IS KING COUNTY COUNCIL member David Irons a dim bulb? Is he a tool of rapacious developers bent on filling the Sammamish Plateau with seven-figure pleasure palaces for dot-com millionaires? Those were some of the charges that flew over a year ago when Irons faced off against the environmentalists' favorite Republican, slow-growther Brian Derdowski, to represent the King County Council's 12th District, which includes Issaquah, Maple Valley, and North Bend.
Derdowski was a 10-year council incumbent, a colorful politician who fought developers with passion and aplomb. When Irons beat Derdowski, fear gripped both environmentalists and council Democrats. Environmentalists, who have fought major battles over the last decade in the 12th District to control urban sprawl and protect rural areas, worried that Irons would help developers pave over the plateau. Democrats, who hold only six of the council's 13 seats, frequently built coalitions with Derdowski to turn back his more conservative Republican colleagues' initiatives. They worried Irons might shift the politics of the King County Council as a whole to the right.
So what difference has Irons made in the shifting sandbox of county government? Not surprisingly, the tone of the answers varies wildly depending on who you ask, yet the consensus seems to be that Irons' impact is less than many people forecast.
AARON OSTROM, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Washington, a green group focused on controlling growth, gives Irons a qualified endorsement.
Ostrom calls Irons a "moderate" on issues that 1,000 Friends champions. "He gets mixed reviews," he continues. "He's been better than many people expected. David hasn't been quite as good on our issues as he would be if he really represented his district. I think that he probably would be stronger on growth management than he is if he did. However, he hasn't been a nightmare.
"He hasn't done everything we've wanted him to, but there have been some of what I guess you could call pleasant surprises," Ostrom says. He cites Irons' middle-of-the-road stance on matters like the scaling of schools and churches in the remaining rural sections of the county. While Irons, a former Issaquah school board president, has not supported restrictions on public schools in rural areas, "he has voiced support for restrictions on churches and private schools, which is good," Ostrom says. "There's no doubt that people who live up there are concerned about megachurches and large schools being sited, that it's out of character with the rural area, and I think he's done the right thing there." Ostrom notes that when the County Council decides this issue later this year, "it's going to be an important vote, and we need people like him."
WITHIN THE COUNCIL itself, the images people paint of Irons have as much to do with their own standpoints as whether he has been effective for his constituents. King County Council member Larry Gossett, among the most progressive of the council's Democrats, says Irons was an ally during this year's budget process. "During the budget process this year," says Gossett, "when we said we wanted to restore funding to all social service programs that were cut by County Executive Ron Sims, David did not object to that. David supported that strategy."
Gossett says Derdowski tended to be more conservative on social issues than most people realize and that Irons has been more supportive of social and health-care spending than progressives had expected. Gossett says he's found that while "David is not the maverick that Brian was, he's not strident, he's not ultraconservative, he's not real doctrinaire."
Gossett says the real differences between Derdowski and Irons may show up soon now that Sims has proposed changing a number of the county's growth management policies. "We might see some big differences between the way that David will vote and the way that Brian would have voted," Gossett says, but stops there without saying how he thinks those differences might affect the future of growth management.
One difference Gossett does note is that Irons generally says less than Derdowski. "Brian had some insights into just about every public policy issue that came before us," Gossett says. "David likes to pick and choose issues that he speaks on. And it is not surprising that he speaks out mostly on subjects that he perceives as affecting the district that he represents."
Christopher Vance, one of the most conservative members in the council's slim 7-6 Republican majority, gives a very different picture of the role Irons has played in the county budget process. (Vance will soon be leaving the council to become head of the state GOP.)
"The big change has been in just the political makeup of the council and with the budget," Vance says. "I know Brian went around telling everyone that he was basically the only thing protecting the environment and protecting the Growth Management Act, and that if he left, the evil, rapacious developers would run wild in King County. The truth, when it comes to land use, was nothing much has changed with Brian Derdowski gone because his views on land use were so extreme and so eccentric that they weren't shared by anybody else on the council. Most of his ideas failed 12-to-1.
"The past couple of years," Vance continues, "when [the council's Republicans] were trying to cut taxes, [Derdowski] would vote against every effort we ever made to cut the budget and reduce spending.
"Brian was always cutting deals with the Democrats in order to try and get things he wanted in terms of land use. I think that was the real reason that he lost. Eventually he ran into a real Republican opponent, who was able to capitalize on Brian's votes not on growth but on taxes and spending."
Maggi Fimia, a Democrat who often gets peeled away to join with the Republican majority, says the biggest difference between Derdowski and Irons is one of style rather than substance. (Fimia recently announced she won't seek reelection.) She sees both men as bridge builders who can look past partisan labels and forge behind-the-scenes compromises.
"They were and are two council members that you could sit down with and tweak language," she says. "They don't come and say, 'Take this or leave it.' David is very collegial and does work both in front and behind the scenes to try to get consensus. He is very willing to craft language and give here and give there. Many of the other council members and the county executive are not willing to compromise.
"Brian and I worked on a lot of issues together. There were times we agreed and times we did not agree," says Fimia. "By the end of his tenure here, we were working pretty closely together on issues and had become allies on a number of things. David's not as connected or as strong on some of the issues, but he's not a pave-over type either. He's a moderate Republican. I guess you could say he reflects his district."
David Irons in his own words.
Seattle Weekly: What has been the biggest surprise for you about serving on the council?
David Irons: The biggest surprise is the public's perception that the council has the authority to solve any and all issues within King County. We have to work within federal and state regulations, and many times cities are the governing jurisdictions in an area—all of these affect our actual ability to resolve a particular issue.
SW: What do you say to people who opposed your election and believed your viewpoint would be too close to the developers and builders?
DI: I believe many of my constituents with those initial concerns who have now had the chance to work with me know that I am fair and open-minded. My decisions on the council show that I support overall community interests over any one special interest group. People and issues are rarely as black or white as many individuals would like to portray. I am, like your readers, a complex person with many views and opinions. The people of King County have four years to see if I walk the talk. Some of that talk includes being an environmentalist, supporting personal property rights, being a fiscal conservative, working to pass/implement transportation solutions, and providing affordable housing in King County. If I do not work with all parties, including the building community, I cannot represent all the citizens of the 12th District.
SW: What should the county do about sprawl, encroachment into rural areas, and traffic congestion?
DI: If I knew all the right answers to these questions I would be making a fortune consulting with other counties across the nation. Unfortunately, there isn't a single answer to fix these issues. The [revisions to the King County Comprehensive Plan] now under consideration attempt to provide some of these answers, but it is a dynamic situation requiring adjustments as the economic and lifestyle changes affect our area.
SW: How do you rate the different parts of the county government—council, staff, and executive?
DI: You don't really think I'm going to answer this negatively, do you? I've got at least three more years to work with these people. Suffice it to say I find them all very professional.