It was refreshing to see Ron Sims in the Crosscut offices last week. He's back from Washington, DC, slimmer than you remember, good humored, passionate, frank: a man clearly enjoying his sabbatical from heavy responsibilities and the circus of public life. Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development wasn't a fit; a new appointment to the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council is. But HUD was a great place for Sims to learn about rejuvenating cities.
In the final years of Sims' tenure as King County Executive, he seemed less interested in governing than in innovating. He began to view his office less as a bully pulpit than a think tank full of fresh young fellows, a place to try new ideas, such as revamping the county's approach to healthcare, one experiment that appears to have worked. David Brewster once called him a "true geyser" of visionary ideas.
One of the things on Sims mind these days is regional leadership. The short version is this: what Sims has learned traveling to urban areas around the U.S. with the power of federal HUD grants behind him, is that even in the age of cities, no particular city is guaranteed success (see Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis). It is possible to get to the top of the heap and slide into decline.
Another lesson: that one thing all successful cities have is regional cooperation. In other words, there is buy-in to a regional vision. A city is bound to its satellites, suburbs, exurbs. Everyone has to get on the same page to deal with problems that jump jurisdictions, like water, air quality, transportation, economic development. No city is an island.
Sims says that urban success transcends ideology: that Democratic and Republican cities can be very effective and successful if they have their act together. He cites Tampa and San Diego as GOP cities that have their act together as well as regional cohesiveness. Seattle he assesses as troubled, in part because regional leadership and consensus is lacking. "If there isn't coherence, there is failure," he observes. Sims spent much of his DC tenure in the field at his agency's some 70 offices (only 30 percent of HUD's workforce is in DC). Here in Pugetopolis, he says, we're a little "chaotic."
Sims would like to see Seattle get its act together by creating what he calls a "viral" civic culture that will help us be more globally competitive. It's a matter of attitude; it's a hope for a regional leader to emerge. Sims himself is reluctant to position himself as that leader. For the moment he's enjoying sabbatical status, plus he carries some baggage in that area as well (he became a Sound Transit apostate). He says the leadership characteristics needed are "backbone, stomach, courage, and attitude."
Waiting for a single civic leader will be a long wait. The issues are complex enough, the talent pool broad enough, the region diverse enough, that it is best and more realistic to expect to have more leaders than a single catalyst. Before you can have a viral civic culture, having a viral leadership culture would help. And something to hang it on.
Looking back to the 1950s and '60s, Seattle saw the emergence of new leaders in Eddie Carlson, the Western Hotels (now Westin) executive who took Century 21 from a barroom idea to a transformative event. His emergence coincided with the rise of Jim Ellis, the attorney who hatched the idea of regional coordination and improvement through Metro and later pushed Forward Thrust. The two efforts were complementary and helped transform the region's infrastructure, from transportation and wastewater treatment to the creation of Seattle Center. They also less successfully pushed for mass transit, though they planted the seeds that resulted in regional rail.
Both leaders were relatively young men when they took the reins of their respective projects: Carlson was an up-and-coming vice president of 44 when he took on the highly improbable task of putting on a world's fair in the mid 1950s. Ellis was only 32 when he first proposed Metro in '53. They weren't tied to elective office so they could operate more freely; they worked largely on a volunteer basis; they were persuasive, stubborn, charming, and in it for the long haul. Both also knew how to make allies and think big.
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