Updated below, May 22.
The crowded race for King County Executive had a moment of truth this week, when the Metro King County Council voted, 6-3, to name Kurt Triplett, rather than Charles Royer, as the County Executive for the next half year. The vote was a lens into the murky world of courthouse politics, and it might prove an electoral liability for one or two candidates to succeed Ron Sims, County Councilmembers Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine.
The whole question of who should hold down the county's top job after Sims departed to his new post in the Obama administration has tied the council in knots for months. Many aspired to the job, but none could get a majority of the council, so the nine-member council decided to create a blue-ribbon panel of local worthies, who vetted names submitted by the councilmembers. That group duly recommended Royer, the former Seattle mayor, over Triplett, the former chief of staff to Sims, by a 10-5 margin. Royer (who has declined interview requests while he simmers down) had made it clear that he would start the process of reforming the courthouse, shining flashlights in dark corners. Triplett was a figure of continuity, a 16-year veteran of the county government staff.
By the end of last week, it appeared that Royer would get the job. Larry Gossett and Julia Patterson, two strong Sims' loyalists, were in the Triplett camp, as were two Republicans, Peter Von Reichbauer (in inveterate dealmaker with the Democratic powers-that-be) and Reagan Dunn (generally in the Von Reichbauer camp). Republicans Jane Hague and Cathy Lambert were leaning toward Royer, along with Bob Ferguson, a reform-minded Democrat. That left the balance of power with Phillips and Constantine, two Seattle Democrats and both candidates for Sims' position in this fall's election. Both have been increasingly critical of Sims and his top lieutenant, and both are Seattle liberals who might find a former Seattle mayor congenial. So it was thought by many that they would vote for Royer. Especially Constantine, who is running as a reformer who wants to "reset" the crusty courthouse.
On Monday morning, Royer and Triplett were interviewed by the Council. Royer had aced the blue-ribbon group interview; this time Triplett did better. All weekend the two swing Democrats had been lobbied by partisans of Triplett (especially labor unions) and Royer (former County Executive Randy Revelle, once Phillips' boss, particularly urged Royer on Phillips, according to the councilmember). Five minutes before the vote, Phillips told his colleagues he was supporting Triplett. Constantine, as Council President, got to cast the last vote, with Triplett already having the needed five votes; he too voted for Triplett.
The losing side soon launched a speculative frenzy, and some of the blue ribbon committee members were angry that their advisory group, lopsided for Royer, didn't carry the day. Here are three theories about what tipped it for Triplett:
Labor showed its fist. There are a lot of jobs in the county, almost all unionized, and Phillips is a staunch labor supporter, while Royer (clearly pro-union) was more of an unknown. Moreover, Phillips needs ardent labor support in his county executive race. Other Democrats, fearful that labor could run somebody against them, now that the new top-two, non-partisan primary system makes that more of a threat, knuckled under labor's threats more than usual. It's not clear that labor pushed that hard, however. One lobbyist told me he instructed his union to stay out of it.
Fear of change. King County is supposedly ripe for reform, since it is loaded with workers and has a serious revenue problem. At least three of the candidates (moderate Eastside Democrats Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett, plus former broadcaster Susan Hutchison) raise the reform banner, as does Constantine to a lesser degree. Why let Royer loose in the henhouse, creating evidence of the need for more change? That might elect a reform County Executive, and the closed-club, tenure-once-elected courthouse gang could be in jeopardy.
Strong council, weak executive. The Council has grown accustomed to having things more its way as Ron Sims grew more erratic in his third term. With painful budget cuts in the offing, why give up power to the executive? Triplett, while experienced and very competent, would have no public stature for defying the council, especially since he pledged not to run for the job. Royer has a power base as well as good national media connections, plus a lot of strong ideas about urban politics.
UPDATED. Constantine would seem to have suffered the most, since he has been talking about rebooting the county government and "clearing away what isn't working." "Why not start now?" was the obvious question posed by an unhappy council member. Constantine explains his vote as "moot," since by the time he got to vote, last as Council chair, Phillips had cast the deciding fifth vote for Triplett. This explanation begs the question of why Constantine didn't commit earlier to Royer, thus putting Phillips on the spot; or why he didn't vote for Royer anyway, in order to declare his real preference. Constantine's profile in waffling revives a nagging doubt about how much spine this mild-mannered politician has as a leader.
As for Phillips, he probably solidified his base among county employees and their unions. Asked why not go with reformer Royer, Phillips pointed to his own courage in challenging Sims a year ago, when it looked like Sims would seek a fourth term. Further, said Phillips, "it's been settled" that there will be a new leader at the courthouse, come December 1, so why interpose still more confusion by having, in effect, four county executives in nine months (Sims, Triplett as his interim successor, Royer, and then the newly elected one)? So having three is okay? He denied that he was under particular pressure from unions, saying pedantically that he followed the careful criteria the council had laid out and put his own emphasis on Triplett's being ready to do the job right away.
UPDATED: Another puzzle is why the split Council didn't go for a last-minute plan that Royer advocates on the citizens' panel were floating: Royer as the short-term county executive with Triplett staying on as chief of staff. Likewise, Royer had been soft-pedalling his change mantra, saying that all he could really do during his six months on the job was to oversee the budget negotiations. Even change-lite, apparently, came to be seen as too much of a risk for the inbred culture at the courthouse.
Will the flap have salience with voters? The reform candidates will use it to weaken Constantine's credentials as a reformer, and they will try to make the case that the council and unions are trying to protect a cozy club. Maybe it will have legs, but I doubt it. King County, a kind of governmental anachronism with hand-me-down responsibilities, remains woefully undercovered by the media (including Crosscut). No councilmember has a challenger this fall, so there goes another chance for debate.
Nor has the county executive race produced many sparks. None of the four Democrats has enough money to buy expensive countywide advertising that would get them known outside their districts or their support base. (Ross Hunter, a former Microsoft executive, might put in some of his personal wealth, however.) Further, a lot of the big issues for the county have been resolved: the transportation debate over light rail has been settled; the growth management boundary isn't about to move. Hutchison is so far a stealth candidate, boning up on the issues and trying to avoid media scrutiny of just how Republican she was and is. Yawn.
To compound the problem, the primary is August 18, mail only, when it's very difficult to stir much interest. At Town Hall last Sunday, a county executive debate was cancelled at the last minute when the audience was minuscule and no media showed up.
So the likely outcome of the Royer flap is that Larry Phillips helped firm up his support base, and some reform-minded donors may shift from Constantine to — who exactly? Very low on the earthquake scale, unless other episodes come along to confirm the storyline of a change-averse courthouse. But with four candidates closely bunched together, little bumps can be the difference.