EDMONDS — Twenty-thousand red postcards bearing the face of President Donald Trump were sent out to voters this week in southwest Snohomish County.
“Racist comments have no place in elected office … And it’s unacceptable here,” a caption reads in bold. The mailer features a photo of David Chan, a commissioner up for re-election in Snohomish County Fire District 1.
It urges voters to oust Chan, 66, for using “racist and demeaning language” at a public meeting in March. A hot mic caught Chan asking another commissioner if they could hire Mexicans as paramedics, to cut costs.
“I don’t want those immigrants,” answered Bob Meador, who is still serving out his six-year term. “They can’t do the job.”
“It’s cheaper,” Chan said, laughing, on the tape.
The local firefighter union spent $10,400 on the mailer. It’s rare to see that much money spent in a single fire commissioner’s race. The letter endorses Chan’s challenger, Michael Ellis, 28, a Mountlake Terrace police officer who is backed by the union, Local 1828.
Ellis was disturbed by Chan’s comment. But he disagrees with how the controversy is conveyed in the mailer. Ellis knew a postcard was in the works, he said, but didn’t know what it would say until it came in his mailbox.
“To be honest, I’m quite disappointed in their choice,” Ellis said. “I do not support that kind of politics or that way of doing things.”
The union, however, has doubled down on its criticism of Chan.
“Do I think he’s racist? Yes,” said A. J. Johnson, a firefighter and spokesman for Local 1828.
Chan, an immigrant from Hong Kong, has been on shaky ground with the union leadership for years. For example, they have opposing views on how firefighters should handle their staffing levels. Chan says to focus on daytime, when more 911 calls come in; the union argues they shouldn’t sacrifice night staffing, when fires, crashes and other emergencies are more often deadly.
The union was in the midst of recruiting candidates to challenge Chan when the comments were caught on tape. The story spread far and wide as representatives of the Latino community called for Meador and Chan to resign. In spite of the controversy Chan raked in 42.6 percent of the vote in the primary campaign in August. Four challengers split the remainder. Ellis scraped by with a second-place finish of 17.1 percent. His glimmer of hope in the general election is that over half of voters in the primary went against Chan.
To Chan, a two-term incumbent, it has been frustrating to see the race for his seat turn into a debate over whether he’s racist. He acknowledges that he misspoke, but continues to insist it was a misunderstanding. He was making a joke about outsourcing cheaper labor, like Microsoft does in India, he said this week. However, he agreed that it looked bad on tape.
“They basically want to define me, my whole life, in two minutes of conversation, but my life is more than that,” he said. “The whole campaign shouldn’t focus on me, it should be about the issues.”
Those issues, he said, are the fire district’s lack of debt; the fact that the vast majority of calls are medical, not fire-related, and how the district should allocate its money in light of that fact; and whether some ambulances should be deployed differently.
Both candidates see themselves as the better fit to steer the fire district through its most pressing challenge, the merger with the new South Snohomish County Fire Authority. Ellis believes he’s especially qualified because his police work puts him on the streets with the crews from Fire District 1.
“Not only should the firefighters get what they need, but the community should get what they deserve,” Ellis said.
Chan stressed his experience as a member of the board.
“I’ve been here for 12 years, so the regional fire authority does not happen by accident,” he said. “We have been working for this for the past 12 years. We need to regionalize the whole fire service — fire service without a city border.”
Chan noted that he hasn’t seen his opponent at board meetings. Ellis acknowledged he has never been to a meeting in person, but since he decided to run, he has viewed recordings of each hearing, he said.
The union has set aside another $20,000 to spend in the race, according to campaign finance records. Johnson, the union spokesman, expects another mailer could be sent out before Election Day Nov. 7.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.