What's so great about 'outsiders' in government?

First problem: most who claim to be outsiders aren't. Second problem: outsiders who win probably can't get much done. So let's hear it for insiders!
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King County Executive Dow Constantine.

First problem: most who claim to be outsiders aren't. Second problem: outsiders who win probably can't get much done. So let's hear it for insiders!

Six of the seven candidates for King County Executive showed up at a Federal Way Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday morning, and the news was somewhat disheartening. It'ꀙs not that there are no good candidates. In fact, each of the six (Goodspaceguy was apparently temporarily called back to his home planet, while Stan Lippmann was out prospecting for silver) has something to offer the voters. Every one of them said things that make sense and speak to the needs of the citizens. But too many of them tried to play the 'ꀜoutsider'ꀝ card in making their pitch to the assembled voters.

It'ꀙs a relatively recent and frankly deplorable feature of American politics that it can be a point in one'ꀙs favor to be without any experience. It probably goes back to Watergate, when then-President Nixon succeeded in giving politics and governance a bad name. The nation turned around and started electing presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan) who had really very little political experience, and certainly none in Washington. Carter spent four years telling us how bad things were, while Reagan had the good sense or good fortune to surround himself with insiders.

In Washington state in 1976 we elected Dixy Lee Ray, who had never held any elective office, to the governorship. The results were predictable: She was autocratic, did not understand the process, and did little more than battle the Legislature for four pointless years. Little has changed since then. Dino Rossi ran for governor as an outsider, all while claiming credit for writing a state budget as a state senator. It'ꀙs like Sesame Street: Two of those things don'ꀙt belong together.

But people seem to want to believe that inexperience is better in politics. 'ꀜI think it's good to have people who have not had experience with being a politician to get into politics,'ꀝ a friend of mine recently said. 'ꀜRather than thinking they're a bunch of naive twits, I believe it brings a fresh perspective to the game.'ꀝ

Well, if we'ꀙre talking about a local city council member, then yes, everybody has to start somewhere. But if you'ꀙre talking about running an organization with a $4 billion budget and 2 million citizens, I'ꀙm not sure you want someone who'ꀙs still in training pants with his or hand at the wheel.

Call it the Dave syndrome. In the movie of that name, a well-meaning temp agency guy (Kevin Kline) fills in for the president, and subsequently, with the help of his accountant, balances the federal budget. It may be tempting to believe that if only honest people with common sense were in government, all of our problems would fade away. But honestly, if our problems were really that simple, don'ꀙt you think we'ꀙd have solved them by now?

Nonetheless, politics remains the only line of work where inexperience is a virtue. When you get out the phone book to hire a plumber, do you look for the ad that says 'ꀜI'ꀙve never done this before, but I think I'ꀙd be good at it'ꀝ?

Tuesday morning'ꀙs forum featured too much of the politics of fault and blame, too many comments about how 'ꀜthe county is broken'ꀝ and how business as usual as brought us to the depths of despair.

County Councilman Larry Phillips claimed the mantle of the outsider ('ꀜI'ꀙm an outsider when I represent the people of my district'ꀝ), despite his time on the council and time as the executive'ꀙs chief of staff, and despite the work he'ꀙs done on the council, which he was also quick to cite.

State Sen. Fred Jarrett, who has spent 30 years in public service as a mayor and a legislator, is apparently an outsider. State Rep. Ross Hunter, despite his time in Olympia, is an outsider. (Ironically, their experience as Olympia insiders may be among their chief attributes.) Alan Lobdell, who has spent 30 years working with local governments as a civil engineer and consultant, didn'ꀙt quite claim to be an outsider, which was to his credit. If you'ꀙve spent that much time working in or near government, you'ꀙve surrendered your outsider merit badge.

Only County Councilman Dow Constantine seemed to revel in his status an insider — a state legislator and county councilman who has worked in politics for quite a while. It was moderately refreshing.

The one real outsider was erstwhile newsreader Susan Hutchinson, who despite her outsiderness, managed to dodge answering whether she had signed and supports Referendum 71, the effort to overturn Washington'ꀙs newly minted domestic partner benefits law. 'ꀜI am not a politician,'ꀝ Hutchinson proclaimed. Last time I checked, the practice of government was all about politics, so being a politician might actually help.

The one question I want to know of every candidate in this race is: Can you work with the County Council to get things done? And what do you do, how do you respond when they say no? Because that'ꀙs how politics works. It remains the art of the possible, which means finding a way get enough votes to get something passed.

Hutchinson, meanwhile, let slip that she'ꀙs against light rail, and wants to hire a 'ꀜtraffic czar'ꀝ to untangle our transportation mess. Along with Hutchinson'ꀙs folksy common sense, apparently this czar will have a magic wand or voodoo dust or something. Everyone will learn to drive; we'ꀙll shuffle houses until we all live much closer to work; and unused land for more roads will spring up from the magic beans that the czar and Executive Hutchinson lovingly plant by the shores of Lake Washington.

These are tricky times for local government but by no means hopeless ones. King County is not broken; former executive Ron Sims was neither the antichrist nor the Albert Einstein of local administration. It'ꀙs still the richest, most populous, best-educated county in the Northwest, and people still keep trying to move here because it remains a relatively nice place to live.

Despite that, whoever gets elected will face a thoroughly thankless task. Even when economic recovery balances the county'ꀙs budget, the area'ꀙs reigning cognoscenti will spare no effort to castigate the new executive for his or her lack of foresight, leadership, management skill, and probably taste in coffee and fashion sense as well. Nothing in Pugetropolis is ever remotely good enough.

So I wish the eventual survivor of this public dance good luck, perseverance and a thick skin. You'ꀙre going to need it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

T.M. Sell

T.M. Sell is professor of political economy at Highline College.