Is Sims Already Gone?

The county executive insists he’s up for another four years atop a county in crisis. But some say his head’s in the clouds.

King County Executive Ron Sims sits solitarily atop a Superior Court courtroom table, kicking his legs and tapping on his Blackberry on arguably the biggest day of the year for county government: the unveiling of the executive’s annual budget proposal, which Sims has just presented. Meanwhile, a few floors up, four county council members, along with Sheriff Sue Rahr, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer—whose courtroom, incidentally, is where Sims is biding his time—are laying out their discontent with the county executive’s cuts to public safety and criminal justice programs, as well as with the controversial ways that the budget proposes to fill the $93 million hole.

“Where are all your friends?” Sims, clearly annoyed about being upstaged, asks this reporter. He’s also upset that council budget leadership—Bob Ferguson, Jane Hague, Larry Phillips, and Kathy Lambert—decided to pre-empt his address with a few comments of their own.

“The Speaker of the House would never do that to the President before the State of the Union [address],” he says. “Totally classless.”

Sims, who’s always favored the positive over the politic and greets virtually everyone he meets with a smile and a hug, chides the council for infusing the budget process—completed this week—with a lot of “hot rhetoric.”

“People love to make a lot of noise. I’ve asked for a break from it, but I don’t expect that we’ll see it,” he says, fuming. “It’s only in politics where this talk works. People use hot rhetoric when they want to promote the self over the whole. It’s about ambition.”

Here, Sims is likely referring to Democratic county council member Larry Phillips, who may oppose Sims for re-election next year—a challenge made easier now that races for county offices will be nonpartisan, following passage of a charter amendment earlier this month. But Sims is no stranger to ambition: He’s run for higher office twice and failed. And though he maintains he’s never been interested in a cabinet post, he endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid early (September 2007), becoming co-chair of her state campaign—and causing some to surmise that a Clinton White House could be his ticket out of the county.

Instead, Sims sits alone on this fall afternoon, waiting to defend his budget. The county’s yawning deficit is just one example of what some say is mounting evidence that Sims, in his effort to gain national recognition, has lost a handle on the day-to-day operations of his job. There was the elections debacle of 2004, when hundreds of absentee ballots went uncounted while hundreds of provisional ballots were tallied without verifying voter eligibility; the deplorable jail conditions that resulted in a federal probe in 2007; the medical examiner’s office employee arrested for stealing drugs from the dead earlier this year; a juvenile court building that’s rotting; and animal shelter conditions so bad that the county wants to get out of the business entirely.

“Somewhere along the line, the county lost its focus, its mission of providing basic services like jail, Metro [buses], and elections,” says Rollin Fatland, a former deputy county executive under Republican Tim Hill who also worked on Sims’ 2004 gubernatorial bid and his 2005 re-election campaign. “It ran into trouble straying and getting into areas that may not be a county mandate. On a personal level, I have affection for Ron. He’s a nice man, but somewhere along the line he got off track.”

Some also contend that Sims has become distracted by big-picture pursuits at precisely the time when the county needs an attentive leader to roll up his sleeves and dig into the day to day.

Sims lost his first bid for elected office in 1981, when he challenged incumbent county council member Ruby Chow. Prior to this attempt, he’d worked as legislative director for State Sen. George Fleming, director of community accountability for Seattle’s Human Services Department, and an investigator in both the state attorney general’s office and the Seattle office of the Federal Trade Commission. He won Chow’s seat when she retired in 1985, and was appointed county executive in 1996 after then-executive Gary Locke became governor. Sims was elected to the post a year later.

Since then, the gregarious Sims, a Spokane native and ordained Baptist minister, has developed the kind of political brand that is the envy of other elected officials. “Ron is just a physical and virtual hugger,” says Seattle Foundation president Phyllis Campbell, who’s known Sims since he was a child. “Wherever he is, he takes people into his circle. It’s the minister in him.”

Sims is a guy with big ideas. He was on board early to combat climate change by establishing clean fleet standards for government vehicles, and saw to it that the county operates hybrid buses, which make up about 18 percent of its fleet. He’s also preserved more than 100,000 acres of forest land through the purchase of development rights, and led a tri-county effort to promote salmon recovery in the region’s rivers and streams.

But Sims has never been a natural manager. Case in point: the county’s quest to modernize and meld its outdated computer systems. In 2000, after three years, $39 million, and poor progress by project managers, Sims called off the effort to update and standardize the county’s various payroll, accounting, and human-resources systems—something that’s been desperately needed since the county merged with Metro in 1994.

“We were scared to death that it would get screwed up, because we’d seen other governments and entities that had gone through this changeover and have it be disastrous,” remembers Republican Chris Vance, a former county council member who chaired the budget committee at the time. “We did everything you were supposed to do in terms of safeguards from the legislative side. In the end, it’s the executive branch’s job to manage this stuff, and they failed spectacularly. I don’t know why they failed. But there’s no doubt they did.”

Sims has since resurrected the project, recently convincing the council to approve $77 million for a second try. Meanwhile, another major project, the Smart Card—an electronic fare system that will allow public-transit riders to swipe the same prepaid card on buses, trains, and ferries—has also been mired in delay. It was supposed to go live in 2006, but is now hoped to be operational sometime next year.

“Ron’s a natural visionary, not a natural manager,” says John Arthur Wilson, a Democratic consultant who served as Sims’ first chief of staff. “It was always a challenge to organize things so we could accomplish them. He’s an amazing information sponge. When I worked for him in the early stages, I’d be amazed at what he’d dig up.”

Wilson recounts a layover in Denver, en route to Washington, D.C., when Sims stopped by a newsstand and came out with an armful of magazines, including the Columbia Journalism Review. “He explained that he wanted to know more about what journalists do and how to work with them,” Wilson recalls.

More recently, one has only to look at Sims’ prolific Twittering (a sort of amalgam of text-messaging and blogging), on everything from pandemic flu to immigration, deregulation, and the New York City marathon, to gauge the range of his interests. Sims often blasts digital tidbits, or Tweets, which can be read online or received via e-mail, a few times daily. He’s even used it, to the dismay of some council members, to announce the latest budget deficit numbers. The messages usually include a declaratory sentence followed by a link to an article, simple show-and-tells like “John Carlson and I roasted Kemper Freeman at the Washington News Council Dinner. The event was lots of fun!” posted Nov. 9. Or, more cryptically: “Power struggle may open rift among House Democrats (sigh!) Efforts to curb global warming demand a we not an I,” posted Nov. 7.

Sims, who also has his own page on the social networking site Facebook, says he likes Twittering because it’s instantaneous and “humbling.”

“The thing about Facebook and Twitter is that you realize you aren’t the center of the world,” he says, while simultaneously bragging that he has more than 400 people signed up to receive his Tweets.

“Because he’s charismatic, people don’t recognize the depth and breadth of his knowledge,” Wilson says. “Sometimes people think he’s too random and superficial. It’s just the opposite. He drills down so far into things. One challenge I had was to slow him down and identify a few priorities.”

Sims’ chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, acknowledges that one criticism of Sims is that he’s not focused. “But he is,” counters Triplett. “He’s just focused on 100 things at a time.”

While the county was spending $100 million on its new 13-story Chinook office building, facilities like its animal shelters and Youth Services Center were deteriorating.

A tour of the center, located near Seattle University at 12th Avenue and East Alder Street, and which includes Superior Court courtrooms, offices, and a youth detention facility, reveals cramped and woeful conditions. In warm weather, the place smells like urine due to the lack of ventilation. When the rain comes, water seeps through the walls in the stairwells due to failing sealants, and old steam valves often lead to busted pipes, according to juvenile services manager Steve Gustaveson.

County employees working on the upper floors of the Alder Wing, which was built in 1952 and remodeled 20 years later, have to pour water down the drains daily or a stomach-churning sewer stench will rise up—the result of old pipes that were originally constructed to serve as shower drains for holding cells that are now being used for office space and storage. And throughout the building, fountains are shrouded in black plastic to ensure no one drinks from them.

A master planning process for the facility, requested by the council years ago, has progressed slowly because of cost concerns and questions about how the facility should be reconstructed (the county’s long since given up on repair). Although earlier this year Sims called the building one of his 2009 budget priorities, he only allocated $3.7 million in design funds. Furthermore, Sims chose to wait to ask voters to approve the bonds necessary to finance the project, estimated to cost upward of $228 million. He claims the timing wasn’t right; but voters, despite the sour economy, approved a tri-county initiative for transit and city levies for parks and Pike Place Market.

“I’m more concerned than ever before about that building, given the current economic situation. I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says former Washington Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, who as a former Superior Court judge advocated for the building. “I’m fearful that we’ll have to settle for putting a Band-Aid on the building, rather than taking the opportunity to serve the public better.”

As for the animal shelters, Sims argued for months that a council-commissioned report overstated the poor conditions—a lack of food and water, kennels and litter boxes full of urine and feces, and high euthanasia rates—before finally acquiescing in October to the council’s proposal to privatize the shelters.

“The biggest problem with [the] animal shelter in King County ultimately has been management, and that management has been put in place by county executive Ron Sims,” says Kim Sgro, co-chair of King County Animal Care and Control Exposed. “Ultimately he is responsible for the horrible conditions at the shelter and the care given to animals. To me this is indicative of a far larger [county management] problem. I can’t help but imagine that that isn’t the case.”

Over coffee at the 40th-floor Starbucks in the Columbia Tower—eight floors up from the sweeping offices he proposed vacating to save money—Sims argues these problems should not tarnish his tenure as executive.

“This is a big government, so to tell me that animal control is evidence of my mismanagement is really offensive,” he says. “You can always find a flaw, but there was elections—we fixed it. With animal control, we’ll fix it.”

Sims adds he wouldn’t have a national standing if he were solely an ideas man. In 2006 he was named “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine for his efforts to preserve open space and combat global warming. He also won the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Protection Award in 2007, along with activist/actor Robert Redford and Dadi Zhou, the former Director General of China’s Energy Research Institute. And this year, American City & County named Sims county leader of the year, commending him for being green “long before it was cool” and recognizing his creation of a public/private partnership to provide health and dental insurance coverage to low-income children.

“The national press can’t get enough of him,” marvels Sims’ spokesperson Carolyn Duncan. “He’s asked to come to the EPA all the time. They love him there.”

To that, consultant Fatland says, “Last I checked, those people don’t vote in King County. Elected officials have a way of getting seduced by applause from other areas, but that’s not real useful to folks back home.”

Indeed, Sims does like to talk about his travels. He mentions going to San Francisco to discuss an emerging national economic-stimulus package; speaking at the Centers for Disease Control about public health (once in Atlanta and once in D.C.); traveling to Los Angeles to speak to fellows at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication; attending multiple EPA conferences; speaking at the World Bank in D.C.; and talking in Minneapolis about how creating space for artists can enliven urban areas. In total, Sims has taken 23 out-of-state trips since Sept. 2007, typically to speak at or attend conferences related to transportation or climate issues. Nine of these trips have been to D.C.

It is in part because of such forays that council member Phillips, mulling a run against Sims in 2009, says the county executive has been both physically and mentally missing in action in recent years. “Any enterprise, whoever’s at the top, has to stay here. If they’re going to be CEO, they have to be fully engaged or the enterprise will drift,” Phillips says.

Phillips, who supported Sims’ past bids for county executive and who was in his camp during the grueling 2004 gubernatorial primary battle against Chris Gregoire, says that after Sims ran for governor, he seemed to lose interest. “To me, Ron has moved on, but he hasn’t moved out,” he says. Phillips’ exploratory committee has raised $74,000 so far for a possible run, versus Sims’ $207,000. Phillips says he’ll announce after the first of the year whether or not he’s jumping in.

“I think there are people getting restless with the way things are going right now,” says Tim Hatley, who ran Sims’ 2004 gubernatorial campaign and has worked for both Sims and Phillips. “[Sims is] focused on things like global warming initiatives, big-picture stuff. Perhaps attention to other parts of the government is delegated down the chain of command. I don’t know if he’s as engaged at the policy level to the extent that he was years back.”

The current budget deficit is fuel for these kinds of complaints, adds Ryan Bayne, who started with Sims in 2003 as council relations director and left in 2007 as director of intergovernmental relations. “It’s that ‘What were you doing when Rome was burning?’ kind of thing,” he says. “Ron has always pursued an aggressive agenda of progressive values, even if in pursuit of that agenda it takes him to places where most county officials would never tread. So far, voters have supported Ron in this effort. The problem is that when management or operational issues occur during a visionary’s term, [he] is ripe for being criticized for not keeping his eye on the ball.”

Sims acknowledges this year’s budget has been the hardest he’s ever had to pull together. But he argues that the monstrous deficit couldn’t be helped, because of uncontrollable factors like the county’s shrinking tax base due to state-mandated incorporation of rural areas by cities, and less revenue thanks to the Tim Eyman–initiated property-tax cap. Sims also maintains the situation was made worse by the national financial crisis, and he’s quick to point out that the county still has its AAA bond rating—achieved on his watch—which allows it to get lower interest rates when borrowing money.

Of course, many counties are suffering as a result of the national economic malaise, but in King County a $25 million hole was predicted more than a year ago. Furthermore, the county’s former chief economist argued in a well-circulated PowerPoint presentation earlier this year (See Laura Onstot’s “The Broke Get Broker,” SW, Sept. 10) that it’s not a structural deficit but unsustainable spending that’s gotten the county into its hole. In contrast, Sims argues that the budget has an inherent structural problem (i.e., heavy on services, light on revenue)—despite proclaiming just three years ago that the county’s finances were sound.

“Today I am proud to tell you that King County has completed a remarkable financial turnaround that any corporation would envy,” he said during his 2006 budget address. “My friends, the era of deficits is over!”

Louise Miller, a Cottage Lake Republican who served on the county council from 1994 to 2001, wonders if Sims has simply stayed too long. “I always felt like I could call him up and say that we needed to work on this or needed funds for that,” she says. “I don’t see Ron as interested in rural issues as he used to be. I think he likes the global things. I can point to some things that he’s done very well, like the salmon strategy, that’s the kind of thing he’s good at.

“It’s the nitty-gritty slogging part that he’s probably pretty bored with at this point,” Miller adds. “I’m sure there are things that still excite him and get him energized, but when you’re in a situation that you’re in right now, you’ve really got to go back to the nuts and bolts.”

Council member Larry Gossett, a longtime friend of Sims who still breakfasts with him once a month at the Silver Fork in Rainier Valley, concedes that the county has had some management problems. But due in part to Sims’ efforts to slow climate change and improve health care, Gossett argues that Sims is still a “very viable leader, one that King County is lucky to have.”

Sims’ mother, Lydia, who worked as the City of Spokane’s affirmative-action specialist, was eventually appointed director of the city’s Human Resources Department—the first African-American department manager in Spokane’s history. His father, James, served as president of the Spokane NAACP, and often criticized the city and local private businesses for failing to hire blacks.

“I grew up in a community that did not welcome civil rights, so my parents took risks,” says Sims. “In the end, Spokane became a much better place in large part because of not only my parents, but other people who took risks.”

One Fourth of July early in his county council career, Sims ran into Rep. Tom Foley at a picnic in Spokane’s arboretum. Sims says Foley, who was gnawing on a chicken leg, said to him, “Your parents have done more to change this community by sticking their neck out than anyone I know, and I want you to be proud of their work.”

Sims says this solidified something important in his approach to governing. “Here’s the Speaker of the House walking up to me and saying this. I was like, wow,” he says. “It’s important that societies remain dynamic and innovative, and at times you’ve got to take risks to see that happen.”

Sims has put this belief into practice. Among his more controversial stands, Sims was an early supporter of tolling on the 520 bridge, and now advocates broader highway and interstate tolls to pay for road projects. Furthermore, he has long advocated a state income tax, and has stuck his neck out for unpopular and unsuccessful ideas, like allowing Southwest Airlines to operate out of Boeing Field and swapping the county-owned airport for a 47-mile stretch of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad that could be converted into a multi-use trail.

But perhaps his biggest risk was also his most perplexing—because Sims didn’t stick with it to collect the dividends. Sims served as board chair of Sound Transit in 2002 and 2003, when management and money issues plagued the agency, which was under siege at the local level by monorail enthusiasts, in the legislature by lawmakers who wanted to take away its taxing authority, and in Congress by some who thought federal money was being wasted. Sims successfully battled all three fronts while lobbying each Sound Transit board member individually to ensure that they too had the backbone to see that light rail survived.

“Ron was the chair of the Sound Transit board during its darkest days,” remembers Bayne, his former aide. “He saved light rail when there was no political upside to defending it. He had the political equity built up and he used it, because it was the right thing to do.”

But since then Sims has twice opposed proposals to expand the system, set to open next year. Last year, just over two months before Election Day, he came out against the tri-county tax package that would have funded construction of more light rail and roads. Though he’d initially told supporters he would stay neutral, Sims expressed his opposition to the ballot measure due to its cost, potential environmental drawbacks, and a belief that it would not relieve congestion.

Supporters of the measure at all levels of government were dismayed by Sims’ move, less for the fact of his opposition than for his method. “He had an opportunity early to play a constructive role in changing [the proposal],” says Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Ron wasn’t just at the table; he could’ve built a new one.”

“I was very disappointed by the position the executive took,” says King County council member Julia Patterson. “He took the position in the middle of a vulnerable campaign after seemingly being in favor of what we were doing.”

Bayne, whose old job was to smooth relations with leaders at all levels of government, says Sims’ last-minute denunciation of the roads and transit package, which went on to defeat, still haunts the county executive. “It’s a trust issue,” says Bayne. “There’s a lot of local, state, and federal officials who felt burned by that. And right now King County is sending up flares asking for a lot of help from those same officials.

“Ron hasn’t exactly kept it a secret that he’s interested in a federal appointment,” continues Bayne. “I’m not saying that those officials won’t respond to Ron’s and King County’s requests, but the response may not be as enthusiastic as it could have been otherwise.”

This year, when Sims had another chance to support light rail unencumbered by road proposals, the guy who saved Sound Transit said no again. This time he says the issue was timing—and the fact that the places where trains would stop, like Bellevue and Redmond, don’t have bus systems in place to complement light rail. (The proposal actually includes an additional 100,000 bus operation hours per year, about half of which are allotted to the Eastside.)

“Buses are the rib cage, light rail is the spine,” says Sims. “You need to build the rib cage first. You have to have an integrated system.”

But voters disagreed, overwhelmingly approving light-rail expansion earlier this month. Phillips, for his part, actively supported the measure, something he’ll no doubt tout should he decide to run against Sims.

“Transit’s popular; that’s not lost on me,” Sims says. “I wish I had a 100 percent record with the voters. I don’t.”

Though voters typically punish ambition, King County has twice welcomed Sims back after he’s tried and failed to move on. Almost as remarkable, though, is the fact that Sims hasn’t succeeded. After all, John Spellman, Booth Gardner, and Gary Locke each served as county executives before becoming governor, and Rob McKenna used his county council position as a springboard to attorney general. And none of these men boasted Sims’ combination of charisma, big ideas, and national profile.

So how might one explain Sims’ ill-fated quests for governor and the U.S. Senate? “Bad timing, bad luck,” says Vance, the former council member and former head of the state Republican Party.

True, Sims’ challenge to Sen. Slade Gorton in 1994 (when Sims was a county council member) corresponded with a massive Republican victory in Congress ushered in by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” And while Sims danced for months around the idea of running for governor, he jumped into the race a week after Gregoire declared her candidacy. A month later, Gov. Locke endorsed Gregoire, a popular attorney general who had taken on tobacco companies and won. After that, most observers agree, it was her race to lose.

Some also wonder if race played a part. “He’s a good politician, but we’ve never elected an African-American statewide in Washington State,” says Hatley, Sims’ former campaign manager. “I think in 2004 there were folks who had that in mind. The code was: He’s not electable, he’s from Seattle.”

The race issue blew up a couple weeks before the primary, when it was revealed that Gregoire had belonged to a sorority that once had a whites-only policy. She accused Sims of planting the story. “That hurt him,” says former chief of staff Wilson. “He’s one of the least racially stratified people I’ve ever known. What he saw in 2004 was troubling to him. It was the first time he was gamed in racial politics.”

When Sims had an opportunity to support Barack Obama’s historic White House bid, he chose instead to back Hillary Clinton. Sims explains his choice was about loyalty. “I’m an old-schooler …They went to bat for me,” he says, adding that the Clintons had supported him earlier in his career by ensuring that he got access to power and federal funds.

In justifying his support for Clinton, Sims recalls a 2007 meeting with her husband, who was in town for a fundraiser, where Sims introduced him to the gathered donors. Afterwards, Clinton asked to speak with Sims. Following a wide-ranging 45-minute conversation over coffee at the Westin, Clinton asked for Sims’ support.

“We’ve gone back a long way, haven’t we?” Sims remembers the 42nd president saying. “I would love for you to give your consideration to my wife’s candidacy.”

“We had a huge relationship we’d established,” Sims says. “It was hard for me to say, ‘President Clinton, I’m not going to support your wife.'”

Some are still pulling for Sims to be considered for a slot in Obama’s administration. Gregoire, an early supporter of the president-elect, said as much to the Seattle P-I‘s Joel Connelly at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Sims stresses he never was angling for a cabinet post, and still loves his job. “One day I’ll move on, but I’m not ready to do that yet,” he says. “I like being able to go back to D.C. to fashion policy that benefits the region…I’m not looking for a call. I want access.”

“I think if the right job came up he’d go back to D.C., but I also don’t think he’s got the bloodlust to go back there,” says former chief of staff Wilson. “I think there was a moment in time after the governor’s race that he might have entertained going off to do something else. My sense is that he got himself re-engaged.”

But others, formerly in Sims’ inner circle, say that he promised that his 2005 run for county executive would be his last. “I am pretty surprised he’s running for re-election,” says Hatley, his 2004 campaign director. “I recall he said [2005] would be his last time.” Fatland, who worked on Sims’ 2004 and 2005 bids, remembers the same: “It’s my recollection that in 2005 he said that was going to be his last county executive campaign,” he says.

“People speculate and assume things, but he says he’s never said that,” counters Duncan, Sims’ spokesperson. “He doesn’t share that information with people.”

Sims declared his candidacy for 2009 in June, shortly after Phillips started nosing around. Sims’ reasons for running, though long on vision, are short on nuts and bolts. They include everything from improving the sustainability and livability of communities to ending the connection between race and poverty, as well as cleaning up Puget Sound.

Privately, political consultants agree that while Sims will be vulnerable next year, Phillips, because he’s Seattle-based and also has had a long tenure on the county council, may not be the one to beat him.

But Hatley says Phillips has a shot. “It depends on what kind of campaign he runs,” he says. “[Sims] is a good campaigner and he can raise money. But I think there are issues. You saw this election—it was about change. People want something different.”

Back at the 40th-floor Starbucks, while ruminating on politics in general, Sims observes, perhaps presciently, “The one thing is that you can have all of the negatives in the world, but if people like you, they bring you back.”