Ron Sims' maverick phase

He's increasingly isolated politically and has his eye on global problems. On the other hand, he is turning into a rarity: a fearless foe of conventional wisdom who matters.
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Former King County Executive Ron Sims.

He's increasingly isolated politically and has his eye on global problems. On the other hand, he is turning into a rarity: a fearless foe of conventional wisdom who matters.

And so it begins — the drip, drip, drip of cuts in government budgets as tax revenues shrink. You can't enact broad-based tax increases because of voter reactions and Tim Eyman initiatives. So you tap rainy-day funds (as Gov. Chris Gregoire has just proposed), you freeze hiring and pay, make across-the-board cuts, promise key constituent groups that they'll be rewarded handsomely when the money returns, and try to muddle through. This drags out the agony and uncertainty for years. Here we go again.

One of the most extreme cases is King County, which has steadily shrinking revenue as urban areas opt out of the county's oversight to create independent cities — but rising costs from such budget-busters as jails (522 unionized and angry jail guards), courts, hospitals, and public health. It has added up to a $90 million shortfall for the 2009 budget, now undergoing review by County Executive Ron Sims and the County Council. This week, just days before his budget is due, Sims has asked employees to agree to reduce their expected automatic cost-of-living adjustments from 5-6 percent to 3 percent, saving $15 million. Other steps by the county involve redefining criminal justice costs to shift them to the City of Seattle and seeking relief from the Legislature. Not pretty.

Many wonder if Sims has been minding the store. This last-minute proposal recalls his 11th-hour effort to get Sound Transit to fund increased Metro bus service. That was firmly slapped down. Compounding the public rebuke, both Pierce and Snohomish county executives were extracting other concessions in exhange for supporting Proposition 1, the current Sound Transit bond issue. Sims is estranged from Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, current chair of the Sound Transit Board, and from many on the board due to his switcheroo in opposing last year's Proposition 1 (the rails-and-roads proposal). Ever since, Sims has been a pariah, and he's reacted by becoming more unpredictable and independent.

I recently had a talk with Sims and asked him if he was "casting about," as many think. Not at all, he replied, and went into a long speech about his worldwide efforts at combatting global warming, cutting-edge work in water quality in Thailand, and battling workplace depression by letting people work in satellite centers (like Lynnwood) that cut down stressful commuting. Through his long public career, Sims has always been a fount of visionary ideas, but now he's a true geyser.

The more he talked about solving worldwide problems, the more he sounded like he wanted to run the Gates Foundation. It made me suspect, as many do, that he had grown less interested in mundane county matters but was unwilling to admit it.

Might Sims be interested in a federal job, assuming Sen. Barack Obama wins? He brushed that idea off, saying that he wouldn't want to have so many layers of bosses as part of the federal government. Better, he said, "to continue to find new and innovative ways to deal with the future" and solve big local problems like Puget Sound cleanup and making people feel more comfortable with density by bringing out the unspoken anxieties about race.

Sims insists he'll run for a new term as county executive in 2009, a job he's held since 1996. He was easily reelected in 2001 and 2005, but now he faces the likelihood of a tough race and a Democratic challenger, likely Queen Anne County Councilman Larry Phillips. One key will be whether Republicans come up with a serious challenger. (Dino Rossi? County Councilman Reagan Dunn? Business leader John Stanton?) Or whether Sims' longtime support from developers will deter such a candidate. If not, the Democratic challenger to Sims would survive the top-two primary into the general election and could collect all the anti-Sims votes.

One of the issues Sims would like to stick around to fight for is transit. He's opposed to the current Sound Transit ballot measure, though he's being quiet about it. Sims thinks that this year (with financial anxieties and now the Boeing strike) is a bad time to try to pass a measure that he feels is too tilted toward rail and too expensive. In the expected re-do of the measure, Sims would push to modify the sub-area equity aspects that guarantee to outlying counties rail and express bus service equal to the taxes they contribute. That's an awkward way to plan a system, shorting the dense areas best for rail and running lots of empty buses in affluent exurbs. But it is also the political reality of how you tap a broad tax base in an area that distrusts Seattle. As head of Metro's bus system, he'll be battling against calls for a regional transportation authority, which would take away more of his dwindling empire. He favors a surface-transit solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He likes tolls and demand management as a solution to fund roads. And he wants a big "cultural amenities fund" for the county to administer, using expiring stadium taxes. All these ideas are long shots, but they are vintage Sims: leading with his chin.

In much of this, Sims makes compelling arguments and is massively informed. But he ends up sounding a lot like Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata — a scattershot maverick attracting few political allies. Sims could turn into a valuable rarity, a kind of liberal John McCain who is a substantive maverick speaking uncomfortable truths to conventional wisdom while having the stature and experience to compel attention. But he's fighting on so many fronts, and often with such poor preparation of the political ground, that he risks marginalizing himself.

So what should he do? Some admirers (there are many) think he's just bored with the county executive job, particularly as it involves presiding over the decline of a government. Running statewide is uphill for a Seattle liberal and a black, as his unsuccessful races for governor (favoring an income tax, no less) and against former Sen. Slade Gorton demonstrated. Challenging U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, who definitely needs a prod and might retire if really threatened, might be more viable, but that wouldn't come up again until 2010. An exciting Obama appointment is less likely since Sims was an early backer of Hillary Clinton.

Looks like drip, drip, drip.


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