Burien mayor Sofia Aragon • Courtesy

In November, the Chinatown International District (CID) will have a new representative on the King County Council. Burien mayor Sofia Aragon and Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda are competing to succeed County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents the county’s District 8, including the CID, part of downtown Seattle, West Seattle, parts of South Seattle, Delridge, Burien, White Center, Tukwila, and Vashon and Maury islands.

The general election will take place on November 7.

Aragon was selected by her fellow council members to serve as mayor of Burien in 2022. She has served on the Burien City Council since 2020. She is an attorney, a registered nurse, and executive director of Washington Center for Nursing, which focuses on workforce development for nurses. She is endorsed by former Governor Gary Locke and several local elected officials.

The International Examiner interviewed both candidates about issues important to the CID, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

International Examiner: The Chinatown International District (CID) is part of District 8, the position you are running for. Within recent memory, how effectively do you think the King County Council has served the CID neighborhood? If elected, how would you do things differently from your predecessor?

Sofia Aragon: An important thing to mention is there hasn’t been someone from Asian heritage on the council for 40 years, and I think that does have an impact, particularly because in the entire district, the second largest population are AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander]. I’m hearing that the Chinatown International District, this feeling that they want better representation at numerous levels, that would be including transportation, that would be including public safety in particular.

IE: During the campaign, is there any particular lesson that you’ve learned or anecdote that you could share that challenged you or taught you something new about the CID neighborhood?

SA: Two things stick out in my mind. One was when Major League Baseball was in town. And it’s not very far away, right? The SoDo District is right next door, and there was a lack of highlighting the cultural experiences, and uniqueness of the International District when we knew we had all these visitors coming in just right next door. So I think that is something that could certainly be highlighted.

There’s a lot more that the King County Council can do in terms of economic development. Most cities have an economic development department, — the city of Burien certainly does. And how that helps us is to be more attuned to the multicultural groups that are in our city, and allows us to understand how we can best support them.

Another example is when I walked around the neighborhood, I was talking to folks about public safety issues. First of all, they didn’t feel like there was adequate response. So things may happen, and there isn’t a response by law enforcement. The other thing that has been missing, but it’s happened in the past, is that there aren’t any bilingual officers that could support that neighborhood.

In the city of Burien, we’ve done that over the last few years. It’s been really effective for law enforcement to build relationships in our community. So our largest community here is the Hispanic, Latino community. We have bilingual officers going out and doing education. They’re going out doing Q&A, particularly with parents who are concerned and want to know about, you know, what are some things that we can protect our children here from vulnerabilities, like crime, for example. Those officers have been instrumental in brainstorming ideas with them and just getting to know them so that there’s a positive relationship. So I think the same thing can be done for the CID.

IE: In 2022, after pressure from the community, King County backed down from opening a new shelter and services for people experiencing homelessness in SoDo at the edge of the CID. If you had been serving on County Council at the time, what would you have done to address this controversy? What is your takeaway from the way this unfolded?

SA: Well, I think that with any process, with any policy that might impact the community, you need to have discussions, involve that community with your plans, and let them weigh in. Because my perception having watched it outside of the CID is that the community was not at the table in giving input to the county as to what would be the impact if that shelter was there. That’s what I would have done differently. Looking at homelessness statistics, the AAPI community actually doesn’t have a lot of homelessness in the community itself. That’s a really important piece of information, if you’re going to have a very large shelter near a largely AAPI community.

I’m from South County, and we certainly see a rising number of homelessness everywhere. We all really have to work together to share in that challenge, and come up with a plan as to what we’re going to do together for unhoused people. And where that leads me is the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. I don’t think they’re doing enough to be conveners of communities across King County, that joint problem solving. That’s one of the things I’d like to do with the Regional Homelessness Authority.

IE: According to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, Seattle’s downtown area, including the CID, is where overdose rates are highest in the county. Given that King County has some influence on public health county-wide, what would you do to help address this crisis?

SA: Yeah, I think the overdose epidemic has not been paid enough attention to and it is a public health crisis. The county absolutely has a role because it runs Public Health Seattle and King County. What we’re doing now, which is absolutely necessary, because it’s a crisis mode, is have Narcan widely available, and to encourage people to have it, know what it is. And when they see somebody overdose, to encourage them to help.

For me, a real public health approach would be to also incorporate prevention. I’m a registered nurse, and I have worked with public health all of my career. We’re not doing enough for prevention. So one of the things that we would want to do is, for example, work with area schools so that kids know what they’re getting into, when they might be in a situation where there are opioids. An interesting statistic is that drug use is actually down in the state. But between 2019 and 2022, we’ve had three times the death rate among kids in overdoses. That’s because the drugs out there are just so much more dangerous. Kids need to know the danger of use, and because so many products are laced with fentanyl, which is particularly deadly, you just don’t know what’s in what you’re taking.

What I would do is look at how do we work with both community in schools to provide that education and provide it early in youth life, so that they know the dangers of what’s out there, and hopefully, they will not be a casualty of overdose. As well as continuing our crisis response, which is Narcan, and the crisis care levees that have been voted in this year. But there aren’t any that are going to be up and running for two years, so we’re going to have to have interventions between now and then.

IE: The Sound Transit Board endorsed a plan to place new light rail stations to the north and south of the CID, while keeping 4th Avenue on the table for further study. Which option do you support and why?

SA: I’m still looking into all of the options. There are pros and cons to all of them. I’m open to listening to not only those who are officially the planners and their perspective as to why it should work, but we should also hear from people in the CID about what they feel like looks best. No matter what option there is, we need to make sure that there is flow into the CID to attract visitors, residents, so that they enjoy the cultural amenities that the CID has to offer. And we might actually have to be a bit creative. Like, for example, regardless of where the station is, we might want to think about microtransit to get people around from whatever station it is into the CID itself to make it easy for people to come in and explore the district.

IE: How would you use your influence on King County Council to mitigate negative impacts of a new station, or limitations of its placement?

SA: To mitigate, I think there’s two things. One is to make sure you get input from all the voices in the International District. And then secondly, there might be options, which might have more of a cost component, and King County has resources to help mitigate any cost impacts. That’s something that I would definitely be willing to explore with the community. And King County Metro, you know, is a major role of the county, and Sound Transit as well. So the influence I think of a County Council member on this to transportation systems is really vital.

IE: The killing of Tommy Le, a Vietnamese American man, by a King County Sheriff’s deputy in 2017 in Burien, caused outrage in the Asian American community and countywide. The circumstances and internal investigation raised concerns about the conduct of the Sheriff’s office. How do you feel about the reforms the Sheriff’s office has tried since then? What further reform needs to happen?

SA: I’m really glad that you asked about reforms because Tommy Le’s case is one key example of the need to have more transparency in the King County Sheriff’s Office. Police brutality is never acceptable. We need to continue to pursue methods where use of force is really only used when absolutely necessary. The other piece, too, is I think, to continue co-response models, which have really strong roots in South King County, where we have social workers, nurses, mental health professionals work with fire and police, so that a person who is going through a mental health crisis is not treated like it is a criminal response. And so that the mental health response can be treated appropriately, and police can respond to the criminal justice issue. As we’ve seen with the Wing Luke Museum vandalism, the response time is really slow. We need to make sure that their time is well spent in where they need to focus.

What other reforms do we need to do? Sit down with the community. What have we seen over time since Tommy Le, for example? Tommy Le’s incident was before we had body cameras. To what extent is that helpful in preventing unnecessary harm to citizens? So that’s something that I’m definitely committed to looking at with both the community, third parties who are there to hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable, as well as the Sheriff’s Office to see what are some improvements that we need to continue to work on and then set some outcomes and goals.

IE: Displacement, affordability, and gentrification remain ongoing concerns for the CID community. What would you do as a County Council member to help mitigate these forces?

SA: King County has a major role in affordable housing. The issue of gentrification is that it decreases access to a place, so we wouldn’t want that to happen to the CID. It also increases expenses for both businesses and those who live in the International District. So, there are a couple of things. I really like this program, the Business Community Ownership Fund, and this is from the Office of Economic Development in Seattle. This is something that we can look at in King County to make it more widely available to residents and business owners of the CID. It’s a program to help create and maintain affordable rents for small businesses.

Secondly, for those who want to be residents, land trusts for using revenue to build residences that can be homes is one strategy that can keep purchase prices low for future generations who purchase them. But what it also does is that it allows the owner to build equity, which is a traditional way to build wealth in the United States. That’s something that we would want to offer a homeowner. For those who rent, the incentive of the multifamily tax exemption has been really successful. It’s been here in Burien, to build apartment complexes where we have mixed affordable housing for residents who are zero to 80% [of Area Median Income].

Then there’s a mix of commercial rates in that building itself, so that we can provide that housing across the income spectrum, and it stays that way. What I’ve seen is that kind of construction for rental property has been much faster and efficient, and therefore accessible. So those are two ideas that I would love to see for residents in the CID and King County.

IE: The CID is often making headlines for controversy and issues that divide stakeholders down the middle. What is or would be your approach to tough decision making when there’s no clear consensus?

SA: That’s a really good question. As you know, the AAPI community, there’s almost 30 different subgroups. We’re not monolithic. From the get-go, what I would do if elected, is create an advisory table to represent the diversity of that community so that I could be informed of what are the challenges going in. What are the different perspectives in terms of handling issues moving forward that they see, and just really building that relationship so that when a crisis comes around — because you don’t really know what the next crisis will be — that we already have pretty strong, open communications, and we can jointly problem solve. So, that’s what I would do if I were to be elected, and make sure that we have all of the diverse voices of the CID at the table, working with me from the beginning.

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