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Burien Elects Its First Two Latino Council Members

Will James
A Burien streetcorner crowded with campaign signs

Burien has elected its first two Latino City Council members, after a hard-fought race that revolved around immigration, crime, and the city's identity.

Jimmy Matta, a construction contractor and union leader, is leading incumbent Council Member Debi Wagner by 375 votes. Wagner, who has served on the council for four years, conceded in a Facebook post Thursday. 

Pedro Olguin, a union organizer and one of Matta's running mates, is 253 votes ahead of his opponent, Joel Manning. 

Burien's population is about one quarter Latino, but the city has never had a Latino City Council member.

People of color are about half of Burien's population, but just two have sat on the council since Burien incorporated in 1993. 

Matta, a son of undocumented farmworkers from Guatemala, said he jumped into the race in part due to instances of racism and xenophobia he witnessed after President Donald Trump's election.

Healing divides in Burien, he said, will require talking to people who voted against him -- and focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as the city's finances.

"I'm prepared to go out and be yelled at, be chastised, be discriminated at," he said. "But at the end of the day, it really comes to what do we have on the table that needs to be taken care of? We don't have very much money in our budget. We're a poor city." 

Fierce debates about whether Burien should be a so-called "sanctuary city" pumped energy and bile into this year's local election, residents said.

City Council members and voters have been split over a local law passed late last year that bars city staff and police from asking about a resident's immigration status or religious beliefs. 

Though Burien's elections are nonpartisan, national divides over immigration and other issues played a role in this year's City Council race.

Matta and Olguin ran as part of a progressive-leaning slate of four candidates. All four members of the slate have won or are leading in their races, including incumbent Nancy Tosta and newcomer Krystal Marx.

They faced a slate of four candidates who ran on an anti-crime platform and voiced criticisms of the "sanctuary" law. Members of that slate denounced support from a statewide group that sent out a controversial mailer purporting to list the names and addresses of undocumented immigrants accused of crimes. 

Wagner congratulated Matta on Thursday. She blamed her loss on media coverage and outside liberal groups, whom she said smeared her as a "racist, anti-immigrant, white supremacist, white nationalist, and Nazi." 

"This was a very sophisticated and professional power play to take over Burien and not only defeat opposing candidates but to also destroy their reputations," she wrote on Facebook. 

Matta said he respects Wagner's hard work over the years. He said he's optimistic he can make inroads with her supporters.

"I find it hard to believe that people that voted against me for the very reason that they're racist," he said. "I just don't believe that. I just believe that they're scared of change and something different." 

Winners of the election will be sworn in Dec. 18. They take office Jan. 1. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.