Divvying Up the King County Dems

On June 6, the day after the filing deadline, the King County Democrats endorsement committee will meet to decide who, if anyone, to endorse for King County Executive. So last night, over Cinco de Mayo margaritas and nachos in Renton, Ross Hunter, Fred Jarrett, Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips started the month-long process of begging.

Technically the position is non-partisan, but neither well-known Republican Susan Hutchison nor the perpetually ignored Alan Lobdell were extended an invite to the gathering. And why is that you ask, said county Dems chair Susan Sheary before introducing the candidates. "The other two candidates weren't invited because they can't answer the first question!"

"Are you a Democrat!" the first three or four rows of the audience responded. Everyone else was too busy polishing off the last of their nachos.

The problem for the Executive hopefuls is that unlike in the mayoral race where there's an obvious front-runner, these candidates are equally matched. Each has his own strong base of support and as a result, they may split the county Democratic vote four ways, giving Republican Susan Hutchison (who was derided last night almost as often as Tim Eyman) a free ride to the general election.

Given only one minute to answer questions from the audience and moderator Andrew Villeneuve, the candidates didn't have much opportunity to get into specifics, but they did sound very different in terms of priorities.

State Rep. Ross Hunter was one of the first state legislators to turn an Eastside district blue when he won office in 2002. "I'm their hero," the not-so-modest Hunter said before the forum. And in his opening remarks, he reminded the crowd of this fact, to much applause. But he also lectured them a little on things like the expectation that rural areas would get the same response time from 911 calls as people in downtown Seattle and the need to accept things like halfway houses in residential areas. With talk like that, Hunter might be putting that heroic status in jeopardy.

State Senator and one-time Republican Fred Jarrett was all about efficiency, saying every county department needs to be reviewed for performance measures and adjusted accordingly. Interestingly, this session, Jarrett voted to cut the state auditor's performance account by nearly 75 percent.

Hunter and Jarrett have mentioned their "BFF" status in a few news stories so far. It's true, Hunter tells me. They don't talk over cans with string, but they do give each other tips on hot iPhone apps. And when talking shop about the last legislative session--in particular an education levy bill that's slated for consideration in special session assuming they go back--they'll often finish each other's sentences. They have this joke they use often saying they're high school kids who fell in love with the same girl. "But I'm going to win the girl," Jarrett says. Hunter gives an exaggerated shrug. Hunter claims that keeping their friendship is more important than winning, but there's a lot of time for vitriol to build between now and the August primary.

Current King County Council President Dow Constantine mentioned Obama a few times, hoping to draw comparisons. But perhaps more telling was the amount of time he spent attacking the state tax code, which he called "an embarrassment." Other than trips down to advocate for changes (which Olympia is sometimes loath to give King County), the Executive doesn't have any control over state taxes. Perhaps Constantine is running for the wrong office? Perhaps this is a sign of higher aspirations of the gubernatorial variety.

Larry Phillips spent more time looking backward, repeatedly noting the July start date for the Beacon to Seatac rail line. He also noted that he's overseen the county budget process four times in the past, which is a strange thing to brag about given the dire straights of the county's finances now.

But really what this race comes down to right now is geography. Each candidate hails from a different legislative district with a distinct and large voting block. Hunter will win most of Medina and Bellevue, Jarrett has a lock on Mercer Island and nearby locales, Constantine has West Seattle and the Cap Hill hipsters, and Phillips wins Magnolia and Ballard.

Ann Miller, the local Dems state committeewoman has lived in the 34th District, Dow territory, for 34 years. "Any of them would be acceptable," she says. "But Dow's the best." You'll probably find many Mercer Island D's saying the same thing about Jarrett.

Because of that, Dean Willard expects a contentious endorsement meeting one month from today. Two-thirds of representatives from the 17 districts covered by the King County Dems would have to agree on the endorsement for one to be awarded. Willard isn't holding his breath.

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