By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I feel very scared when people who are supposed to protect our community are thinking like — discriminat[ing thoughts],” said Jaime Rivera at a March 21 fire district meeting in Everett. “And all people say political stuff, and nobody says anything about discrimination — discrimination against Mexicans. I don’t understand that. I feel scared for me, my family.”
“Before, when people laughed to me, I thought to myself, they laugh because they like me,” added Rivera. “Now I can tell — they laugh at me because they make fun of me. I can see a lot of people here laughing. I’m not sure why they are laughing. … My concern is when they laugh and they use the word Mexico.”
On Tuesday night, two fire commissioners from Snohomish County Fire District 1 — David Chan, who is Chinese, and Bob Meador, who is white — faced about 40 community members, firefighters, and the Latino Civic Alliance, many of whom angrily called for Chan and Meador to resign from their positions in light of racist comments they had made about Mexicans at a previous March 7 meeting.
This was the second time Chan and Meador faced an angry public. The first time was the week prior, on March 17.
According to a partial transcript provided by the fire district, the exchange between Meador and Chan at the March 7 meeting went thusly:
Chan: Can we hire Mexican paramedics?
Meador: I don’t know.
Chan: It’s cheaper.
Meador: I don’t want those immigrants. They can’t do the job, you know.
Chan: It’s cheaper.
Meador: Yeah, but that’s what I’m saying, some solutions are …
At the time, Chan and Meador were unaware that their private conversation was being taped. After the comments came to light, an effort to impose disciplinary action was proposed on March 17. The resolution regarding the written reprimand had four parts. Chan and Meador had to, “1) make a written apology to the residents and employees of the district, 2) refrain from similar communications in future, 3) attend a diversity and intercultural communication training at Everett Community College or other similar training, and 4) consider resignation as a commissioner.”
Chan, Meador, Commissioner Jim Kenny, and Commission Chair Jim McGaughey voted on this resolution on March 17 (Commissioner Richard Schrock was absent). This resolution failed to pass, on a 2–2 vote. Chan and Meader were the two who voted against the resolution.
“[Chan and Meador] had the option to approve written reprimand and diversity training [for themselves] — [but] they voted against it,” said Nina Martinez, Latino Civic Alliance (LCA) chair. “That was a tipping point for us. They are not taking accountability.” LCA is a statewide nonpartisan organization that promotes advocacy and civic engagement in Washington state by encouraging social responsibility and public service.
Chan: I was blindsided
In a separate interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Chan said that his remarks about Mexicans were taken out of context. He stated that there is currently a paramedic shortage, not just for Fire District 1, but nationwide.
“In my mind, I was thinking, similar to high tech — right now, we have shortage of engineers, so we go to other countries, the H-1B visa,” said Chan. “I thought about Mexico automatically — because of its proximity to the U.S.”
The H-1B visa allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, which is defined as a job that require theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge in a field.
Chan said that he suggested hiring Mexican paramedics, that is, going down to Mexico to recruit paramedics as an alternative to using a private company, which, he said, would be more expensive. He said that is why he stated that Mexican paramedics would be cheaper.
“A lot of people interpreted [my statements] like I’m mocking the hiring of cheap labor, but that was not my intention.”
Chan also stated that his colleague, Meador, has a dry sense of humor. Chan said that Meader’s comments were said in a joking manner and that Meador was adopting the persona of a right-wing conservative. That was why Meador made the comments he did.
“I knew he was kidding,” said Chan. Chan pointed out that Meador’s son-in-law is Mexican American, as are Meador’s grandchildren.
Chan stated that since the taped recording was publicized, a lot of due process was not followed. He said that he was not allowed to explain before punishment was doled out at the March 17 meeting, which was why he opted not to vote to pass the resolution regarding a written reprimand.
“They didn’t listen to one word we said [at the March 17 meeting]. … I think, wait a minute. In a court, you get to have a hearing. But here, the court makes the decision without a hearing. All of this happened in one day [for me]. Basically, they had already made up their minds.”
Chan said that he voted “no” to the reprimand because he felt blindsided and rushed, and he did not think he had enough information.
“As a courtesy, they should’ve called me and said, ‘David, we have this video.’ They should’ve said, ‘David, can you come in and explain.’ [But they didn’t.] So that is a problem.”
Chan points out that he is socially liberal, a registered Democrat, and was a precinct committee officer for Bernie Sanders (he wrote a blog series about becoming a Sanders delegate that ran in the Northwest Asian Weekly in the spring and summer of 2016.).
He said that since news of the video broke, he has been inundated with angry emails, many of which contain racist remarks on account of him being Asian. He said that he hasn’t been able to sleep in days. He stated that an email that particularly stung was one from another Asian person.
“It said, ‘You are the shame of the Asian community.’”
Notably, Chan is one of the few persons of color who serve on the fire commission. He said he has not run into another Chinese American in a similar position in Washington state yet.
Leadership and accountability
When asked about the layer of complexity involved when one ethnic group publicly disparages another ethnic group, Martinez voiced her disappointment that the situation is what it is.
“For us, we value the relationships that we have with Asian community leaders,” she said. “It is disappointing that an immigrant (Chan) would make such a comment and would be so disconnected from the Latino community. … And [Meador] having Latino family members — both are responsible for poor judgment, which shows a lack of leadership skill that we believe this commission needs.”
“I think it’s very critical that Latinos partner with Asian leaders,” Martinez added. “We need, now more than ever, to work with one another instead of bringing each other down. … The same [request for resignation] would be applied if a Latino turned around and said something negative about Asian culture. We would expect the same response from the Asian community — to hold that person accountable.”
On March 21 at 6 p.m., the fire commission comprising Chan, Meador, McGaughey, and Schrock first worked through their scheduled agenda items in front of a room full of press and community members. At 7 p.m., Chan made some comparatively lengthy remarks, first explaining the sequence of events as they unfolded for him, then explaining the context of his remarks about Mexicans before he apologized.
“When I looked at the video [for the first time], I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is terrible.’ If I didn’t know the person in the video, I would be angry, too. I made a terrible mistake. I deserve it. … Hopefully you come to the conclusion that this guy made a stupid mistake. … I misspoke.”
Chan stated that he did not intend to resign as commissioner. He said he promised himself to finish out his six years on the commission, and then submit himself up for reelection, after which, the voters will decide whether or not to keep him.
During his turn, Meador said, “I’ve been in public service since 1972. Since this moment, I’ve had an unblemished record. There’s a model that I’ve lived by that the only excuse is that there’s no excuse. There are words that have been recorded that are inappropriate and out of context. They are very incomplete — but at this point, I take full responsibility for the words that have been recorded.”
The majority of comments from the public were heated and many speakers called on Chan and Meador to resign.
“The time for sorry excuses is gone,” said Erin Stewart, of Snohomish County. “Discrimination in hiring and wages is illegal and immoral but it persists, not because of brute force, but because of classism and racism of the most insidious kind — the kind whispered and the kind joked about when we think the door is closed and the mic is not on. … No man is above the law and no man is beneath it. You need to step aside now and allow more awakened people to serve in your stead.”
Robert Chao is a 13-year firefighter and a Chinese American. When he stepped up to the microphone, he stated that he was not at the meeting on behalf of any group — just himself. He said, “Your comments … have been hurtful, disgraceful, and really bring down the fire service as a whole. When we’re out on the street, we treat everyone with the utmost respect, care, and compassion. All we see is a problem and someone having a bad day. We’re there to help. We’re held to a higher standard as public servants. You guys are held to a higher standard as the public officials leading us. I’d like to say that my understanding is that if a firefighter or paramedic or anyone else in our organization makes similar comments … that’d be grounds for termination.”
“Commissioner Meador, you said, ‘I don’t want those Mexicans. They can’t do the job.’ I’m here to tell you that I’m here. I’m a first generation Mexican American immigrant. I’m here to tell you that I can do this job,” said Moi Castellon, a firefighter. “My Spanish-speaking ability has helped our department countless times when dealing with Spanish-speaking citizens who need our help in emergencies.” Castellon has been with the fire district for nine years. Prior to that, he was in the military and served two deployments. Castellon immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 8 years old.
“Commissioner Chan, you said, ‘Yeah, but they are cheaper,’ and you laughed. … Are you implying that I should get paid less [than my counterparts]? You should know better than to talk down to me.”
After public comment and additional discussion, the commission came back after a five-minute break and voted to pass the written reprimand (Chan and Meador voted in favor of it this time), with no changes, 4–0.
Snohomish County Fire District 1 is actively seeking qualified paramedics and firefighters, particularly women, veterans, and people of color. For more information, visit firedistrict1.org. (Employment is under the Divisions tab.)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.