Is it King County's moment for change?

The courthouse gang is overdue for reform. An overview of the politics of the campaign and Fred Jarrett's case for shaking things up.
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Fred Jarrett

The courthouse gang is overdue for reform. An overview of the politics of the campaign and Fred Jarrett's case for shaking things up.

Two years ago, Seattle and nearby voters showed a remarkable appetite for electing seasoned candidates to troubled legislative bodies. The badly split Port of Seattle Commission voted in two experienced centrists (Gael Tarlton and Bill Bryant). The Seattle School Board, which had become a laughing stock of feuding, activists, threw them out and elected four very solid new members. The Seattle City Council continued booting out marginal members and added two pragmatists with plenty of real-world experience (Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell).

Is it now King County's turn? Not certainly for the Metro King County Council, which (as usual) has virtually no challengers to the incumbents — this despite the new nonpartisan nature of the races, meant to encourage more candidates. But change will be coming in the County Executive's office, where for the first time since that post was established 41 years ago, there is a genuinely open race, with no incumbent seeking the job.

The parallels with the 2007 election are fairly close. Outgoing County Executive Ron Sims had become increasingly distracted in the past few years, seemingly bored with the job and often out of town raising his national profile to get a job with the new administration (he did so). Meanwhile, the county has become in serious need of reform. It has a large, too well paid bureaucracy that feuds and performs sluggishly. Unions are bent on keeping all these jobs, despite the recession, and the courthouse gang, notably Sims and his circle and most of the County Council, have circled wagons to fend off change. Ripe for reform, you might say.

Four Democrats are seeking the (nonpartisan) job, and they come in matched pairs. There are two don't-rock-the-boat County Councilmembers, Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine, and two suburban-moderate Democrats in the Legislature, Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett. The wild card is former KIRO-TV anchor Susan Hutchison, who has never held public office and is so far dodging public exposure in a kind of protracted imitation of Sarah Palin during her hiding-out period. (Just today, however, the Hutchison campaign signaled she was ready to start showing up at public events.)

At this point it looks like Hutchison, with lots of time spent on voters' television sets, will win the primary and then get defeated in the general, as her opponent will alarm the strongly Democratic King County (the Democratic advantage is normally put at about 65-35) by pointing to Hutchison's past associations with conservative and Republican causes. On the other hand, with Jarrett and Hunter more or less dividing the reformist/outsider vote, Hutchison will likely face Phillips, who will have the disadvantages of being a Seattle liberal (he's from Magnolia) and portrayable as a fairly staunch defender of the present courthouse gang. She could win.

Or might Jarrett and Hunter, who are very close legislative allies and mutual admirers, instead decide to narrow the race to just one Eastside reformer? Hunter, in remarks to the Crosscut editorial board yesterday, hinted that such conversations were possible "in the next two days," and that Jarrett "would be the first person I'd hire in my administration." But don't count on it. Hunter clearly thinks Jarrett should be the one to step aside, and the Jarrett people regard Hunter's patronizing remarks as an unworthy political maneuver. So both will likely stay in the race even though neither is very well known and both lag in the polls. The wild card would be if Hunter, wealthy from his years as a Microsoft manager, decides to put in significant money of his own into his race. So far he hasn't put in any and he refused to say if he would.

More about Hunter is future stories, and you should read this portrait by Knute Berger. He's clearly ready to stand up to the unions, knock heads to shake up the county, and dig into the chronic financial woes at the courthouse. There hasn't been a major candidate with such a blunt, take-charge, smart-guy style around here for a long time.

And what about Fred Jarrett, who is both a reformer and more of a nice-guy in the typical, slightly owlish, earnest Northwest style? In many ways, he's what the doctor would order for the sick county, but it's not easy to see how the electorate would find that out in time for the August 18 primary.

Jarrett is a state senator from Mercer Island long involved in local issues (particularly transportation) and a moderate Republican who recently turned Democrat. (He was long the Democrats' favorite Republican.) He has an attractive blend of experience (at Boeing, as Mercer Island mayor), an agreeable manner, a wonky surfeit of substance that can try many listeners' patience, and an appetite to change the stodgy, chronically broke county. His problem is that he's relatively unknown, won't have a lot of money, and is in a race that the media mostly ignore.  

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