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February 2, 2009 8:45 AM
Posted by Joni Balter
About five years ago at a local opinion writers' seminar, a group of us was asked to name one individual in the region who personifies leadership. It was a quick, think-fast kind of moment. Silence, blank for a few seconds, I offered King County Executive Ron Sims.
Sims is going to Washington, D.C. intending to take a job as deputy secretary, No. 2, at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He needs Senate confirmation. Rumors of his departure have been swirling for months. A lot of people around here are fed up with him for one reason or another. But I say D.C.’s gain is our considerable loss. Sims has undeniable leadership qualities that will be missed.
He is not afraid to take stands that aggravate colleagues in government. In 2007, he changed his mind late in the game on a very expensive and poorly thought out road and transit spending plan. In doing so, he violated accepted Northwest process for challenging group-think and took a ton of flack for it. In the end, I thought it took real guts to stand up and say, on second thought, he opposed the plan. Voters agreed with him.
Sims is a big picture guy. He is a passionate booster of mass transit and environmental policies. The son of a preacher from Spokane, he is easily the best public speaker in our region, which means he can articulate a vision and persuade others to follow.
At one point amid all the rumors about his future, Sims said there was so much speculation around his possible departure that people must want him to leave town.
Nah. It’s just that third terms are tough and fourth terms, which he would be seeking in November, are even harder. The public just gets tired of you.
Running King County government used to be one of the plum government jobs. Those were the days when the county had enough money to do big new things. Nowadays, with fewer tax sources than cities, and with numerous tax dollars lost to annexations, the county has faced one budget slashing year after another.
Sims’ departure for HUD is a boastable moment for him and the Northwest. No one high up in Obama’s administration is from here. Sims will be the talent from this region. Hey, we matter too.
For Sims, this must be bittersweet. He loves the Northwest. His mother, mother-in-law and a two of his three children live here. He wanted to be governor but picked the wrong issue, a state income tax, and fared very poorly in the 2004 Democratic primary against Gov. Christine Gregoire. After the loss, he looked like someone ran over his cat.
Sims always seemed like the real thing, a politician, yes, in every sense of the word, but a human being behind the public face.
When I first met Sims he was a regular for Operation Nightwatch, volunteers who walk the streets overnight to offer shelter and assistance to street kids and the homeless. He did this before and after he was a county councilman.
While on the council, in the mid 1990s, I called Sims about a problem at Meany Middle School where a popular husband-and-wife teaching team was being phased out by then-Superintendent John Stanford. The supe was an inspiring guy but he blew this one.There were low-level charges of racism against the white couple. Sims, who is African American, not only defended the teaching team but revealed he was a regular mentor at the middle school. The fun fact: His own children were not attending this school.
As county executive, Sims fought for Sound Transit light rail from the airport to downtown and the University of Washington. He championed bus rapid transit, and much more frequent service throughout the county. In his most recent campaign statement for a fourth term for executive, he said he is proud of “innovative transportation solutions, increased focus on quality health care and cost containment, and our regional approach to the clean up of Puget Sound.’’
But he has his share of problems, too, notably the county's ridiculously expensive accounting and payroll computer systems that have cost millions of dollars . King County Jail was the target of a devastating 2007 federal Justice Department report that said the county violates inmates' civil rights through use of excessive force and failure to provide adequate medical care. Both happened on his watch.
Sims’ departure sets up a major change in our region's political landscape. King County Councilman Larry Phillips jumped boots first into the race last week. Another county councilman, Bob Ferguson, is thinking about the race. Others will join, too.
But for now, a round of good cheer for a talented politician. Sims strikes me as the real deal, a politician, absolutely, but an admirable and sincere human being as well.
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