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SGN interviews contenders for King County Exec
SGN interviews contenders for King County Exec
by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In exclusive interviews, SGN talked to King County Council members Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips, the two declared candidates to succeed Ron Sims as King County executive. Sims, who is leaving county government to become deputy secretary of HUD in the Obama administration, has been county executive since 1996.

Constantine and Phillips are alike in many ways. Both serve on the King County Council. Constantine represents District 8, which includes West Seattle, Georgetown, Burien, Normandy Park, and Vashon Island. Phillips represents District 4, including Downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard, Crown Hill, and the west slope of Capitol Hill. Although King County offices are now non-partisan since the passage of County Charter Amendment 8 last year, both men were elected as Democrats. Both served in the Washington State Legislature prior to joining the County Council.

Asked what differentiates the two, Phillips says "The depth and breadth of my management experience. I worked for [US Senator] Scoop Jackson in DC. I worked for [County Executive] Randy Revelle. I managed his campaign - I'm the only one who's managed a county-wide political campaign. I ran a law firm for many years and we never missed a payroll - or a partners' disbursement. I've chaired the Council's Budget Committee. I've chaired the Council three times - I'm the only one to be chair three times."

Constantine puts a much different spin on the issue of experience. "I joined the Council in 2002," he told SGN. "Since then I've worked through different areas of responsibility and positions of leadership. Now I'm the Council chair. I've been around long enough that I know what works and what needs to be fixed, but not long enough to be part of the furniture."

The candidates also differ in how they made their decisions to run for the county executive position. Phillips was rumored to be preparing a run for several months. He confirmed to SGN that he'd determined to run even if it meant taking Sims on in the primary. "Actually I made the decision to run in December, but we decided to hold off on the announcement till after the inauguration," he said.

"I've always been a strong supporter of Ron Sims," Phillips explained. "I endorsed him for the Senate. I endorsed him for county exec over my good friend Greg Nickels. I endorsed him for governor over my even better friend Chris Gregoire. The problem is that his third term was just not as outstanding as the first two."

"I was not planning to run, not at all," Constantine told SGN. "I'd just been elected Council chair. My political goal was to streamline our committee structure and adopt efficiencies in our operations. I've always had good relations with Ron Sims. But his announcement created a different environment. I took a couple of weeks to talk to my family, friends, and supporters, and we decided this was the right time."

Phillips announced his candidacy on January 27. Constantine did not enter the race till February 16, giving Phillips an advantage in fundraising. Constantine seems untroubled, however. "Larry's raised $120,000 but he's spent most of it," Constantine told SGN. "He has maybe $40,000 left. Within a couple of weeks we'll close the gap. We will match him dollar for dollar and volunteer for volunteer. We'll have a whole army of volunteers."

"I expect we'll split the traditional Democratic constituencies that we've both worked with," Constantine continues, "like labor and environmentalists, but there are some groups that know I've done battle for them - the arts community, historic preservation, defense of animals, for example."

Both candidates will focus on the County's fiscal problems. Last year, County Executive Sims had to deal with a $70 million budget shortfall. Prospects are little better for the 2010 budget. This week, Metro Transit announced that falling sales tax revenues would leave them with a potential budget shortfall of $100 million.

"The major issue is the economy, and by extension the County's budget," Constantine said. "In my view, we have to have a dramatic change in the way we approach our financial affairs."

"This is a very, very challenging time," Phillips agreed, "the most challenging since the Depression. There's great uneasiness about the future."

While the candidates agreed about the problem, they differ in how they approach solutions. Phillips takes a meat-and-potatoes approach. "Family wage jobs - that's where I want to focus," he says.

"We need a shift in political culture," says Constantine. "We need to judge our programs by the number of people served and the number of problems solved, not by the amount of money spent."

"We can no longer afford to resist change," Constantine continues. "We no longer have the opportunity to seek funds for programs that aren't working well. We have to decide what the County can and can't do. And if we can't do it or do it well, who is going to do it? And for the things that we will do, how will the money be used effectively?"

Phillips sees the challenges facing the County as, "First, to provide stable local and regional services - police, fire, 911, transit. Transit is particularly important, to get people to and from their jobs - or to and from job interviews. It's the public services that help hold the society together."

"Second, the private sector is stymied," Phillips continues. "Nobody's investing, nobody's lending money. It's up to the government sector to invest in infrastructure. That not only benefits society, it creates good construction jobs, family wage jobs. And then state and federal money draws private investments."

Where Phillips emphasizes jobs and investments, Constantine emphasizes accountability. "We have a horrible structural problem with the County budget," he says. "When I joined the Council in 2002 I drafted and passed legislation requiring County departments and agencies to create a performance management system. They were to draft mission statements, and specify goals and performance guidelines to accomplish their missions. That's how you know tax dollars are being spent effectively."

Constantine characterizes County compliance with this system as "spotty and grudging. More effort has gone into propping up a failing structure. As exec I would insist that this system be put in place immediately." Constantine cites the County's animal shelters as examples of particularly poor performance, and recommends the County get out of the business of running them.

Phillips has served as chair of the County Council's Budget Committee four times, including last year, when the County faced especially tough fiscal choices. "I always seem to pick it when we're in peril," he chuckles. Constantine has served once as budget chair.

As budget chair for 2008, Phillips led efforts to replace some of the funding cut by County Executive Ron Sims, and crafted a compromise budget that was eventually passed unanimously by his colleagues. "Part of the discussion has to be making sure that the most vulnerable continue to be served," he says. "On STDs, Ron cut it all out, we put it back in. The Equal Benefits coordinator, the position was cut twice and put back in."

One of Sims' budget-cutting proposals would have eliminated STD services for juveniles in County custody. The Equal Benefits coordinator is the county official charged with ensuring compliance with the county's Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO). Passed in 2004, the EBO requires businesses that contract with King County to provide equal health, pension, and other benefits to same-sex domestic partners of their employees as they offer to married spouses.

Both candidates are long-time friends of the LGBT community. Constantine has been endorsed by State Sen. Ed Murray. He worked closely with Murray when both were in the State House of Representatives. Phillips has the endorsement of activist Janice Van Cleve and former Deputy Mayor Ann Levinson.

County Council members Bob Ferguson, who was elected as a Democrat, and Kathy Lambert, elected as a Republican, have also been mentioned as possible County executive candidates, although both have yet to declare. SGN spoke with their offices, but neither was able to offer a comment by press time.

Both Constantine and Phillips were re-elected to their County Council seats in 2007 for terms that expire in 2011. They would be able to keep their seats on the Council even if they lost the election for County executive. Ferguson and Lambert were elected in 2005 for terms that expire this year, and therefore must choose between running for re-election to the Council or running for County executive.

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