Senate candidates turn out for forum ahead of primary

Six candidates vying for Sharon Nelson’s state senate seat attended a forum in Ober Park last Wednesday and addressed the crowd gathered to hear proposed actions on a wide range of issues.

The candidates covered topics ranging from homelessness and health care to taxes and education. They addressed some Vashon-specific issues as well, including ferry service.

The event was hosted by the island group Unifying For Democracy, a coalition of Vashon-Maury progressives, and moderated by Susan McCabe of Voice of Vashon, which recorded it and has provided it online.

“As you all know, democracy is not a passive activity, and it’s messy, and so I appreciate all of you being here to practice democracy,” said McCabe.

The candidates in attendance were Sofia Aragon, a public health nurse and attorney from Burien; Shannon Braddock, deputy chief of staff for Dow Constantine; Joe Nguyen, a lifelong resident of the 34th district and a senior manager at Microsoft; Hillary Shaw, a business consultant; Lois Schipper, a public health nurse and longtime White Center resident; and Lem Charleston, a pastor and Seattle Police Department chaplain. All are Democrats, except for Shaw, who is running with no party affiliation.

Island Funeral Service Director Lisa Devereau, who was away on business, had intended to send a proxy to read an opening and closing statement, but the individual was delayed by the ferry and unable to email a statement in time.

In her opening remarks, Schipper related her fitness for the state senate to her experience serving Kurdish refugees for a non-government medical response team during the first Iraq War. She said she was chosen to be a communications liaison and had to manage complex relationships among the military, non-profits, the Iraqi government, and the exiled Kurdish government.

“It’s not unlike the Senate,” she said. “We had safety issues, we had resource issues, we had lots of competing priorities that were important to people, and we managed to work through it.”

Nguyen, who along with Braddock was endorsed by the 34th District Democrats, billed himself as a community advocate who wants to invest in Washington residents. He said he helped to start a dialogue among local leaders, politicians and community members incensed by the death of 20-year-old Tommy Le, who was shot and killed by a King County deputy in Burien last year.

Charleston, a community chaplain who works alongside police, said he found that bringing sides together in the wake of deadly shootings of minorities by white officers requires incredible reserves of calm. Asked about his opinion of Seattle’s youth jail toward the end of the forum, Charleston expressed his dismay to audience applause.

“A youth jail is a community fail. I don’t appreciate a youth jail,” he said.

Aragon shared that she succeeded in acquiring sponsors from both parties to support a bill she lobbied for while representing the School Nurse Association of Washington. In the same vein, Shaw noted her ability to compromise, distinguishing herself from insiders engaging in “partisan antics” rather than collaboration.

Braddock referred to her extensive resume of working for the county, first as chief of staff to King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who then chaired the budget committee.

“We had to know how to negotiate, how to figure out what the common goals were, and which stakeholders to bring to the table to help influence the people who have different principles and values than we do sometimes,” she said.

She also reviewed a body of accomplishments demonstrating her ability to work across the aisle and produce results as Deputy Chief of Staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine. Under Constantine, the county passed the Best Start For Kids levy and renewed the Veteran Seniors and Human Services Levy. Braddock said that both were examples of “work that we’re really proud of, work that is very progressive, and work that is very in line with my values and with the values of the Democratic party.”

All of the candidates addressed homelessness, though Aragon connected the issue to the greater need for affordable, permanent housing throughout the region.

“As a housing advocate, my vision is really for permanent housing for everyone,” she said, and discussed the Housing Trust Fund, included in the capital budget, which provides for veterans and disabled people, as well as supporting first time home buyers — all of which was jeopardized with the failure to pass the state capital budget last year.

“For the very first time in the state legislative history, the capital budget did not pass on time, and as a consequence of that we lost $200 million of federal funding that was available for the states to use,” she said. “Number one, do not pass up on money that a state is able to access for important things like homelessness and affordable housing.”

Her endorsements include the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, which works to promote the accessibility of quality homes to Washington residents.

In her response, from her perspective as a public health nurse, Schipper called for more options to treat the factors that contribute to homelessness.

“We know that mental health drives a lot of homelessness, we know that substance abuse drives a lot of homelessness around the opioid crisis, and we know that there are not enough services for people that need them,” she said.

Charleston called the 34th district “unbelievably complex.” In Seattle, he said, there are “millionaires on one end and 10 minutes to the west you have people actually living on the streets.”

Each of the candidates also addressed adequate funding for education. Shaw read from prepared notes that she would like to support public education, calling it “a duty that has been shirked for decades.” She said that tax reform would be the inevitable solution to generate revenue for the state’s needs and shared her desire to serve on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, though acknowledged her inexperience when it comes to budgets.

Among those with the most extensive backgrounds in finance is Nguyen, who was formerly the strategic advisor for the CFO of Expedia.

“The things that I care about, really, are healthcare issues, making sure we have health care for all, and fully funding our education,” he said, emphasizing in his remarks that tax reform — particularly a capital gains tax — would provide revenue to support his key priorities.

Responding to a question about her financial acumen, Schipper said she has extensive experience managing a budget and noted that family planning services were ended “under the direction” of Constantine at the White Center Public Health Center, which she managed at the time. “That was a very hard decision to make,” she said.

The candidates assailed Washington state’s tax structure numerous times. Schipper lamented that lower earners in the state have to pay as much as 17 percent of their income to sales and property taxes but the wealthy only pay 2 percent — a claim that is largely true, according to findings by the Economic Opportunity Institute, as reported in The Seattle Times.

“The fairest system would be to tax people on the income that they earn,” she said.

Braddock echoed Nguyen’s points in calling for a capital gains tax as well as reducing property and sales taxes for lower earners. In her opening remarks, she said that her three children, all educated in Seattle public schools, inspired many of her policy positions on gun reform and civil rights and that she would push for resources to assist families with children enrolled in early education. With no impetus, she was also the first to address the pressures of climate change and issues surrounding transit, earning applause.

Nguyen answered a lightning round question about protecting the southern resident orca whales just briefly, but he was the only candidate who explicitly named his support for Initiative 1631, a carbon tax headed to the November ballot.

“Specifically in this area … issues of the environment are on top of the minds of a lot of folks,” he said, again making the point that reforming the tax system and “investing in the people here” would provide the means to address environmental concerns.

On transit, Braddock — endorsed by Nelson and Constantine among other heavyweights — referred to her involvement in funding the expansion of water taxi service.

“Working with the water taxi isn’t quite the same as working with the ferries, but I feel like I can get on board and be a great advocate on behalf of the ferry system here as well,” she told the crowd, raising the matter for other candidates to discuss.

The forum is available online at

Ballots must be postmarked by election day, Aug. 7, if mailed or returned to the drop box at the Vashon Library by 8 that evening.

Results from the primary will be available online at King County Elections beginning at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday.