community.
However, Dunn accused his opponent of supporting the “defund the police” movement, referring to a picture taken of Van at a Black Lives Matter rally and vigil at Renton City Hall in 2020.
“I don’t believe that’s your position,” Dunn said of Van supporting additional funding for officers. “And I’m worried you’re going to say something up here and (do something different in office.)”
In an email after the forum, Van said the photo only showed a rally participant holding a “defund the police” sign; “I cannot be held accountable for attendees’ and their signs,” she added.
During the forum, Van said Dunn ignores the nature of crime outside the Seattle area.
And as someone who has experienced firsthand the impact of crimes against the asian community, Van said Dunn “didn’t come to us, nor our leaders, to talk about (the) appropriate model for community safety.”
SAFE INJECTION SITES
Both Dunn and Van made it clear neither of them support safe drug injection sites in their district.
“I absolutely oppose heroin injection sites in Enumclaw, the Plateau or District 9, and I will advocate … to make sure that never happens,” Dunn said. “In government, when you allow something, you tend to get more of it. For example, homelessness and drug use in the Seattle area.”
Repeating a common refrain on the topic, Dunn, who is a recovering alcoholic himself, said that “you do not cure alcoholism by inviting alcoholics to the bar.”
In 2017, Dunn proposed legislation limiting the use of county funds for safe injection sites only in cities where elected leaders choose to establish them. That measure passed narrowly in a 5-4 vote.
While he’s against the sites in general, Dunn said the compromise at least gave cities a say in the matter.
Van appeared to be less hard-lined than Dunn on the topic; before the forum, she told Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger that some places can support those sites while others can’t. However, she also told the 31st legislative district Democrats that she wouldn’t support the establishment of such a site in District 9.
Ultimately, it comes down to what a community wants, she said.
“It’s up to our community. I’ve talked to neighbors — I’ve not heard neighbors wanting that here,” Van said. “I’m going to be that voice.”