Running King County, Microsoft-style

County Executive candidate Ross Hunter could bring some of the smart, combative, impatient style that was cultivated in Bill Gates' corporate culture.
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Ross Hunter, D-48, bringing a Microsoft impatience to governmental sluggishness

County Executive candidate Ross Hunter could bring some of the smart, combative, impatient style that was cultivated in Bill Gates' corporate culture.

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).

If working for Gates helped Hunter hone his skills for duking it out, he's had to blunt that a tad to survive in Olympia, where no one likes a guy who thinks he's the smartest one in the room. (Others have made this rookie mistake, former Democratic Sen. Phil Talmadge for one.) It's not a town where shouting "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," like Gates used to do, will win you friends and allies. (It would also make you hoarse, because you'd have to say it so often.) Hunter says he "rubbed people raw" during his rookie season in Olympia but has softened his edge, Northwest-style. His wife has given him stickers that say "Wag More, Bark Less" to remind him to tone it down.

He has not lost his sense of impatience, however. One thing he took from Microsoft was the importance of getting people together to solve specific problems, and doing it fast. He has a get-it-done-now attitude. He's frustrated with the slow-process on resolving the design of the new 520 corridor, for example, and thinks too much time is being spent tip-toeing around the Montlake neighborhood's concerns and demands for mitigation. "Someone needs to say no some time." He says, "I have a level of impatience that is not normal for people who were raised here." He sees that impatience as a virtue.

Hunter is not alone in yearning for a strong "decider" in the region. He argues that his opponents, Democratic county council members Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine, are both too Seattle-centric and part of the problem: they've served for years on the council, but still the county's a mess and a hard-to-manage tangle. He says he doesn't know much at all about former TV newswoman Susan Hutchinson, a conservative Republican who hasn't held public office but is widely known from her years on KIRO. He says he doesn't differ too ideologically from his other opponent, state Sen. Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is a best friend of Hunter's. He says stylistically they're different: it's the impatience thing. He also touts his business management experience over all of the announced candidates: "I've managed hundreds of people. I know how to do multi-level management."

Hunter has the Microsoft view of King County, seeing it as the center of things. Gates built a global monopoly and a company that increasingly wields influence at the state, local, and county level. That new multi-billion-dollar 520 bridge plan? Some say it's simply a driveway for Microsoft. Does the company want a new overpass? No problem. Tax breaks? You betcha. Microsoft itself has become a sprawling Eastside entity, redefining both Redmond and the surrounding landscape with new developments, roads, and demand for urban amenities. It has sprawled into a kind of city-state that has its own transit system, even its own mall.

This all adds to the vision of the region as ground-zero for the future, the modern world's high-ground in economic warfare. "King County is bigger than 14 states, and more important than any of those states in the economy of the whole country," Hunter says. We're the "epicenter of the new economy on Puget Sound." He says he agrees with the Cascade Land Conservancy's Gene Duvernoy who says, rather apocalyptically, "We have one last chance to get it right."

Hunter sees getting it right as tackling the county's structural problems: revamping revenue streams, cutting costs, looking for efficiencies (if Sound Transit could run Metro better, let them), repairing relationships with suburban cities, sewer, and water districts, rebuilding the King County's clout in Olympia. He looks south for an inspiring example of political clout: "The Pierce County guys, we call them Pierce County mafia, they are ruthless in voting as a block. King County doesn't have that. We need to work together. You've seen the relationship [Frank] Chopp has the mayor [Greg Nickels]. Why is it dysfunctional? How far apart do they live, five miles? We have to find a way to make it functional."

Urgency. Paradigm shift. Speed. Toughness. Impatience. Ego. Hunter realizes you can't run King County exactly as you would run the world's largest software company, but he knows you can do worse than adopt some of its values.

Note: For a good interview with Ross Hunter, check out the Horsesass podcastfeaturing David Goldstein, Hunter, and a panel of journos. Hunter reminds me a bit of former Democratic New Jersey Sen. and onetime presidential candidate Bill Bradley: smart, wonky, full of ideas with an understanding of process. He and Goldstein enjoy comparing notes on Philly politics and old-school corruption (they both grew up there), so much so that Joel Connelly finally complains that Goldy is being Joe Bidenesque in hogging the microphone. But hey, it's his mike. Nevertheless, Hunter covers a lot of ground and it's worth a listen.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.