Despite the mild temperatures outside on the evening of Tuesday, August 18, Kells was so packed that the air inside the Irish bar became sticky and hot, pushing the young crowd, still in their office slacks, out into Post Alley. There, Dow Constantine emerged from a cluster of thrilled King County staffers for a breath of fresh air.
Constantine had fended off three other local Democrats to win a spot in the November 3 general election to become the next King County Executive, a seat most recently held on a permanent basis by Ron Sims. (Kurt Triplett, Sims’ former chief of staff, has served on an interim basis since May 4, when Sims left to become Deputy Director of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.) An elated Constantine was throwing out so many hugs that night, he had an arm around a reporter before realizing he was being asked a question about his victory, not just getting another congratulatory embrace. “I’ve been working at this every day for six months and two days now,” he declared, a broad grin across his face.
But really, it had been longer than that. Two decades ago, Constantine turned to his fraternity brother, Christopher Benis, on a road trip and said that someday he would be mayor of Seattle. Since that trip, Constantine’s political career has taken a few turns, veering first to Olympia, then to the county. He hasn’t made that promised leap to city hall, but now Constantine is as close as he’s ever been to running a governmental body.
To get there, Constantine will have to overcome a far greater challenge than any local Democrat running for the Executive position—now technically nonpartisan—has faced in years. (The last Republican to hold the office was Tim Hill, who served two terms before losing to Democrat Gary Locke in 1993.) Constantine is up against former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison, who has several advantages: superior name recognition, appeal to voters east of Lake Washington, and ease in front of a camera. To top it off, she’s also a King County outsider. While experience may have been an asset in the past, local political insiders say it does Constantine no favors to have been part of a county government that now faces seemingly insurmountable deficits in various departments, including those overseeing public health, flood control, and buses.
If Constantine is going to become the next King County Executive, he has to persuade voters that despite having voted for the budgets that have put the county into a deep financial mess, he can solve its problems. He also has to convince Eastsiders that he cares about their region’s needs just as much as those of his native West Seattle. And he has to dissuade longtime county residents from voting for Hutchison, a woman they watched on television for more than two decades.
With Metro facing service cuts, the Green River threatening to flood, and swine flu back in the headlines, that’s a tall order. And this time, Constantine can’t rely on his base to win; he has to convince more than half of King County’s 1.1 million voters that he’s the best person for the job. (A recent poll shows Constantine and Hutchison in a virtual tie.)
Despite bearing a striking resemblance to David Duchovny, Constantine struggles with public appearances, not once cracking a smile in a video announcing his candidacy. “[Hutchison]’s a professional television personality; she’s going to be better on camera,” he concedes. “But I’m going to be better on substance.”
“I voted for you!” gushes the cashier at Great Harvest Bread Company in the West Seattle Junction when Constantine orders a coffee. “I hope you go all the way.” Constantine thanks her and takes his cup, but the pot is empty. When he tells the cashier, she apologizes profusely, promising to let him know right away when it’s finished brewing. “They’re fussing over me,” he says as he sits down, looking a tad embarrassed.
Constantine is a son of West Seattle, the neighborhood that spawned Mayor Greg Nickels. He now lives not far from where he grew up on the peninsula, where he scored his first political victory running for student-body president at West Seattle High School.
Granted, no one was raking in donations from Big Pharma, but his opponent was the typical high-school jock, Constantine says. In contrast, Constantine’s friends were mostly band nerds and honor students—who put stickers with his name, in the font of the Dow Chemical logo, on every single locker. By reaching beyond football players and cheerleaders, Constantine was able to cobble together a coalition and win. “[The King County Executive primary] kind of felt the same as that race,” he says.
Christopher Benis met Constantine in 1980, their freshman year at the University of Washington. The pair, both Greek (not only ethnically—they joined Phi Kappa Sigma together), majored in political science and lived for long road trips and skiing. They became “joined at the hip for about 10 years,” Benis says.
But while Benis was content simply to experience his four years of college, Constantine could never resist a chance to be in charge. At the fraternity, he chaired committees and emceed alumni dinners. In 1983, he successfully ran for house president. “He was no-nonsense, rap-the-gavel,” Benis says. “He was the guy that could go out and talk to the police.” Both men interned in the state legislature (Constantine for West Seattle Senator Phil Talmadge). But only Constantine seemed hell-bent on being a lawmaker someday.
Not everything Constantine did had such an air of ambition, however. He mentions often that he worked throughout college: fishing in Alaska, bartending, and DJing at college radio station KCMU (now KEXP)—a gig that would prove invaluable when he started his career in electoral politics.
While both attending the UW School of Law, Constantine and Benis shared an apartment—and later office space, starting their own firm in 1990. Reminiscing about the early days, Benis digs out an old photo album. Several pictures show Benis with his top shirt buttons undone and a wide, toothy grin; Constantine, on the other hand, nearly always has his tie cinched up, wearing a suit jacket and a close-lipped grin. “Dow was always the adult in the room,” laughs Benis.
It was around the time he and Benis were finishing law school that Constantine started getting involved in local politics. In late 1987 or early 1988, Constantine says, he attended his first meeting of the 34th District Democrats. After the meeting, Margaret Ceis, mother of now–Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, mentioned to Constantine that a precinct chair position was vacant, a slot he soon filled. Later, in 1996, West Seattle Rep. Georgette Valle decided to retire, leaving an open seat in the state legislature. The vacancy was mentioned at a meeting of the Evergreen Democratic Women’s Club that Constantine attended. “So I popped up and announced that I was going to run for it,” he says.
The 1996 race was the first—and until now, only—nail-biter in Constantine’s career. He was up against Sally Nelson, a realtor and teacher who was Valle’s hand-picked successor. As in high school, Constantine cobbled together a coalition of various voting blocs. He already had some ins, thanks to the well-connected Ceis family and his own long history in the neighborhood. But he also reached out to people he’d met during his KCMU days, including fellow UW student Kim Thayil, who went on to become the bassist for Soundgarden. Thayil introduced Constantine to some of Seattle’s biggest rock stars; State Public Disclosure Commission records show that Constantine’s early donors include Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder, who each wrote a $500 check to his campaign.
Former Nirvana bassist (and current Seattle Weekly online columnist) Krist Novoselic says Thayil was the person who asked him to get involved in Constantine’s campaign. Novoselic was working with the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC) at the time. “Here was this candidate who knew a lot about music,” recalls Novoselic, who is actively supporting Constantine’s County Executive candidacy. “I met [Constantine] and we hit it off really well, and I stuck with him.” Constantine says that if not for those music-industry dollars, “I would not have won.”
His first two years in Olympia, where he served on the Judiciary Committee, were not especially productive in the Republican-controlled legislature. Constantine sponsored eight bills in that span, none of which passed. But one marked the beginning of a lifelong political alliance with Maury Island activist Sharon Nelson, who now holds Constantine’s former seat in the state legislature.
Constantine had just taken office when he received a letter from Nelson. She and her husband had recently finished building a home on Maury Island, only to realize after moving in that the septic system had failed. After dealing with a yard full of sewage, Nelson discovered that she had no legal recourse against the septic-system manufacturer. She wanted Constantine to do something about it in Olympia. Constantine called her back “and said he’d try to get something done,” Nelson recalls. “He really was the one who took my plight seriously.”
A bill regulating onsite sewage-disposal systems was the first Constantine introduced in Olympia, and he asked Nelson if she had any interest in participating in a task force on state consumer-protection laws. Even though that bill didn’t pass, Nelson and Constantine became something of a local political team. They kept working on septic-system rules, and two other legislators introduced a bill during the 1997 session that did pass.
But Nelson and Constantine had a much bigger fight brewing.
During Constantine’s second year in Olympia, a company called Glacier Northwest obtained permits from King County to expand its gravel-mining operation on Maury Island. Neighbors balked, saying a bigger mine would pollute Puget Sound, and Nelson says the residents asked the county to require an in-depth environmental study. Eleven years later, after a series of court decisions and a lawsuit against the county specifically naming Constantine as a defendant, Glacier Northwest still hasn’t been able to expand. (Four days before the Aug. 18 primary, a federal judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t studied enough the mine expansion’s potential impact on Puget Sound wildlife.)
In the wake of these fights, election victories got a lot easier for Constantine. He ran unopposed in 1998. In 2000, then-34th District Senator Michael Heavey received an appointment to the King County Superior Court as a judge. Constantine won an election to take over the seat.
Constantine’s time in the Senate was short. In 2001, then–King County Councilmember Nickels knocked out troubled mayor Paul Schell in the mayoral primary. (History repeated itself as Nickels suffered his own primary loss this fall.) Nickels then toppled City Attorney Mark Sidran in the general, and tapped Constantine to take his former seat on the county council.
Constantine recently held a press conference at the offices of the political consulting firm Laguens Kully Klose Partners. On the way to the room where he spoke, there’s an old John Kerry campaign poster, a trampoline, a couple of banners, chipped paint, and a coating of dust. He arrives at campaign events with an army of young volunteers and workers dressed in, at their fanciest, khakis. Usually it’s jeans and T-shirts for Constantine’s crowd.
By contrast, Republican King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert arrived at Hutchison’s election-night gathering at the Edgewater Hotel in pearls. Her attire matched many of those assembled to toast Hutchison’s primary victory—she garnered 33 percent of the vote to Constantine’s 27—with cheers and clinking wine glasses, a far cry from Constantine’s beer-soaked fest half a mile away at Kells.
The candidates’ campaign styles represent a much larger geographic and ideological separation. Using the King County Elections Office precinct results, the Seattle Times created a map showing where their supporters live, with precincts favoring Constantine labeled blue, Hutchison red. Constantine’s home district, which includes Vashon Island, Maury Island, and West Seattle, is unsurprisingly bright blue. He also took most of Seattle proper, and a fair number of precincts along the I-5 corridor between the city and King County’s northern border.
Across Lake Washington lies a giant sea of red. But local campaign consultant Cathy Allen, who worked for candidate Larry Phillips during the primary, argues that there’s no way Hutchison could have done as well as she did without the votes of some Seattle Democrats. And indeed, she came out on top in several Seattle precincts. In nearly every campaign-related appearance, Constantine mentions Hutchison’s Republican ties, but she has consistently played down her partisanship. (According to Federal Election Commission records, Hutchison has never donated to a Democrat in a federal race, but did give to both the George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee campaigns.) While Constantine has the backing of the state Democratic Party, Hutchison hasn’t asked the state Republicans for help, according to a party staffer speaking on condition of anonymity. On top of that, she backs Referendum 71, which grants gay and lesbian domestic partners the same rights afforded married couples in the state, and is opposing Tim Eyman’s latest initiative.
Yet Hutchison’s campaign has been rattled by the unsealing of court records related to an age-discrimination suit she filed against KIRO. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount, but the unsealed documents reveal KIRO’s case for demoting the anchor, which led to her 2002 exit. In one incident of note, Hutchison called in sick over a Fourth of July holiday, only to be spotted canoeing in Oregon when she was supposed to have been homebound.
On a surprisingly warm mid-September Sunday, Constantine finished brunch and drove to Newcastle, a town of less than 10,000 a few miles south of Factoria Mall. There, at the town’s Newcastle Days celebration, a few hundred families were riding ponies, checking out classic cars parked on a grassy knoll, and dancing to a band called the Roofshakers. Constantine passed his BlackBerry to a campaign worker and started chatting with a group of women, all of whom were seeking various elected positions in Newcastle government.
In the primary, most of the town voted for Constantine’s rival, Fred Jarrett, a Democratic State Senator from Mercer Island whose district includes Newcastle. Jarrett used to win elections as a Republican (he switched parties at the end of 2007), and he and fellow Eastside centrist Ross Hunter combined to earn 23 percent of the primary vote countywide. Both former candidates referred to Constantine’s experience with county government in a Sept. 3 press release announcing their endorsement. (Phillips also endorsed Constantine in the release.) But some of the votes Constantine has cast, including one in support of the Critical Areas Ordinance, might be the kind of “experience” that actually turns off Eastside voters.
At a meeting of landowners at an Issaquah International House of Pancakes in August 2008, Constantine was dubbed “Chairman Dow” for his support of the hated ordinance, which allows people to clear out trees and other wild vegetation, whether for building condos or grazing horses, on no more than 35 percent of their land outside cities or other defined urban boundaries. In January 2005, Vashon Island resident Armen Yousoufian filed a recall petition against Constantine, arguing that he had misled his constituents about the impact the ordinance would have on their lives. He also went after Constantine for turning in a campaign-finance report five days late. A judge threw out the recall petition, saying the charges didn’t amount to the level of malfeasance necessary to begin the process.
Anyone who expected Constantine, post-primary, to pick up most of his former Democratic rivals’ votes got a rude awakening on Sept. 4, when Survey USA released a poll, sponsored by KING 5, showing Hutchison receiving 47 percent of the vote and Constantine 44. With a margin of error of more than 4 percent, the poll is a statistical tie, but it counters any notion that Constantine would automatically earn the support of Phillips, Jarrett, and Hunter voters en masse.
“I think that there’s work that Dow does need to do to appeal to moderates on the Eastside,” Hunter says. To address this concern, Constantine plans to open a campaign office in Bellevue.
Underlying all the party politics and geographic rivalries is the county budget problem. Interim King County Executive Triplett is trying to resolve a $56 million deficit in next year’s budget. The shortfall is specifically affecting a county fund that operates the Sheriff’s department, the courts, the jail, and public-health programs.
Making matters worse, the Howard Hanson dam, which protects the Green River Valley from flooding, was damaged during heavy rains last year. As a result, if rain were to fall as hard this winter, parts of Kent, Auburn, and Tukwila would flood. Triplett is asking for $40 million from the general fund to prepare for that possibility—in the face of next year’s $56 million deficit and a projected $60 million deficit in 2011. Then there’s Metro’s projected $500 million shortfall over the next four years, likely leading to rate hikes and route cuts.
In his conference room, surrounded by maps showing the flood zones, Triplett ticks off the problems facing the county. “You’re depressing,” notes his spokesperson, Carolyn Duncan, causing Triplett to quip that he can’t see why anyone would even want to be County Executive right now.
But the two who do have to convince the public that they can find remedies.
“I solve problems and I fix things,” Hutchison says in all her campaign appearances. As evidence, she says she brought the Seattle Symphony Orchestra back from the brink of bankruptcy during her years on the board. Hutchison joined the board in 2004, chairing it from 2006 through this past July.
Paul Meecham, SSO Executive Director from 2004 to 2006, points out that Hutchison came to the board on the heels of a $10 million donation from the Charles Simonyi Fund, of which she is still Executive Director. That donation, says Meecham, now Executive Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, played a huge part in salvaging the Symphony’s finances.
“I’d imagine that’s sort of what she’s referring to,” he concludes.
Hutchison has yet to present specific plans for solving the county’s myriad problems. And she raised eyebrows earlier this month when she announced a press conference titled: “Susan Unveils Bipartisan Plan to Reform King County.” Instead of distributing a document with bullet points on, say, cutting employee benefits or axing animal control, Hutchison announced endorsements from former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen.
“But where’s the plan?” reporters wondered. Hutchison said the endorsements were part of her plan to bring people from both parties together to solve problems. She added that politics got in the way of making progress in other areas, arguing, for example, that light rail should have started out going across the water, not along I-5. It’s still faster to take a $35 cab to Sea-Tac than to ride the $2.50 train, she added—a bizarre, apples-to-oranges comparison, to put it mildly.
But mostly her campaign has relied on inspiring distrust of the current council. This past June, the State Auditor’s Office released a report which found county projects going dramatically over budget; incomplete records; and stacks of bus fares sitting on a table unsecured. The office released another audit last week, saying that the county is losing millions in its waste and sewage departments thanks to poor record-keeping and oversight.
“This is where we have to be so clear about who is responsible for this long-term structural deficit that has occurred because our expenses far outweigh our revenues,” Hutchison says. “We have to put the blame where it belongs. I place it directly at the feet of my opponent, who is the chair of the County Council.”
Constantine is walking a fine line, needing to convince voters that his experience better equips him to fix the county’s problems, but that he shouldn’t be held responsible for them at the polls. In June he held an I-understand-how-business-works press conference outside Lampreia, a Belltown restaurant he advised as an attorney. But Benis says that in their time in business together, Constantine wasn’t the one watching the bottom line. Rather, he spent a good chunk of his time on politically tinged, non-lucrative projects, like protecting a West Seattle ravine from development and working on a doomed petition to keep the department store Frederick & Nelson open.
“I was just a lawyer trying to make money,” Benis says. “Dow was more interested in doing right than counting pennies.”
Unlike Hutchison, Constantine has gotten specific about how he intends to govern; at the beginning of August, he released a nine-part plan for resolving the county’s financial mess. It includes cutting the County Council and Executive staffs, getting out of the animal-control business, and convincing employees to sign up for cheaper health-care plans.
But before he takes on any of that, Constantine sips the last of the coffee that’s finally finished brewing at Great Harvest. Leaving the cafe, he walks a few blocks down California Avenue. The junction has changed dramatically since his formative years. Remnants of the older, blue-collar West Seattle remain—you can still pull tabs at the Poggie Tavern—but now there’s a line out the door at pastry shop Bakery Nouveau a few doors down.
“Best bakery in the city,” Constantine declares. Dressed casually (for once) in jeans and a black button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he’s clearly at home on the westerly peninsula. But to win, he needs baristas in Bellevue to get as excited about him as the ones here.
With additional reporting by Lauren Lynch.