Tom Dickson: a man who quietly aided regional political change

A protege of Sen. Henry M. Jackson, he was the administrator of the Snohomish County when rapid growth brought battles over transit and land use.

A protege of Sen. Henry M. Jackson, he was the administrator of the Snohomish County when rapid growth brought battles over transit and land use.

Tom Dickson never ran for office. But plenty of people who did — and won — owe Dickson, who died last week, a great deal.

Big public issues — multi-billion dollar transportation projects, growth management, struggles for political control — don't just depend on the public pronouncements of elected officials, campaigns or even powerful lobbyists and citizens groups. The success or failure rests on the faceless team of what the French call "fonctionnaires" to make it so.

One of the region's most skilled back-story political people, the 68-year-old Dickson was felled by cancer, the disease that pursued him throughout his career but did not prevent him from contributing research, leadership, and the political strategy of four decades. His work was needed to make government work, sometimes in spite of itself.

Dickson's fingerprints were on many things that have come to pass.

He was part of the network of staff alumni created by Washington's legendary Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a group that still operates in the politics of the Pacific Northwest.

Dickson arrived in Seattle after two tours in Vietnam, law school, and the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention's politics. He served in U.S. Army Intelligence and was awarded a Bronze Star. With introductions from Everett-born Jackson, he was quickly hired by the Democratic leadership in the Washington state Senate, notably Snohomish County's Sen. August Mardesich.

It was Mardesich who led a palace revolt that removed powerful R. R. "Bob" Greive of West Seattle as majority leader of the state Senate. Greive was best known in the 1950s and '60s for demanding donations from special interests to dole out to colleagues. That tactic kept him in power and allowed him to manipulate the boundaries of the districts held by his rivals before Washington's independent redistricting commission existed.

It helped that Dickson knew human nature, that he was an attorney who knew the law, that he was witty and a tough competitor, lettering in baseball, basketball, and football at Northwestern University. During the 1990s, he was the chief administrator of the Snohomish County Council, when rapid growth pitted county and city politicians against each other in battles over transit, land development and relationships with the rest of the region and state.

It was on Dickson's watch that his elected officials narrowly resisted tremendous political pressure to withdraw from the Regional Transit Authority. Eventually Snohomish County's urban area voters approved the RTA funding mechanism that created Sound Transit's significant transportation investments.

Dickson's career in the back rooms of politics solves some mysteries. Chiefly, how does a successful politician manage to achieve a great deal of good, like the late Sen. Jackson? Look for worker-bees like Dickson, whose job was to make that rhetoric reality.


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