Full report: 4 King County Executive candidates in West Seattle

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The word heard at Monday night’s King County Executive candidates’ forum at Fauntleroy Church (WSB sponsor) more often than you would expect to hear at a meeting of rivals for a big, open job: Agree.

As in:

“I agree with Dow.”

“I agree with Fred.”

“I agree with Larry.”

“I agree with Ross.”

Of course, consider the fact that all four are Democrats, though they can’t run under that label since King County Executive is a nonpartisan job, made so by the voters last year; also, all four are current or former state legislators. The one major candidate who doesn’t fall under either of those umbrellas, former TV anchor Susan Hutchison, didn’t even respond to repeated invitations to participate tonight, according to organizers from InSPIRe (Seattle Progressives Inspiring Reform), which presented the forum.

The fact three of the candidates even showed up is proof nobody’s writing off West Seattle just because this area’s largest political group, the 34th District Democrats, has already taken a vote supporting hometown guy Constantine. But just because you’re speaking in West Seattle, doesn’t mean you’ll only be read about and heard about in WS, so off we go with coverage of what was and wasn’t said — read on:

First, the one section where there was actual sharp disagreement – well, as sharp as “yes” vs. “no” can get. The topic was transportation, and the four candidates were asked to respond to a few questions with yes/no, followed by a few with 30-second answers (note, this starts with the answers to the 1st question, which asked whether I-90 should be tolled to pay for a new 520 bridge):

As you might have noticed in the video, the setting was fairly informal. The four sat on chairs on the Fellowship Hall stage, and answered questions with various stipulated lengths.

First question – What’s the #1 priority you’d want to address as King County Executive?

State Rep. Ross Hunter: “All the problems King County has are interrelated … We need, as a county, to get along with the cities.” One example he cited – two groups of cities planning their own jails for the misdemeanor prisoners the county has said it won’t handle as of 2012. He also cited one of the current county jail locations, the Regional Justice Center in Kent, as an example of bad “accounting” because it doesn’t accept new inmates after 5:30 pm, though evening is when more arrests are made.

County Councilmember Larry Phililps‘ #1 priority: “How to revitalize and recover our economy.” He sees infrastructure projects as a major step toward making that happen: “Moving to expand Sound Transit’s light-rail system … those are jobs that will be with us for years.”

State Sen. Fred Jarrett declared that he filed official campaign paperwork this morning (it’s “filing week” and this paperwork must be in by end of day Friday) “because I think King County is broken.” He said he wants to “get King County’s financial house in order” and decried some of what he says are services that cost more than they should: “Metro costs 40 percent more than other transit systems.” But rather than public jobs like the “infrastructure” work Phillips favored, Jarrett spoke in support of facilitating “an environment in which the private sector can create jobs — that’s where most of the jobs will be created.”

“Get costs under control” was the first item listed by County Council Chair Dow Constantine, who also blamed an “unfair tax system” for many of the county’s money problems. “Costs go up six percent each year and right now, our revenues are going down,” he noted. He suggested one path to saving money would be to “engage” employees who already “understand where the inefficiencies are”; another would be prioritizing and re-evaluating, rather than “look(ing) at the budget and say(ing), how much will it cost to do the same thing next year?”

In this context, he brought up the jail situation, suggesting that the county would have done better to present cities with “the numbers” and collaborating on what to do about the situation, rather than just declaring that the county would be out of the misdemeanor-inmate business by 2012 and telling cities “you go figure it out for yourself.”

Jarrett offered, “You can decide not to do optional things” as one way of controlling costs, while his longer-term idea includes making county employees and departments more accountable for meeting goals.

Phillips declared, “We’ve been lowering costs in King County for a while …” and pointed to the recent Metro audit as an example of “efficiency”: “(The audit) found $105 million dollars in a fund we could at least partly use. … (efficiency includes finding) where the dollars are already, before we have to ask anybody for a fare increase.”

In a rare moment of one candidate criticizing another, Jarrett said shortly afterward, “It’s astonishing to me that someone would say finding 105 million lost dollars is efficiency. We should have known about (that money).”

Labor costs could stand a close look, Hunter offered. And the much-mentioned issue of King County employees not paying any of their health-insurance costs came up; Constantine recounted the proposal he’s introduced, saying that “highly paid, non-represented” county employees should pay a share. Jarrett said he didn’t favor selecting “a certain group … we need to do (that) for all the employees.”

The next topic – public health, and how to pay for those services as the county grapples with budget challenges. Phillips suggested a levy might be needed to make sure the county could cover its costs: “Public health for King County is a public-safety issue.”

“You can either get more money from the state or (pass a tax measure) locally,” Hunter said, “but in order to do either one, you have to convince voters and legislators that you will manage money responsibly.” He sounded that theme a few more times, declaring flatly that legislators believe King County “has a spending problem” and therefore aren’t inclined to give them more taxing authority. If voters could be shown “we have a better handle on how we manage our money,” he offered, the I-747 limits on property-tax growth might be one possible target for changes.

When Constantine took on the public-health question, he framed it in more specific terms, using the county’s White Center clinic as an example, “where they help young, disenfranchised women, who are pregnant and need help, guiding them not just through pregnancy but afterward, to get the child a good start in life … that kind (of help) is in great danger of being cut.” He said it’s vital to “turn to the state for a fairer system” to pay for services that used to get federal and state financial help; “tax fairness” is what he believes to be the #1 issue the county has with the state.

Jarrett’s take was that the county needs to focus public-health dollars on “core services,” such as clinics and EMS, rather than venturing off into “putting (nutrition) information on menus” or banning transfats. He also jabbed a bit by noting that the (financing) “structural problem” — how the county gets money to pay for the services it provides — “has been known for 30 years,” and the way he sees it, the county has not stepped up to just provide what it has money for, rather than continuing to spend beyond its means.

Phillips said he thinks voters will “step up” to pay for services they value, recalling the Parks and Veterans/Human Services levies.

After they all responded to the question of King County’s relationship with Olympia by basically saying it’s not working, the topic turned to transportation, with longer form questions that preceded the ones in the video clip that appeared earlier in this article. No bombshells but you can see for yourself:

If attention was lagging at any point there in the audience, as the discussion had moved into its second hour, the next question perked ears: How to keep Boeing and Microsoft jobs here?

Phillips: “Revitalize the local economy.”

Constantine: “Protect the quality of life” that attracts the kind of people who are valuable employees for companies like those.

Hunter: “Dow’s right – you hire people who want to live here – smart people who have lots of options.”

Jarrett: “Take advantage of their strengths and leverage them into strengths for us.”

Then a question of immediate local import – what about annexation, getting the remaining unincorporated areas of the county (like White Center and the rest of North Highline) under cities’ wings?

All four agreed that voters in the unincorporated areas must make the decision of who they want to be annexed by. Constantine, as you might expect, had the longest answer, observing that he has had North Highline in his district “all along” as both a state legislator and county councilmember: “I’ve worked hard with people in North Highline, through the struggle. We have people who say they don’t want to be in Burien and some who say they don’t want to be in Seattle and some who say they want to be left alone. That’s not feasible. The most fundamental issue is that this is still a democratic process and the people in the area have to be able to vote and decide their shared future.”

However, he added, “King County is still working in White Center,” citing as an example last week’s groundbreaking for White Center Square, enabled in no small part by a federal loan that the county helped procure.

A curveball came with the next question — what was the greatest accomplishment of former County Executive Ron Sims?

Jarrett, who exhibited the most humor — albeit a dry wit — through the evening, first quipped, “Becoming HUD undersecretary.” Turning more serious, he lauded Sims as a “visionary” but said the county now needs someone to lead it and “take care of nuts and bolts.”

“Visionary” emerged in Phillips’ reply as well, but he specified “environmental protection” as Sims’ “greatest contribution.”

“I would tend to agree with that,” Constantine said. “He put King County on the map as a leader in climate change. … He’s a visionary and sometimes his vision led us to difficult places, but in this issue, he was right.”

After echoing “vision,” Hunter offered, “… but what (Sims) didn’t leave us with was infrastructure to accomplish that vision and the relationship with cities (to make it happen).” He promised he would be an executive who “closes on problems, to solve them.”

Next — homelessness. With eight thousand people homeless in King County on any given night, the candidates were asked, what could be done to resolve THAT problem?

Hunter suggested affordable housing; Constantine pointed to privately run programs such as West Seattle-based Family Promise, to procure “immediate” help; Phillips discussed the county’s “10-year plan to end homelessness” but also wondered if enough treatment for mental illness was being made available; Jarrett focused on “partnerships.”

Other topics discussed included rural and agricultural issues. And now, from the closing statements, responding to the question, “Why do you want to be County Executive?”

Constantine, with the most fiery delivery of the night: “I was born here … I love this place and the work of my life has been devoted to preserving what’s best about it. But we can only do that if we get costs under control, which means a change in culture in the executive’s office. Now’s a time to be critical of ourselves … look inward and see what is not working about these institutions … what can we do better, less expensively … Coming from (a progressive political background), I feel like Nixon going to China when saying, what we need is to be serious about cost control, but if we aren’t, we will be less and less able to deliver for the people of this county.”

Hunter talked about moving here in 1983 and “graduating from Microsoft,” taking on school-financing issues in the Legislature and “other big problems” such as “chemical policy” and gun control: “I get stuff done. … (With a lot of management experience) I bring a sense of impatience … Maybe it’s a Microsoft thing; impatience may be a virtue.”

After observing that “this may be one of the best evenings we’ve had in the campaign,” Jarrett said, “I think King County deserves a good government. County government has grown at three times the rate of inflation … We need to get controls back into place … build a county (government) that is accountable internally and accountable to you.”

Phillips, like Constantine, opened by going all the way back to his own personal day one: “I drew my first breath in King County.” Pointing out that his sister and son were in the audience, he talked about fighting for environmental protection that would make it safe to swim in Lake Washington, before summarizing his background and the reason he didn’t stay in D.C. after working for Sen. “Scoop” Jackson — “I didn’t have Potomac fever, I had Puget Sound fever” — saying he “wanted to go to Olympia and make change here … What I bring to you is not only someone devoted to King County, proven, effective leadership for King County, I have a track record. … We have a great future … I bring to you great leadership … for our children and grandchildren.”

With that, the candidates moved on to mingling with the 100 or so attendees. A few notes: InSPIRe put this on with the help of volunteers from its 350-strong membership – like Teri Ensley, who waved flags to direct traffic into the Fauntleroy Church lot before the event:

If you would like to see video of the entire forum, it was pointed out that InSPIRe member Bill Alford was recording video for his Friday night public-access show on Channel 77, “Moral Politics.”

As for what’s next in the County Executive campaign – there’s another major candidates’ forum elsewhere in Seattle tonight, with all four of these candidates expected – here’s the reminder we just received as we finished work on this story:

What: The local Democratic Party organizations of North, Central
and South Seattle (the 11th, 36th, 37th, 43rd and 46th districts) are
co-hosting a candidate forum in advance of their June endorsement meetings
and the August 18 primary. The forum will include moderated panels for three
important races: King County Executive, Seattle Mayor and Seattle City
Attorney. The event will focus on issues important to Seattle Democrats,
followed by a period of audience questions. The event is free and open to
the public.

When: Tuesday, June 2. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Event begins
promptly at 7:00 p.m.

Where: Labor Temple in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. The Labor
Temple is located at 2800 First Avenue.

Who: Tonight’s forum will be the first time all major
candidates for Seattle Mayor will be on stage together. Each of the leading
Democratic candidates for King County Executive have also confirmed. Again,
Susan Hutchison has declined an invitation to participate in a public forum.

Then on June 10th, the 34th District Democrats‘ big Candidates’ Forum will be held in The Hall at Fauntleroy, 7-10 pm (without County Executive candidates – the 34th DDs made a point of directing everyone who was interested to last night’s event). In the meantime, this is the official week for candidates to file their paperwork; the official filing period continues through Friday – check here to see who’s filed so far (as of Tuesday morning, Constantine and Jarrett were the only ones who’ve already put in their papers for KC Executive).

3 Replies to "Full report: 4 King County Executive candidates in West Seattle"

  • Orin June 2, 2009 (11:09 am)

    I knew there was a reason I don’t pay attention to county races. King County is the most pointless, useless government entity in North America. Seattle should become a county, if for no other reason than we won’t have the albatross that is King County around our necks anymore.

  • Christi S June 2, 2009 (2:46 pm)

    I was just gobsmacked with Hunter’s ungracious answer to the Sims question. He criticized Simms (instead of offering positive accomplishments) and then turned into a stump speech for his own candidacy.

    Jarrett’s droll humor was fun. And completely surprising – he’s a wonk! Who knew? =)

    Hated Jarrett’s answer on homelessness “there is no answer” didn’t sit well.

    At one point Hunter said that the county should “stop stealing from the schools” and I’m still not sure I get that reference.

    Still stunned at Hunter’s assertion that we shouldn’t drive reductions in car miles and emmissions through transportation and environmental policy because people communte now and will continue to do so. Does that mean Hunter rejects Kyoto and all the environmental work that Seattle has been doing? People communte, so instead of live/work plans, we just resign ourselves to the “status quo” and plan wider transportation pipes for cars?

    Thought Dow and Larry were articulate, as usual!

    For me, though, Dow shows the depth and breath of knowledge about why and how things are done and should be done….not just snappy talking points.

  • Funkie June 2, 2009 (3:39 pm)

    First, thank you to inSPIRe for hosting this KC Executive Candidate Forum. Dave and Jules…know you were concerned whether folks would come inside on a 70+ degree day…they did. The Forum was well planned, run and have to say Moderator Eric S. was perfect—loved Eric’s rule that if a candidate ran over their time they had to say something nice about another candidate. Thanks to WSB for being at the Forum the entire time and providing such super coverage prior to; during, via tweetin’; and after with this great follow up.

    All four candidates were very interesting, intelligent and I enjoyed hearing their responses/views. Kudos to all for stating their own views/ideas/position and NOT bashing each other. Thanks to all four of you for making inSPIRe’s KC Candidate Forum your priority.

    As Christi stated, of all the candidates, Dow shows the greatest depth and breath of knowledge on how/why things should be done. Additionally, he understands the long term impact of today’s decision, for instance, when discussing transportation infrastructure, he stated that our transportation decisions today determines the land use that our children and grandchildren will live with—as an example–using West Seattle’s business communities that still exist due to the [past] trolley system, which created a sustainable community. Also impressed with and agree with his plan to engage current KC employees on unearthing inefficiencies and improving processes. Empowering and engaging. employees is key to running any successful business.

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