Against the grain: Reagan Dunn holds the torch for King County conservatives

What it means to be the top Republican in a liberal King County government.

From a demographic perspective, it is no secret that Seattle and the surrounding King County region are predominantly liberal in political leaning.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn agrees that the officially non-partisan council he serves on is one of the most liberal governing bodies “anywhere in the country.”

Dunn represents constituents in the 9th District of King County. It’s a large district spanning from as far north as Bellevue all the way to the farthest parts of Southeast King County. The district includes urban population centers, but is also made up of rural unincorporated communities that tend to lean farther right in their political alignments.

Now he’s running as a Republican to unseat U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier (D) in the vast 8th Congressional District.

Dunn has been one of the more moderate-to-conservative King County Councilmembers since he was appointed to the position in 2005 after Rob McKenna — who held the council seat — was elected as state attorney general. In November 2021, Dunn defended his council seat against Renton City Councilmember and immigration attorney Kim-Khánh Văn.

After defending his council seat, and since announcing his candidacy for a Congress, Dunn has been the most conservative member on the King County Council. At times, he has been the only councilmember to take positions against initiatives and resolutions that his council colleagues have often uniformly supported.

“It’s a challenge,” Dunn said. “Governing for the minority is hard.”

For Dunn, part of the decision to run for Congress was the chance to become part of the agenda-setting majority. He said he expects Republicans to have the majority in the House of Representatives after this November’s elections.

Dunn is running for Washington’s 8th Congressional District, a seat currently held by Democrat Kim Schrier. Before Schrier was elected, the district had only elected Republican candidates, one of whom was Reagan Dunn’s mother, Jennifer Dunn.

Dunn called Washington’s 8th District the “doughnut hole” of the state, positioned in its center. The district includes much of eastern and southern King County (including Parts of Kent, Renton, Covington, Redmond, Issaquah, Snoqualmie, Maple Valley, Auburn and Enumclaw) as well as eastern Pierce County. The district extends over the Cascades as far east as Wenatchee and include Kittitas and Chelan counties.

Other candidates running for the 8th district include: Jesse Jensen, Patrick Dillon, Matt Larkin, Dave Chapman, Keith Arnold, Emet Ward, Justin Greywolf, and Scott Stephenson.

He described the people who live in the district as diverse, well educated, environmentally conscious and trade dependent, among other things. Informed by polling, he estimates the district is about 2 percentage points more conservative than liberal.

He gauged that some of the most important issues for 8th District constituents are high cost of living, crime, safety and Mexican border security. Dunn noted that agriculture in Central Washington often relies on seasonal labor from immigrants and therefore is more aware of border issues than one might expect of a northern state that’s non-adjacent to the Mexican border.

Dunn worked as a federal prosecutor during the George W. Bush Administration. He has familiarity with legal issues surrounding the open border, as he said he worked for border crime enforcement. He believes the fentanyl crisis and local crime rates have been impacted by the open border.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn speaks during an October 2021 candidate forum in Enumclaw. Dunn is now running for U.S. Congress in the 8th District, a seat currently held by Democrat Kim Schrier. Photo by Alex Bruell/Sound Publishing

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn speaks during an October 2021 candidate forum in Enumclaw. Dunn is now running for U.S. Congress in the 8th District, a seat currently held by Democrat Kim Schrier. Photo by Alex Bruell/Sound Publishing

Representing conservatives

Dunn said his decision to run for Congress is largely because he thinks we are “headed in the wrong direction.”

“Seattle is a great example of what can happen when there is no political opposition,” Dunn said.

He pointed blame to liberals for rising crime rates and less efficient enforcement and accountability in the justice system, inflation and high cost of living, even the homelessness crisis which he says is too focused on housing availability and not enough on substance abuse and mental health services infrastructure.

“What we are doing now is not working,” he said.

Recently, Dunn was the only King County Councilmember to vote “Not” on a non-binding resolution to “support a woman’s right to reproductive freedom” after a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would strike down the Roe v. Wade precedent that certain kinds of abortion are a constitutional right.

Dunn has previously maintained the position that the government should not interfere with an individual’s bodily autonomy and their right to make their own medical decisions. He said his public defense of workers who were to be laid off for refusing to get the COVID vaccine was evidence of his consistency on the principle.

“My view now is the same as it always was,” he maintained.

When asked why he voted against a symbolic resolution in support of reproductive freedom, Dunn said he has learned previously that voting for a resolution means you are responsible for all the language in that resolution. Dunn said he believed that some language in the resolution that he believed was hyper-partisan.

Dunn said, as an elected representative of the conservative minority, sometimes it is his job to “play defense” against the agenda-setting majority. He sees this dynamic as one that is fundamental to the two-party system of governance. He said he often feels a responsibility to be the “thoughtful voice” of the opposition.

In March, Dunn caught flak after he proposed pausing a progressive juvenile justice program that sought to divert young offenders away from the school to prison pipeline by enrolling them in restorative community justice programs. Community advocates, juvenile justice experts and even his council colleagues expressed concern and confusion over his proposal to pause a program that had only just begun months before.

With South King County crime rates on the apparent rise, Dunn said the restorative juvenile justice program “goes too far” and keeps violent offenders from being held accountable.

Bridge builder?

Even though Dunn said he believes there is blame to place, he is adamant on running a positive campaign because he believes the political division and “tribalism” in Washington, D.C., are among the largest problems facing the country.

With division and distrust between political parties at an all-time high, local King County elections even saw some of that nastiness rear its ugly head when former King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert put out a campaign mailer last year that depicted the only King County Councilmember of color, Girmay Zahilay, as a literal socialist puppet.

Many community members and Lambert’s council colleagues denounced the imagery and rhetoric as divisive and damaging to the community. It is hard to say how the campaign mailer impacted voter opinion, but Lambert, the 20-year incumbent, ended up losing her seat to Democrat Sarah Perry.

When asked if politicians have a responsibility to not galvanize division and sow distrust between political parties, Dunn answered: “Hell yes, they do.”

Dunn emphasized that elected officials have a duty to unify the public in common goals and to be “bridge builders,” rather than bridge burners.

“Instead of focusing on differences and attacking them,” Dunn said. “Let’s focus on what we have in common.”