King County public defender campaigning for District 3 seat

Ami Nguyen believes personal, professional experience will make her an asset on city council

King County public defender campaigning for District 3 seat

King County public defender campaigning for District 3 seat

Working for the King County Department of Public Defense, Ami Nguyen says she’s developed a thick skin, which should prove useful as she ramps up a campaign for Seattle City Council’s District 3.

Nguyen had planned to make a city council bid in 2023, she said, but was encouraged by the friends she made while participating in the Emerge Washington program to run in 2019. Emerge Washington trains Democratic women on what’s needed to run for public office.

“Basically, it provided me with a really strong support network,” she said.

Nguyen was born in Sacramento, California, and is the youngest child of Vietnamese refugees, who fled their home country after the war in 1975, first landing in Minnesota. Her uncle was placed in a Communist re-education camp.

“The idea of going into politics is a scary prospect for my parents,” Nguyen said.

Going up against incumbent Councilmember Kshama Sawant is also a daunting task.

“I’m scared of being bullied. She has some really strong followers,” Nguyen said. “But I don’t think that fear should prevent me from introducing ideas that I think the city should think critically about.”

Nguyen moved to Seattle in late 2016, after applying to be a King County public defender. She now represents clients facing involuntary mental health treatment.

Prior to that she was a staff attorney at Inner City Law Center’s Homelessness Prevention Project in Los Angeles, and she served as a deputy public defender for the Riverside County Public Defenders before that.

Part of the reason for Nguyen’s move to Seattle was to find someplace more affordable. She shares an apartment with her partner in a mixed-income complex in Yesler Terrace.

“Seattle was supposed to be cheaper, at least when I visited in 2013,” she said.

Nguyen wants to look at the contributing factors for Seattle’s affordability problem, such as the redlining that occurred in the Central District into the ‘70s, and how much the government played a role in that. The question is whether to stop displacement or try to restore what was lost, she said.

“Are we trying to maintain, or are we trying to increase equity, increase the diversity, and what’s our role in that?” Nguyen said.

The Seattle City Council is nearing finalizing its Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which will upzone urban villages around the city while requiring commercial and multifamily developers to either build or pay for affordable housing units. Nguyen said she wants to see more duplexes and triplexes being built in Seattle versus larger structures.

“I don’t want eight-story buildings in single-family zones,” she said. “That’s not what I’m pushing for.”

A former tenants’ rights attorney, Nguyen said she would use her professional and personal experience to provide insights into expanding protections for Seattle renters.

The District 3 candidate grew up in subsidized housing. Because of the Vietnam War, her parents left their home country with limited education. Sacramento had a growing Vietnamese community when they moved there.

Sawant introduced a bill in 2015 to prohibit rent increases in buildings suffering from code violations, naming it the “Carl Haglund law” after a specific Seattle landlord. Haglund sued Sawant and the City of Seattle, but dropped the case last June.

Nguyen said she thinks landlords with substandard buildings should be required to reduce rents until code violations are corrected. She also wants tenants to be able to file complaints and have building inspectors respond more quickly than they do now.

The city council unanimously passed an employee-hours (head) tax on large businesses last May, but Sawant and freshman Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda were the only ones to oppose a repeal vote less than a month later.

Nguyen said she doesn’t think Sawant’s framing it as an Amazon tax helped, when there were many other businesses that would have been affected. The District 3 candidate would support a head tax, she said, if it were properly vetted with residents and businesses; she doesn’t believe it was the first time.

“I do believe we need to talk to big corporations like Amazon and other businesses — we can’t just focus on Amazon — on what role they think they’re playing in regard to homelessness, and what solutions they have to improve the situation.”

Nguyen doesn’t believe Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to institute a congestion fee to reduce traffic downtown is a good idea.

“It’s going to alleviate the problem in the worst way possible,” she said.

A congestion fee would affect those low-income residents living outside downtown the hardest, she said, and is unfair when considering government offices and many resources are located in the city’s core. There would first need to be infrastructure improvements for people with disabilities and more efficiency in bus lines, Nguyen said.

The District 3 candidate will fund her campaign using the city’s Democracy Voucher program, which provides registered voters with four $25 vouchers they can distribute to city council candidates they want to support. The program is meant to allow for greater political participation and encourage new candidates to step up to serve.

Expecting big businesses and political action committees opposed to her socialist agenda to back her opponents, Sawant said during her January re-election campaign announcement that she would not use the democracy vouchers program. Primary candidates have a maximum spending limit of $75,000. Nguyen said she thinks an incumbent has the upper hand when it comes to fundraising, so it should be easier for them to use the program.

Nguyen said it was unfortunate fellow District 3 candidate Beto Yarce ended his campaign this month.

“I believe in having good candidates,” she said, “because you have good conversations.”

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