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Why Senator Fortunato Mocking Senator Nguyen’s Name on the Senate Floor is a Problem


Traditionally members of the Washington State Senate welcome freshman senators into their new role after their first bill passes with a friendly roast. February 20, Senator Joe Nguyen (D -White Center, 34th LD) saw his bill, SB 5429, unanimously passed. He was not the only freshman senator to have their first bill passed that morning. He was, however, the only one to have their name openly mocked on the Senate floor.

“You don’t tell somebody how to say their name.”

Any member of a minority group will tell you that experiencing overt or microaggressive acts of racism and bigotry is a part of their life. That it always has been. So, when Senator Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn, 31st LD) stood before the Senate after Nguyen’s bill passed and inquired “how you get ‘Win’ out of N-G-U-Y-E-N? I mean, really, it should be Senator ‘Guy-en’,” he merely smiled and nodded.


Full Roll Call and Floor Speeches (Approx 20 mins)

“I am still desensitized to that type of behavior that I just smile and nod,” said Nguyen. “But multiple members came up to me and were livid. Actually, I appreciated that, because They should have been. I should have been as well. I was getting text messages from people in real-time. From members of the house, so folks who weren’t even in the room, members of the legislative body, they heard about it and were livid on my behalf.”

Senator Mona Das (D-Kent, 47th LD) echoed Nguyen’s sentiments. “As people of color, we’ve heard comments like that throughout our lives. I’m fortunate to have a short, easy to pronounce last name. But a lot of my family members don’t. Folks have always expected my family members to adjust the spelling or pronunciation of their names to suit themselves.”


Das observed that in the context of the Senate, there aren’t a large number of names to remember. Roll is called frequently, and the proper pronunciation of Nguyen is not difficult.

If someone doesn’t know how to pronounce Nguyen’s name, that’s ok. He understands that not everyone will know how to pronounce it or say it correctly. It is the act of diminishing his name that is the issue. For Nguyen, this is patriarchal and what perpetuates the system of institutional racism.

It Wasn’t Just His Name

Senator Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville, 9th LD) also made remarks about Nguyen’s name. After the Senate floor roast, Schoesler and Nguyen spoke. Schoesler apologized if any offense was had at his comments. “I don’t fault Schoesler. He was basically saying we both have hard names. I want to make sure I learn how to spell and say yours, and [you mine],” said Nguyen.

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Senator Joe Nguyen | Courtesy Photo

While some Republicans, including Schoesler, have apologized on behalf of Fortunato, the senator has not made any amends himself. “Not only did he make that comment on the Senate floor, [but] we’re [also] in committees together as well. He doubled down again in committee later doing the exact same thing. Not only did it not register that it was a bad thing; he thought it was even funnier to do it again,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen shared that Fortunato had made further comments that he considered problematic, including asking if one of his young Asian aides was Nguyen’s bride. “It’s like, I can’t tell if you realize how inappropriate you are or if you don’t care. Are you intentionally being a jerk, or are you just a jerk, and you don’t know that you are a jerk,” said Nguyen.

Schoesler and Nguyen spoke about generational differences and the acceptance of racism.  Nguyen acknowledges that, to a degree, bigoted behavior can be generational.  “I don’t care if it is generational or not.  It is still wrong. My perspective is good; it should be different.  The time [being] referenced as to when things were better, racism wasn’t just alive and well – it was codified into law.  We, as a society, have been putting up with racism for basically the history of Washington State.  So if we’re at the point where we can be more evolved, and have these conversations, then good.”

The aftermath of the Articles

The incident would have gone unaddressed had Rich Smith of The Stranger not been shadowing Nguyen for a profile piece. Since The Stranger’s article and subsequent Huffington Post article, Nguyen found his week more challenging. “But it should have been. It forced a conversation that had to happen. It is awkward now when I go over to the Republican wing.  When I talk to my colleagues in the Republican party, even if they are not Phil Fortunato, it is awkward. They know the articles are there.”

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A Tweet aimed at Sen. Nguyen was sent to the wrong Joe Nguyen.

After the articles came out, Nguyen began receiving feedback from young people and people of color who work at the capitol. The common thread among their messages was a feeling of disconnect, of not belonging. “Today, we have people who feel the legislative process is not for them. It’s because of comments like that. It’s because of behavior like that. So, when it happens to a Senator, it becomes even more diminishing to their existence,” said Nguyen.

“It’s important to understand our work has meaning. It’s important to understand our actions have meaning,” continued Nguyen. “Our goal as a legislative body should be empowering the people to take leadership in the future. If we behave in a certain way that diminishes that process that makes it harder to get involved, I find that problematic.”

‘Wow, I’m a quota.’

“For me, it’s this kind of weird dynamic that you become so desensitized to this kind of behavior that you chalk it up to another ignorant person that doesn’t understand. After 35 years of fighting, you do get a little bit tired sometimes of having to defend yourself, having to explain yourself. It does make your job harder,” said Nguyen.

Auburn’s City Council continued their discussion on racial equity Monday. During the presentation, Councilmember Bob Baggett assessed that while Auburn is a very diverse community, racial inequity isn’t necessarily present in Auburn, “I had the pleasure, or displeasure if you may consider it, of attending an entire day up at Green River College about racial equity. Some of the testimonials I heard in the workshops and seminars given were a little heartbreaking to some regard. However, I didn’t see those kinds of things happening in our city.”

In response to this, Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel echoed Nguyen. “Being the only Latina on the Council, sometimes I’ve said I wish they could walk in my shoes to understand what we go through. This is my second term, and there have been times I have felt I wasn’t part of this council. Also, not only on the council but on the Planning Commission. I even had a person tell me I shouldn’t have been on that.”

“Look at our staff, look at our council. It’s all white. We are a very diverse community,” continued Trout-Manuel. “We do have a lot of different cultures in this city. But yet, people don’t really understand unless they walk in our shoes on what we are trying to say. I remember when I was in the workforce, my boss said to me, ‘I finally met my quota.’ And I thought, ‘wow, I’m a quota.’”

Representing Auburn

“Our elected officials should always be sensitive to everyone they are representing,” said Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus.

pioneer cemetery, auburn wa
Pioneer Cemetery | Courtesy photo, City of Auburn

Within Fortunato’s district is the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Auburn also has a strong Hispanic population, many of which reside within the 31st District. Additionally, Auburn has a deep history with Asian-Americans, from the Japanese pioneers who helped build the city to those present during World War II.

“[Elected officials should] be mindful of the difference of joking with someone and making a joke about someone’s name,” said Backus. “We are all very proud of our names, the heritage that goes with [our names], that we’ve grown up with or married into. There’s a lot of pride. To make fun of how to pronounce a name? Our elected officials – everyone, quite honestly – should be better than that.”

Representative Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn, 31st LD) was also one of those apologizing for Fortunato’s remarks. Speaking further on the incident, he explained, “I wasn’t there and have only read the remarks in print and without context, so it’s hard to judge Senator Fortunato’s intent. And while it doesn’t bother me when my long last name is regularly misspelled and mispronounced, and occasionally even joked about, I also recognize that as a white person with an English surname, my experiences and interactions can be dramatically different from others, especially somebody with a non-English surname like Senator Nguyen. Thus, I think it’s best to leave it to Senator Nguyen to decide whether the comments on the floor bothered him or not.”

According to Nguyen, the two senators have awkwardly been working past the exchanges since February.


Nguyen’s first bill passed was SB 5429, an act relating to including referred and diverted youth in establishing community juvenile accountability program guidelines.  Read more about it here.

The Auburn Examiner reached out to Senator Fortunato multiple times, through multiple avenues, to participate in this article. Fortunato did no respond to any of our inquiries.

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We also received no comment from the following:
Councilmember Claude DaCorsi (recently spoke at a Fortunato event. “My purpose of attending Senator Fortunato’s forum was to make a presentation on affordable housing. I filled in for Councilmember Trout-Manuel, who asked me to take her place as she was unable to make the event. When I speak to our legislative representatives, it is in the context of Auburn’s priorities, AWC’s legislative priorities, and the legislative priorities of the Affordable Housing Advisory Board of which I am a member.”)

Valley Professional Firefighters IAFF-1352 (endorsed Fortunato in the 2018 election) – No Comment.

Last Updated: 04/25/2019 10:17am – Corrected misspelling of Senator Das’ last name (originally printed as Day).  Thank you to the reader who informed us of this error.

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  1. K K April 24, 2019

    Give me a break!! It was a roast!! Do you people not know what a roast is??? It’s ribbing. Kaiser said some garbage too anyone gonna make a big deal out of that?? Sheesh.

  2. K K April 24, 2019

    Oh brother!!! This is a traditional roast for passing his first bill. This is why you get called fake news and snowflakes!!’ Gonna make a big deal about Kaiser’s comments too or just for the Republicans? And while you play the race card I will remind you that Republicans fought a war to free the slaves, gave us the emancipation proclamation, the 13, 14, and 15th amendments, and introduced the civil rights act every year for 100 years after the Civil War and the Republican Congress passed the civil rights act in 1964 under Johnson. Democrats gave us the KKK and Jim Crow and there was no big switch. Only 2 people switched.

  3. Ted Cooke Ted Cooke April 25, 2019

    I think it’s actually a form of “soft” racism to assume that in America – the world’s melting pot, which is willing to assimilate and celebrate every ethnicity – any one group is so weak or overly sensitive that they can’t celebrate differences of speech, spelling, cuisine, costume, etc. Mr. Fortunato, who I know personally, is in no way a racist and his remarks actually demonstrate camaraderie and treating Senator Nguyen as an equal.

    Speaking of names, the article misspells the name of Senator Mona Das, whose name is intended to mean “servant of God”, incorrectly calling her in the fourth paragraph “Mona Day”.

    • Auburn Examiner Auburn Examiner Post author | April 25, 2019

      Thank you for catching and alerting us to the spelling error of Senator Das’ last name. We have corrected this and noted the update accordingly.

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