As Ron Sims heads east, King County is looking for a new leader. Sims has somewhat redefined the position with his hyperactive drive. No longer is the executive office a place for tweedy pipe smokers, guys with a kind of suburban dad appeal (John Spellman, Tim Hill). Rather, it's become a launch-pad for ambitious pols eager to step up before the place really falls apart (Gary Locke, Sims). It's a management challenge: balkanized, over-shadowed by Seattle, sprawling, highly populated, underfunded, and with much of the public's dirty work to perform: sewage treatment, bus service, jails.
Sims made the best of it by turning his office into a think tank for new ideas, and that served to get him national attention. Sims mastered details, but often seemed removed from them at the same time, more interested in looking at the big picture, excited by the new schemes dreamed up by smart young interns than in the thankless nitty gritty of county government. He was an early adopter of Twitter, a technology tailor-made for his intellectual restlessness.
By dint of his energy and passion (not to mention bear hugs), he maintained years of good will, though more recently he had his political stumbles — infuriating colleagues with his flip-flop on the 2007 Roads & Transit measure, for one. He was for it before he was against it. Local politicos felt betrayed, though Sims told the truth about the measure's flaws.
He also seemed easily distracted by shiny baubles: a run for governor on an pro-income tax platform (another politically expensive case of truth-telling). The bungles in the election office gave rise to increased criticism that Sims seemed more turned on by his own visions than in taking care of basics, like making sure the elections office was competently run or the computers got fixed.
While the unincorporated parts of King County have shrunk (new cities, annexations), the role of county government is now bigger. Sims has made it a player, a key broker in large regional decisions; he's given the executive's office the cachet of visionary thinking, especially on environmental regulation and transportation. Yet left behind are all kinds of systemic issues, like taxing authority, service levels, strained relations with suburban cities, the cost of running the place (even liberal Democratic leader, House Speaker Frank Chopp, has excoriated the county for its costs). In short, the county has a central role to play in shaping central Puget Sound, but it doesn't work.
Against this background, the latest entry into the exec's race is intriguing. Ross Hunter is an Eastside Democrat serving in the state House of Representatives. He's an Eastside D, of course, socially progressive, fiscally moderate, pragmatic, the kind of politician ascending in the suburbs which have swung blue and been cultivated by Chopp's machine-building. Hunter believes the non-partisan county exec race will allow him to attract voters throughout the county, where two-thirds of the electorate lives.
He's also a 17-year Microsoft manager who represents a traditionally Republican district and has become a player in Olympia as chair of the House Finance Committee. He's certainly not the only Microsoftie to run for office (former legislators Toby Nixon and Bill Finkbeiner come to mind as does twice-defeated Congressional candidate Darcy Burner), but he does think the Bill Gates School of Management has taught him some important lessons.
"Bill Gates is the smartest guy I ever met," says Hunter who was schooled in the competitive, combative Microsoft management environment. It wasn't for softies. Managers had to make their case directly to Gates who could run the company, the whole company, out of his head, at least he could well into the 1990s before it got too big even for him. Hunter loved the rough and tumble. The company interview process was notoriously combative. People who worked at Microsoft like Hunter didn't just survive their interviews, they thrived on them, eager to debate and do battle. Hunter is smart, verbal, and not shy, which he attributes to his "whole East Coast background" (Philadelphia).
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