The race for King County Executive: Larry Phillips talks to WSB

When we interviewed King County Council Chair Dow Constantine the day he declared his candidacy for King County Executive, the main angle was, West Seattleite goes for the top job. When you’re an “ultralocal” news organization, that tends to be the main spin – what’s the West Seattle angle? So we were a little surprised to get a fast followup call on behalf of the man who had thrown his hat in the proverbial ring a few weeks earlier – County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who lives in Magnolia, our peninsula’s semi-twin on the other side of the bay. Phillips is resolutely not conceding Constantine’s backyard to the hometown candidate, and wants you to start getting to know him, even with the primary still five months away. So he came to West Seattle recently to chat with WSB, and here’s the result:

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine have more in common than the fact they’re both currently members of the King County Council and both currently running high-profile races for King County Executive.

Both also are lawyers and former state legislators. And – although the King County Executive and Council positions are now officially nonpartisan, so you won’t find this on the ballot – both are Democrats.

Both also made the point in conversations with WSB that they consider themselves fighters. (Phillips has a catch phrase: “Common sense, uncommon courage.”)

So, where’s the difference?

More experience, says Phillips. “I have a breadth and depth of experience in the private sector and the public sector. I also served in Washington, D.C., as a senior staff member for (the late Senator) “Scoop” Jackson. I was chief of staff for (former County Executive) Randy Revelle. I ran a downtown law firm and never missed payroll – it later merged into Preston, Gates, Ellis. I ran two small family businesses. I chaired the County Council Budget Committee four times – he chaired it once. And I was the only person ever elected chair of the County Council three times in a row.”

Phillips repeats the term: “Depth and breadth of experience.”

That brings up the question of how he would apply his experience. What does he want to do as County Executive?

He has a ready list of talking points, topped by: “We need to bring stability to local government services” — how they are paid for, and how they are dealt with in the budget process; that’s where he reiterates his four stints chairing the Budget Committee.

But before discussing his future hopes, we ask about notable past successes.

First, fast answer: Sponsoring the Growth Management Act (1990). He talks about how tough it was to craft it, and pass it, with opposition including development groups and the “asphalt community.” But getting it passed in Olympia was only part of the fight, he says — “it was very, very heavy lifting to come back (from the Capitol) and work on zoning.”

Growth and transportation issues continue to be a major concern, he says. Right now, he considers it crucial to “end our 40-year dependency on the automobile to get around.” And toward that goal, he recalls another success — the ballot measure passed last year, known as Sound Transit 2, aka Mass Transit Now. Though its predecessor, the Sound Transit ballot measure in 2007, “went down in flames … I said, no, don’t give up, keep hope alive, we’ll find a package to present to the voters – and we prevailed at the polls, even as the economy faltered.”

With Sound Transit Link light rail close to launching in King County, Phillips says, “It may not feel like it yet, but you will see a huge expansion” of transit availability. He sees the recent groundbreaking for the UW extension of the line, and plans for other expansion, “a huge step forward for the entire region.”

It’s clear that transit is a subject that truly energizes him, as he goes on to note the other Sound Transit services, including the Sounder train. Now, we ask, what about the flip side — the money troubles that transit is facing, particularly sales-tax-dependent Metro? He sees one possible solution in the taxing authority that the King County Ferry District — parent agency to the Elliott Bay Water Taxi and the Vashon-Downtown Seattle foot ferry — has been given by the state; though it has the ability to tax up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the district is only currently using a sliver of that. The way Phillips sees it, transit is transit, and if water transit doesn’t need the money, maybe it could be applied to surface transit, especially given the Legislature’s disinclination to allow a new Motor Vehicle Excise Tax to raise transit dollars.

In fact, he thinks the entire concept of having county councilmembers sit as the King County Ferry District Board – and other separate entities – should be “folded back” into the regular work of the council. “It’s the same nine people,” Phillips points out, suggesting that citizens may find the different incarnations confusing. But that’s not as big of a concern to him as the transit-funding crisis: “We’re going to have a catastrophe on our hands if we don’t find a way to backfill the sales-tax loss.” It’s not a catastrophe that came out of nowhere, either, he points out, telling the story of the Seattle subway proposal (Forward Thrust) defeated in 1970, and declaring that the area is continuing to dig itself out of the resulting “40-year hole.”

We move on to a county issue that is of intense interest in West Seattle — Seattle and other cities moving toward building their own jails for misdemeanor offenders because the county says there’s no longer room for those inmates in its jails. In his view, “you can’t fault the cities for planning” to do that, but he doesn’t think, ultimately, jail-building will be necessary. He thinks an extension of county-city agreements is possible: “We can extend because we’ve managed our jail population well,” with diversion programs and special courts for defendants with drug and mental-health issues. “The daily jail population has been declining.”

It so happens, however, that the south county cities are already further down the road toward building their own misdemeanor jail, we point out, and Phillips says that’s unfortunate: “It’s short-sighted, and I hope they’d reconsider, but they got frustrated over a lack of progress (in working) with the current (King County) administration.” In his view, the door is still open for working something out that might keep that project from being necessary.

And the talk of the cities/county relationship brings Phillips back to “one of the reasons I’m running — I want to change the conversation with our cities. I’ve been successful because of a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation.”

He also wants to make it clear that — contrasting with the man in the County Executive job now — he’s not interested in “the other Washington,” or anything to which this position might be a steppingstone. “I have a complete commitment to King County — I want to make it great.”

To emphasize that point, he mentions his roots here and those of his family, including his son, Brett Phillips, a sustainability manager for Unico Properties, and he exudes pride as he discusses the “environmental values” that he says his son is carrying on with that work, focusing on converting existing buildings to LEED status.

One other issue we want to discuss before our time runs out: The matter of changing the status of West Seattle’s southern neighbor White Center, and the rest of North Highline, from “unincorporated.” Phillips talks about it at a higher level, saying it’s a matter of “urban unincorporated King County areas need(ing) to become either a city, or being annexed. We don’t have the ability to provide urban levels of service. We’ve largely been successful (assisting such areas in incorporation or annexation), and we’re down to these 7 or 8 ‘pockets’.” Who annexes the area, Phillips says, is up to the citizens who live there; he sees the county’s role as “keep(ing) conversations going forward,” so that eventually, King County will be left to handle local government only in rural areas.”

That of course is just a part of what King County does. In the bigger picture, Phillips says, if he is elected as Executive, he wants to “refocus and re-energize” that office – for the greater good of the county, and everyone in it. And there’s one more verb: “Revive,” as in helping revive the economy; he sees infrastructure projects as one way to help create jobs and make progress, like the $800 million-plus “shovel-ready” work under way on the next leg of light rail.

Next steps in the race for King County Executive include these key dates:

June 5 – deadline for candidates to file
August 18 – primary election narrows the field to the top two vote-getters
November 3 – general election

As the actual voting gets closer, we will continue to update you on what the candidates do and say regarding issues of major West Seattle interest, as well as their campaign appearances on this side of the bay.

You can read King County Councilmember Larry Phillips’ official biography on the county site here; his campaign-site bio is here; and, we notice on his campaign site, he has a video statement – so since we showed you his opponent’s video clip at the time of his campaign kickoff, here’s the one Phillips posted:

2 Replies to "The race for King County Executive: Larry Phillips talks to WSB"

  • dwar March 13, 2009 (5:25 pm)

    Councilmember Phillips has worked endlessly for many years to have aiplane traffic in an out of Boeing Field rerouteted over West Seattle to avoid Magnolia. This is very bad for West Seattle!!

  • Pam March 14, 2009 (9:24 am)

    Larry is GREAT! We love Larry Phillips. I’ve known him personally and he actually does care, which is not the case with MOST elected officials.

Sorry, comment time is over.