Two years ago, Seattle and nearby voters showed a remarkable appetite for electing seasoned candidates to troubled legislative bodies. The badly split Port of Seattle Commission voted in two experienced centrists (Gael Tarlton and Bill Bryant). The Seattle School Board, which had become a laughing stock of feuding, activists, threw them out and elected four very solid new members. The Seattle City Council continued booting out marginal members and added two pragmatists with plenty of real-world experience (Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell).
Is it now King County's turn? Not certainly for the Metro King County Council, which (as usual) has virtually no challengers to the incumbents — this despite the new nonpartisan nature of the races, meant to encourage more candidates. But change will be coming in the County Executive's office, where for the first time since that post was established 41 years ago, there is a genuinely open race, with no incumbent seeking the job.
The parallels with the 2007 election are fairly close. Outgoing County Executive Ron Sims had become increasingly distracted in the past few years, seemingly bored with the job and often out of town raising his national profile to get a job with the new administration (he did so). Meanwhile, the county has become in serious need of reform. It has a large, too well paid bureaucracy that feuds and performs sluggishly. Unions are bent on keeping all these jobs, despite the recession, and the courthouse gang, notably Sims and his circle and most of the County Council, have circled wagons to fend off change. Ripe for reform, you might say.
Four Democrats are seeking the (nonpartisan) job, and they come in matched pairs. There are two don't-rock-the-boat County Councilmembers, Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine, and two suburban-moderate Democrats in the Legislature, Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett. The wild card is former KIRO-TV anchor Susan Hutchison, who has never held public office and is so far dodging public exposure in a kind of protracted imitation of Sarah Palin during her hiding-out period. (Just today, however, the Hutchison campaign signaled she was ready to start showing up at public events.)
At this point it looks like Hutchison, with lots of time spent on voters' television sets, will win the primary and then get defeated in the general, as her opponent will alarm the strongly Democratic King County (the Democratic advantage is normally put at about 65-35) by pointing to Hutchison's past associations with conservative and Republican causes. On the other hand, with Jarrett and Hunter more or less dividing the reformist/outsider vote, Hutchison will likely face Phillips, who will have the disadvantages of being a Seattle liberal (he's from Magnolia) and portrayable as a fairly staunch defender of the present courthouse gang. She could win.
Or might Jarrett and Hunter, who are very close legislative allies and mutual admirers, instead decide to narrow the race to just one Eastside reformer? Hunter, in remarks to the Crosscut editorial board yesterday, hinted that such conversations were possible "in the next two days," and that Jarrett "would be the first person I'd hire in my administration." But don't count on it. Hunter clearly thinks Jarrett should be the one to step aside, and the Jarrett people regard Hunter's patronizing remarks as an unworthy political maneuver. So both will likely stay in the race even though neither is very well known and both lag in the polls. The wild card would be if Hunter, wealthy from his years as a Microsoft manager, decides to put in significant money of his own into his race. So far he hasn't put in any and he refused to say if he would.
More about Hunter is future stories, and you should read this portrait by Knute Berger. He's clearly ready to stand up to the unions, knock heads to shake up the county, and dig into the chronic financial woes at the courthouse. There hasn't been a major candidate with such a blunt, take-charge, smart-guy style around here for a long time.
And what about Fred Jarrett, who is both a reformer and more of a nice-guy in the typical, slightly owlish, earnest Northwest style? In many ways, he's what the doctor would order for the sick county, but it's not easy to see how the electorate would find that out in time for the August 18 primary.
Jarrett is a state senator from Mercer Island long involved in local issues (particularly transportation) and a moderate Republican who recently turned Democrat. (He was long the Democrats' favorite Republican.) He has an attractive blend of experience (at Boeing, as Mercer Island mayor), an agreeable manner, a wonky surfeit of substance that can try many listeners' patience, and an appetite to change the stodgy, chronically broke county. His problem is that he's relatively unknown, won't have a lot of money, and is in a race that the media mostly ignore. The latest poll puts Jarrett and Hunter tied for last, but grouped in the Democratic candidates' clump with Hutchison far in the lead and 34 percent undecided.
We recently spent some time with Jarrett, who visited with Crosscut writers. He put on a striking demonstration of how serious he is about cutting to the chase on a lot of major issues. Some examples:
On the University of Washington: Jarrett minced no words about how the relationship with the state is badly frayed, with the state cutting its support of the U.W. to the point where "minority shareholders aren't really listened to." His proposed fix: admit that treating the massive U.W. as a department of state government is "a failed model," so its better to let the U.W. become a public nonprofit, almost entirely governing itself, with the state becoming a "customer," telling the university what it needs in the way of programs and student slots and then simply paying for those services.
On Metro bus service: "Bus lines work when there's significant numbers of riders at one end or both ends. They should go where this is the case, or where you want to encourage density — where they work or where you want them to work." That means cutting the service where these rules do not apply, despite local political deals and the foolish allocation of new bus lines that gives only 20 percent to Seattle, where the lines work best. How to deal with the political howls? Provide more amenities of other sorts, to mollify the residents.
How to make change happen in the county bureaucracy: Do it the way Jarrett has been doing it at Boeing. When a department or program isn't working, don't berate the employees; change what you measure and that will change behaviors over time. The unions have to be part of the team, of course, and you have to be patient. "It will take eight years" to let this kind of change evolve. "The root of accountability is 'count,'" Jarrett likes to say, meaning that it's time to judge political programs by their outcomes, not by the dollars or high-mindedness put in. Just that shift would be a revolution in local politics.
On coming up with big state subsidies to make sure Boeing's second 787 production line is built here: "The second line will be elsewhere, in Texas or the South. Boeing is just doing that to have more options. The real question is about future narrow body assembly." Jarrett claims no inside knowledge, despite all his years at Boeing. But if this is true about the 787 Dreamliner, the state could save itself from undergoing a political maelstrom by pushing for massive tax incentives — just what is now gearing up in the Governor's office and the Chamber of Commerce.
And so the interview went — incisive, bold, bipartisan, get-on-with-it advice. But while Hunter would be more of a bull in this china shop, Jarrett would draw on his decades of working with local mayors and other good-government groups to restore trust and better communications. Being from the Legislature, he would have a good shot (as would Hunter) of repairing ties with Olympia, and possibly even Seattle, which have become badly frayed.
So far, the race has not developed a narrative that the public could identify with. One is out there, however, and if it catches on, Jarrett (and Hunter) could be the beneficiaries. It goes this way. The county is broke and it needs some serious reform, not more patchwork fixes. A new leader must have better relations with the state, the city, and local political leaders. The new leader is going to have to talk bluntly with the public employee unions about what can be afforded and how to get better performance. Metro and land use are critical issues, and we are not doing well enough despite some high-minded goals. The people now in the courthouse are not likely to make these changes, since they've created this mess and perpetuate it.
One reason this narrative might get some traction is former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who recently endorsed Jarrett. Royer was the runner-up to be the interim county executive — a brief chance for some "fresh eyes" in the county and therefore a way to get the reform ball rolling. Instead, the council elected to stay with Ron Sims' and the unions' choice, Sims' chief of staff Kurt Triplett, despite his strained credibility with the council.
As Royer tells the story, and he's not at all happy with the outcome, the unions and the courthouse insiders didn't want to take a chance on an outsider (though a pro-union Democrat) in the coming months. Numerous union contracts are at stake, and a budget has to be cut further. The protectionist marching orders came down, and the county council ("held captive" by labor, in Royer's words) obliged, with Phillips and Constantine turning out to be the surprise swing votes for Triplett. This is not a story that is going to make a lot of voters, fearful for their jobs in the ordinary world, eager for more of the same at the courthouse.
But it is also inside baseball. Phillips brushes off such issues, saying voters tell him their main concern is jobs and the economy. As for a willingness to change the old regime at the courthouse, Phillips points to his willingness to challenge fellow Democrat Sims months before Sims got his new job and before any of the other Democrats jumped in. He's playing the county experience card, as well parlaying his many institutional endorsements from labor, business, and environmental groups. It's his turn, he almost implies.
There is one more interesting wild card in this intriguing race, and that is the Seattle Mayor's race. If it becomes a hot one (so far, it's very tepid), that would increase the Seattle voter turnout, which in turn helps the Seattle candidates Phillips and Constantine. There are far more voters outside Seattle for the King County race, but Seattle voters turn out more, usually because their races are better covered by the media. But races for the Port, the School Board, and all but one seat on the City Council are lacking in drama this year. It's the county's turn for excitement, if the voters bestir themselves.
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