By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Joe Nguyen sat across the table at Freshy’s, one of his favorite hangouts in West Seattle, bursting with energy towards his recently launched campaign for the 34th district seat in the Washington state senate. If Nguyen wins the seat, soon to be vacated by Sharon Nelson, he will be the first person of color to have done so in what is one of Washington’s most diverse districts.
The 34th district covers West Seattle, Burien, White Center, and Vashon and Maury Islands. It’s where Nguyen grew up. His pride in his neighborhood, and desire to make it better, fuels his aspirations for this campaign and for the region as a whole. The fact that a person of color has never held a state senate seat in the 34th, in spite of its sizable non-Caucasian population, is something that sits at the core of Nguyen’s ideology and might be his unofficial slogan: “The reason why I’m running today is because representation matters,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen was reluctant, initially, to highlight that he is Vietnamese American.
His family, like most Vietnamese families, came to Seattle as refugees only one generation ago, and like most immigrant families, it has been a struggle to survive, let alone thrive.
At first, Nguyen said, “I don’t want to play that card. I just want to be a good candidate.” But increasingly, as he talked to others in the community, who expressed excitement at a person of color running for the seat, Nguyen grew convinced that his background and where he came from matters.
While many reacted with a hearty, “Finally!” after Nguyen’s candidacy announcement, others were skeptical.
“Why should you do it versus somebody else?” they’ve asked.
“I’ve been waiting for somebody else!” Nguyen has shot back. “I’ve been waiting for somebody transformative that represents our values, that cares, that is from the community … and there’s never been a person of color from the 34th.” The underlying question is why is it taking so long?
In Nguyen’s view, it is difficult for a person of color, a child of a family that arrived in Seattle just a few decades ago, after escaping Vietnam by boat, to focus on anything other than immediate survival. Life was not easy for the Nguyen family. They relied heavily on social services and each other. When Nguyen’s father was left a quadriplegic after an accident, Nguyen’s mother alone cared for four children. Nguyen and his siblings took on great responsibility at an early age, all the while enduring extreme economic hardship.
“I used to sleep on a dirty mattress in my basement because my family was one of the only ones that had a house … And we weren’t wealthy, it was not a nice house!” Nguyen related with a laugh.
“My mom was a seamstress — I would wake up because she was sewing backpacks.” Nguyen worked at his own high school as a janitor, and to this day, along with his siblings, he helps his mother pay bills. “That was my lived experience,” he said.
In spite of this, Nguyen has consistently risen to the top, starting from high school at John F. Kennedy (now called Kennedy Catholic), where he was class president for three years, and through college, where he served as student body president at Seattle University for two years — a rarity in the history of the university. Something about that early lived experience gave Nguyen the skills and the drive to succeed. Nguyen was embarrassed to bring up the hardships of his past, but his wife, Tallie, convinced him that talking about his upbringing would resonate with the public.
“There are so many other people who struggle,” she told him. “The fact that you’re able to talk about it gives them hope that they can also overcome adversity.”
Nguyen is mindful of the help his family received when he was growing up.
It’s why he is active in social services and education today, and why he is adamant about the availability of affordable housing and affordable healthcare. He is the chair of the Associate Board for Wellspring Family Services, and was integral in helping to pass HB2861, which provides early childhood trauma care. In his job as a senior manager at Microsoft, he assists with Microsoft Professional Programs, Worldwide Learning, a resource that teaches trades, free of charge, to those who wish to transition into the tech field. He has also been very involved with oversight of law enforcement and was in the news last year because he stepped into the fray after the shooting of Tommy Le in Burien.
“Despite all the adversity that we grew up with, I’m very thankful for the privilege that we were given,” said Nguyen. “That kind of informs why I do a lot of the work I do now … I know that if not for my mom, who got on a raft and left, I wouldn’t be here. If not for the community here, in Seattle — White Center specifically — if they hadn’t sponsored us and opened their doors for us, I wouldn’t be here … I’m obligated to give back.”
Another reason why Nguyen believes that the state hasn’t seen enough people of color in government, he goes back to his motto: representation matters.
“Systems of power tend to be a reflection of those who created them,” he explained. “When you see the lack of diversity [in leadership], and people are like, ‘I don’t know how that happened,’ generally, this is a very specific group of people who have built this system.” A system built with power. And money.
“Money wins elections,” Nguyen stated. “A very small community of people fund these elections, and I think you can guess their demographic.” Further, whoever is in power decides where the money goes, which leads to further under-representation in Seattle’s communities, fewer social services, less help for those in need.
“That’s why I think it’s important for democracy that everybody gets a chance to run,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen laughs when he talks about how much money he is going to have to raise for his campaign and how people ask him, “Isn’t this hard?” He answers, “Yes, it’s harder than just going to work and then coming home and watching TV, then putting your kids to bed — it’s harder than that…But not compared to jumping on a raft and then sailing in the open ocean. That seems pretty hard to me!”
When asked what kind of West Seattle he would like to see in the future for his children, Nguyen was adamant.
“I want a Washington state where it’s inclusive, where we respect other members of the community, where we have an opportunity to thrive, and I’m very scared that that’s not where it’s headed. I don’t think that the status quo is good enough. I don’t think it’s good enough for my family, for Seattle, for West Seattle, White Center, Burien, or Washington state.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.