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State Sen. Joe Nguyen joins an increasingly diverse group of lawmakers in Olympia

Sen. Joe Nguyen is sworn in at the Capitol.
Aaron Barna
Washington State Legislature
Sen. Joe Nguyen is sworn in at the Capitol.

OLYMPIA — Joe Nguyen doesn’t look like your typical lawmaker. He’s the first Vietnamese member in the state Senate. And at 35, he’s one of the youngest.

“People are realizing that I’m a senator and not a staffer,” Nguyen said. But, he added, people do sometimes ask "who do you work for?" 

“I’m like, 'I work for the people of the 34th (District).'"

Nguyen, from White Center, joins a freshman class of increasingly diverse lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session: 14 women, eight people of color, five millennials, a refugee. Combined, the newcomers make up a wave of lawmakers changing how state capitols function. 

The first time people mistook Nguyen for staff, he says he felt bad — like he should change the way he is.

“And after a while I was like nope,” he said. “I’m not going to change the way I am. I think they need to understand that what it looks like and what it means to be a senator are very different from what it was before.”

Part of that comes with bringing a 21st century approach to lawmaking. Nguyen has a “No Paper” sign posted onto his desk. He tracks policy on his phone, checks email with data visualization software, schedules with the help of a virtual assistant. Nguyen says this efficiency frees up more time to meet constituents and draft policy.

“So my goal is: how to we use tech to focus on what’s important, which is human capital,” Nguyen said.

Later, at a reception in the lieutenant governor’s office, Nguyen provides a sense of how he is changing the demographics in the Legislature. Walls are lined with portraits of past office-holders. Save for one, they’re all older white men. It’s a sharp contrast to the Legislature Nguyen is now apart of and the path he took to get here. 

In 1980, Nguyen’s mother and dozens of family members fled Vietnam in a small wooden raft. They ran out of food and water before being rescued by the Navy. Nguyen’s mom nods her head while he tells the story of how she became a refugee.

“It was safer for them to leave on open ocean and go to the United States,” he said of his family.

Nguyen is tapped on the shoulder; he’s late to a caucus meeting. En route, he steps onto an elevator next to Sen. Karen Keiser, the senior-most Democrat in the chamber at 23 years.

“We’re neighbors,” Keiser said. “I represent the next-door district to him, so we’re going to be working together a lot.”

Exiting the elevator on the Republican wing in the Senate, Nguyen admits: “I guarantee you none of them know who I am.” 

Still, that’s not stopping him from reaching across the aisle.

“I’ve already been reaching out to a lot of folks in their caucus just because there’s a lot in common we want to tackle in terms of homelessness, affordability, and health care costs and what not,” he said. “I’m actually pretty excited to work with them because I think we were pretty shocked at how effective it will be to work with both parties because the national (level) is much more divisive than the state level.”

As Nguyen prepared to be sworn in before a crowded gallery, the gravity of becoming a lawmaker as a person of color was sinking in.

“We don't have the luxury of a narrative,” he said. “So when you’re the first person doing something you are the first impression and we have to be a positive impression for future generations.”

Copyright 2019 KNKX Public Radio

Kari Plog is an eager newcomer to public radio and a longtime admirer. Her background as a print journalist started at The News Tribune in Tacoma, where she covered government and communities across Pierce County. Her work included an award-winning investigation into a deadly boat launch in Tacoma.