Two cheers for Ron Sims

Why are we so angry at a leading politician who tells us what he truly, deeply thinks about a major issue of the day? Maybe it's because he dared to defy a taboo of local politics, where pretended unanimity masks real debate.
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Former King County Executive Ron Sims.

Why are we so angry at a leading politician who tells us what he truly, deeply thinks about a major issue of the day? Maybe it's because he dared to defy a taboo of local politics, where pretended unanimity masks real debate.

King County Executive Ron Sims says he hasn't been getting a lot of mail about his bombshell decision to go public with his opposition to Proposition 1, the roads-and-transit measure on the November ballot in three metro-Seattle counties. But he's certainly had a drubbing from Those Who Know. Gov. Chris Gregoire artfully inserted the dagger about how Sims had given his word to remain neutral. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat sadly concluded that Sims should think about hanging it up, since he had failed to lead by not voicing his reservations much earlier.

I beg to differ. I'm not taking Sims's advice on how to vote, but I think it's just fine that he decided to go public with his perfectly sensible objections. The debate finally got serious, in a way the public could grasp. More than that, Sims lifted the veil on local politics in a very helpful way.

For starters, I applaud Sims for going public with his genuine views, once he felt he had to speak out. There's been way too much of the Colin Powell/Alan Greenspan syndrome of swallowing objections to stay on the team, and then telling the public in a best-selling book how you really disagreed – after it's too late. "Now you tell us!" has been the headline for too many Bush apostates. Sims at least did the honorable thing of telling us how he feels before the election.

As for changing his mind, this man who fought hard to create and plan for Sound Transit. Again, I am more inclined to be grateful to a politician who grows, factors in new developments, and then has the courage to fess up. Isn't this what we are forever commanding our leaders to do? When Bill Gates discovered that Microsoft was needing to change fast from relying on software on the PC to computing on the Web, no one hauled out a memo showing that he once firmly believed in the Old Wisdom. Good leaders keep an open mind to new facts and changed circumstances.

And things have changed in the transit world, in at least three important ways that Sims (virtually alone among our leaders) was able to grasp. First is the imperative of global climate change and the need to walk the talk locally, rather than just feeling better by beating up on President Bush. Sims makes the sensible point that if you are going to add lanes to badly congested Interstate 405, they should be tolled lanes. Second is the growing case for bus rapid transit, a less-costly version of moderately speedy transit that is proving itself in other cities, particularly in South America, and is likely to be tried here (if rail transit doesn't take all the money). Third is variable tolling as a way to reduce a lot of discretionary auto trips, now starting to prove itself in some European cities.

Add these factors up, as Sims rather plausibly concluded, and our rail transit plan is not exactly wrong but just overextended (largely for political reasons) and ought to be scaled back by defeating it now and resubmitting it shortly afterward. "I never saw a big money issue that failed that wasn't very quickly modified and resubmitted," Sims told me over coffee last week.

So fine. Hear the man out. We're grownups who can handle some substantive debate. We're not Kansas anymore; we're a big city with a pretty lively range of different opinions and judgment. Or do we want to shout down dissenters just because their timing is bad and they might have some national political aspirations?

Another reason I welcome the Sims apostasy is that it might help end a style of smothering consensus, in which all the important parties somehow pretend that they all just love an important issue, lest the public suspect there is actual (gasp!) dissent among their betters. I suspect this all-join-hands-and-pretend style of politics goes back to the Jim Ellis era of Forward Thrust proposals. As now, there was something for every interest group, and you got yours so long as you took the pledge of loyalty to the whole Big Whopper. Break ranks, and you'd be out of the club. Sims is now testing the prevalence of this model, and we'll see if he's blackballed politically. I sure hope not.

Smothering or phony consensus reflects a low view of the electorate's intelligence. To pass a controversial and expensive measure like Proposition 1, you don't want to have a real debate, lest the dumb public get confused or suspicious. Every powerful politician and interest group is bought off with a Christmas tree of ornaments for all who can deliver votes. I'm reminded of the old joke about the difference between Chicago and Seattle politics. In Seattle, the group of stakeholders is convened and the leader promises a solution in which everyone is happy. In Chicago, the leader makes clear some are going to lose, but if they play the game by the rules they'll be invited back to future sessions. The Seattle style takes forever, produces bloated packages that lack coherence, and smoothes over natural differences to the point where the public, no fools, is suspicious.

The roads-and-transit levy has been a classic illustration of the Seattle style. Endless logrolling. Something for everyone who could make trouble, and then some. No really accountable body to make the hard decisions. And then a kind of ham-handed, all-for-one and one-for-all oath among the exhausted participants. This is no way to build a railroad, but only Ron Sims has had the guts to say so. (The bigger question: Since we don't have a good way to build a railroad, should we perhaps take the best pork-filled package we're likely to get? It doesn't exactly fill me with pride to say that's what I'm going to do.)

Yes, Sims should have shown leadership by defecting earlier. Yes, he should have tried to find allies for incorporating the new thinking on roads, congestion, and transit into an alternative package. Yes, he should be advocating for a better governmental system, such as Portland's, with a separately elected three-county transportation authority, even if that would take away some of Sims's authority in running Metro Transit.

But he didn't let these mistakes paralyze him into silence. He listened to his family and remembered noble examples from his parents and finally decided that he owed it to all of us to say, on this very important issue, what he truly, deeply felt. The air feels a lot clearer now. We owe Sims our thanks, not our brickbats.


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