King County elections 2021: What’s at stake and why it matters

State Sen. Joe Nguyen seeks to deny Dow Constantine a fourth term, while a longtime county council member fights to keep her seat.

Joe Nguyen is shown smiling into the camera at left, Dow Constantine speaking into a mic at right

State Sen. Joe Nguyen, left, and King County Executive Dow Constantine. (Courtesy photo, Elaine Thompson/AP)

When it comes to local elections, the contests to decide who will run King County government often receive less attention than races for Seattle mayor or the Seattle City Council.

That’s despite the leading role that the county plays in public health, transit, the justice system and the regional strategy for combating homelessness — and how it has an overall budget that’s nearly as large as the city’s.

But this year, the competition for the top role of King County executive is fiercer than it’s been in more than a decade. The race for the King County Council’s District 3 seat has also become heated, after the longtime incumbent sent a mailer that drew widespread condemnation for its racism.

In both races, the challengers are presenting themselves as more progressive alternatives who will move quickly to solve the county’s most pressing problems. The incumbents, meanwhile, are touting their experience — and, at times, questioning their challengers’ knowledge of the issues and ability to deliver on promises if elected.

Use our 2021 General Election Voter Guide to cast your ballot.

That’s the clear dynamic In the race between County Executive Dow Constantine and state Sen. Joe Nguyen, both of whom live in West Seattle. This year’s election marks the first time since 2009, when Constantine first ran for the county’s top job, that he has faced a serious, well-funded challenger at the ballot box.

A similar theme underlies the matchup between King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert and Sarah Perry, a former nonprofit executive who now runs a fundraising consulting business. In a recent Facebook post, Lambert criticized Perry as not knowing what the county council has already done on homelessness and overestimating her ability to make an impact on the issue if elected. Perry, for her part, has cited a need for new leadership, noting that Lambert has served on the council for two decades.

While the county’s elected positions are nonpartisan, both Constantine and Nguyen identify as Democrats. Lambert has previously run for office as a Republican, while Perry is a Democrat.

Among the King County incumbents running for reelection this year, Lambert appears to be in the most danger of losing her seat, having received only 40% of the vote in the August primary. More recently, she has received blowback over an offensive mailer her campaign sent out. Lambert represents King County Council District 3, which includes suburban and rural communities east of Lake Sammamish.

Constantine is in a less precarious position, having won about 52% of the primary vote and maintaining a substantial fundraising advantage over Nguyen.

Ballots for the Nov. 2 general election were mailed to most King County voters Wednesday. 

Why these jobs matter

King County provides direct services — including road maintenance, permitting, police and parks — to more than 250,000 people who live in unincorporated areas outside of city boundaries. 

More broadly, the county government provides felony criminal and civil court services throughout the county, including in its cities, while handling garbage service for almost all King County cities except Seattle.  

King County also takes the lead in providing regional transit service, along with managing elections, sewer treatment and public health.

Beyond that, the county executive and two county council members serve on the governing board of the newly established King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is tasked with coordinating the region’s response to homelessness. 

Political consultant Crystal Fincher called the county government “the connective tissue of the region.”

“The county is the city’s safety net when it comes to public health and public safety, and when it comes to emergency preparedness,” said Fincher, who works mostly with Democratic candidates. How well the county government is managed, Fincher added, “really determines whether programs that are designed to help the masses actually make it down to the people who need them the most.”

For instance, the county has been in charge of distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in rental relief money during the pandemic.

Several of the county’s cities, including large ones such as Burien, Shoreline and Sammamish, also contract with the King County Sheriff’s Office for their local police service. Under a measure King County voters approved last year, the county executive and county council will have greater oversight over the Sheriff’s Office going forward — including choosing the next sheriff.  

County executive race

The county executive is essentially the governor of the county, directly overseeing about a dozen county departments and holding the power to veto legislation passed by the county council.

Constantine, 59, is seeking a fourth term in the role. He said he wants to remain in office so he can see the county through the COVID-19 pandemic and its recovery, as well as help shape the rollout of Sound Transit 3, the light rail expansion that won voter approval five years ago. Constantine helped craft that plan while chairing the Sound Transit board; he’s now the board’s vice chair.

Nguyen, 38, says 12 years of Constantine in office is too long. He said Constantine talks a good game, but doesn’t back it up with action. For instance, Nguyen said that although Constantine has often voiced his support for progressive taxation that targets the rich, the county has repeatedly proposed ballot measures that raise sales taxes, property taxes and car tab fees — sources of revenue that hit lower-income people hard.

“Virtue signaling isn’t going to do it — you have to show up and actually do the work,” said Nguyen, who works in strategy and analytics at Microsoft.

Constantine said the county doesn’t have the authority to impose certain taxes, such as wealth or income taxes, even if he might want to. He said if Nguyen doesn’t like that state of affairs, he should use his role in the Legislature to change state law to give the county freer reign.

The two Democrats criticize each other over the county’s new Children and Family Justice Center, which includes a juvenile detention facility. Nguyen said the detention portion never should have been built; Constantine said that replacing an old, dilapidated facility was necessary for safety reasons and to comply with state law, which mandates that counties maintain separate facilities to detain juveniles.

Recently, Constantine has pledged to close the youth detention portion of the facility by 2025; Nguyen said Constantine is belatedly adopting solutions that criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing for years.

Constantine, for his part, has criticized Nguyen as lacking experience and being more skilled at putting out flashy sounding ideas on Twitter than seeing them through. Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese refugees, was first elected to public office in 2018 and is in his first term as a state senator.

“He served barely two years in his first four-year Senate term before announcing he wanted to run for the highest local elected office in the state,” said Constantine, who served eight years on the county council and multiple terms in the state Legislature before becoming executive. “...His record is difficult to criticize, because there's very little to it.”

Other areas of contrast include whether the county should have spent $135 million on improvements to T-Mobile Park as part of a deal to keep the Seattle Mariners at the ballpark. Constantine said improving the public stadium will generate more tourism dollars to pay for future investments in affordable housing. Nguyen said the county should have used the money for housing in the first place. 

Constantine has also criticized Nguyen’s proposal to make King County Metro rides free for all passengers, saying it would lead to bus service cuts and benefit mostly big corporations that buy transit passes en masse for their employees. In past years, revenue from fares has made up less than a quarter of King County Metro's total operating revenue.

Randy Pepple, a Republican political consultant, said he thinks it will be hard for Nguyen to win in a head-to-head contest against Constantine, since both men are Democrats and Constantine’s tenure hasn’t involved any major scandals. 

“Maybe there is far more anger at Dow than I am aware of, but I don’t see it,” Pepple said.

District 3: Lambert vs. Perry

Kathy Lambert, a former GOP state legislator who has served on the King County Council for 20 years, is in a tough fight to keep her seat. She’s up against Sarah Perry, a fundraising consultant who has worked for nonprofits and, in recent years, for Democratic campaigns.

While Perry won only 36% of the vote in the August primary, she and another Democrat, who was eliminated in the primary, captured a combined 59% of the vote, putting Lambert on the defensive.

Lambert, 68, has criticized Perry’s lack of experience in government and lack of familiarity working with multibillion dollar budgets. She also has said Perry lacks new ideas. For instance, Lambert said that many of Perry’s suggestions — such as providing more housing with wraparound services for people experiencing homelessness — are things the county is already doing.

“There’s a lot of expertise over 27 years of being in government that she doesn’t have,” Lambert told Crosscut.

Perry, meanwhile, has criticized Lambert for not supporting a renter protection law the county council approved last year. Perry also said Lambert hasn’t fought hard enough to provide people with support they need to stay housed.

“I’m looking at what was accomplished, and I can’t think that anything but change could make a difference and make an improvement,” said Perry, 57, during a recent debate on homelessness

The candidates also disagree about new police accountability laws adopted by the state Legislature, with Perry supporting the new laws and Lambert criticizing them as being confusing for police officers and crafted without enough input from law enforcement. 

Neither candidate supports defunding the police, but Perry does want to send police to fewer mental health and welfare calls, while having other professionals respond instead. Lambert said she thinks police still need to be part of the initial response to such calls to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

While Lambert opposed the recent move to make the sheriff an appointed rather than elected position, Perry said that change was necessary to address problems within the Sheriff’s Office and to increase accountability.

But the biggest flashpoint in the race isn’t about policy differences — it’s about a mailer that Lambert’s campaign recently sent out. The ad depicts King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the council’s only Black member, as a puppetmaster who is manipulating Perry, who is shown as a marionette. Alongside Zahilay are Vice President Kamala Harris, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, with the message, “Sarah Perry would be a socialist puppet on the Eastside pushing their agenda.” While Sawant and Sanders identify as different brands of socialists, Zahilay, Perry and Harris are not socialists. 

Other text on the ad suggests that Perry would be led by Zahilay and the others to defund the police and not investigate crimes. 

On Twitter, Zahilay noted that even though several of his other county council colleagues had endorsed Perry and supported the same policing policies he had, he was singled out for inclusion on the mailer with his name in “red boogie man letters.”

“Painting the Black elected official with a foreign-sounding name as an enemy to suburban and rural values is nothing new,” Zahilay tweeted

Harris, Sawant and Zahilay are all people of color, while Sanders is Jewish.

Zahilay’s image is also photoshopped so that he is shown wearing a red bowtie and a suit, a combination strongly associated with the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a Black nationalist organization. Images of Jewish people as all-controlling puppetmasters were common in anti-Semetic propaganda

The ad caused Lambert to lose several endorsements, including that of The Seattle Times and the Seattle King County Association of Realtors.

While Lambert originally defended the mailer, she later apologized for it. Because of the ad, the county council voted on Tuesday to remove Lambert from her leadership positions on county council committees. That was a move Lambert herself supported. 

At the same time, Lambert said she thought the public discussion of the issue at Tuesday’s council meeting was largely “about political opportunity” to damage her reelection campaign.

“One lapse in judgment that was insensitive should not be allowed to overshadow 27 years of good service,” Lambert said. “... For those of you who have never made an insensitive remark or act, congratulations.” 

Other county council races

Four other county council members are also defending their seats in the Nov. 2 election. In the District 7 race, Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer faces a challenge from Dominique Torgerson, a resident of unincorporated King County who started a home-based brewery business. In District 9, Councilmember Reagan Dunn is defending his seat against a challenge from Kim Khanh-Van, a Renton City Council member and immigration attorney. 

Meanwhile, in District 5, incumbent Councilmember Dave Upthegrove is being challenged by Shukri Olow, the youth development lead with King County’s Best Starts for Kids program. Each of those three districts covers parts of South King County.

To the north, Councilmember Rod Dembowski is defending his seat representing District 1, which includes Shoreline, Northeast Seattle and Kenmore. Dembowski faces Sally Caverzan, a self-identified environmental advocate who hasn’t held public office before. 

Ballots for the general election must be postmarked by Nov. 2 to be counted, or placed in a ballot drop box by 8 p.m. on Election Day. You can find the locations of King County dropboxes on the King County Elections website.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.