Constantine, James Dow (b. 1961)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 4/14/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20337

Dow Constantine, active in politics from a young age, first won elective office -- a seat in the Washington State Legislature -- in 1996. He served on the King County Council from 2002 until 2009, when he won the office of King County Executive. His intellect and collaborative approach to working with others have propelled him to considerable success in his career. Known for his commitment to the arts almost as much as his commitment to politics, he has left a lasting impact in King County.

Beginnings

James Dow Constantine (generally known by his middle name) was born in Seattle on November 15, 1961, to John Constantine and Lois Wilson Constantine. He was the first of two children; a brother, Blair, followed. He grew up in West Seattle and developed an interest in politics early. His maternal grandparents had a cabin on Port Susan Bay in northwestern Snohomish County, and he spent parts of his summers there. During the late 1960s there were plans to build an oil refinery along Port Susan Bay at Kayak Point, but the community said no, and in 1972 the county bought the land and subsequently developed it into Kayak Point Regional County Park. Constantine's 2016 campaign bio said the episode taught him "the power of grassroots politics and the law -- lessons that would guide his future public service career "("About Dow").

Growing up, Constantine demonstrated the same drive that he became known for as an adult. He was an Eagle Scout, and he was elected student-body president of West Seattle High School. The teenaged Constantine developed skills in the high school campaign that serve him well later. In school he tended to hang out with the studious types and band students, whereas his opponent, as Constantine later described him, was "the typical high-school jock" ("Dow, but Not Out"). Usually it was the jocks who won these elections, but Constantine did it by working with both sides. It was his first taste of coalition building.

Constantine graduated in 1980 and moved on to the University of Washington (UW). He pledged Phi Kappa Sigma, where he chaired committees and later served as fraternity president. He also was a legislative intern for state senator Phil Talmadge in 1984. But he had other interests too. He worked as a bartender, a ski instructor, and a fish processor. He was a volunteer DJ for several years at the UW radio station KCMU (now KEXP), where he met his future wife, Shirley Carlson. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1985 and a law degree in 1989, and started his own practice with a fraternity brother, Christopher Benis, in 1990. He continued his studies too, earning a third degree from the UW in 1992 when he obtained a master's degree in urban planning.

By this time Constantine was becoming more involved in Seattle politics. Around 1987 he became precinct chair of the 34th District Democrats in West Seattle, and in 1989 he joined local activist Charlie Chong (1926-2007) and others in saving West Seattle's College Street Ravine from development. It was here that he first met and worked with King County Councilmember (and later mayor of Seattle) Greg Nickels (b. 1955), but it would not be the last: Constantine served as Nickel's legislative aide between 1994 and 1996, and in 2001 he would be tapped by Nickels as his replacement on the council.

On to Olympia

In 1996 state representative Georgette Valle (b. 1924) of the 34th District announced her retirement and Constantine ran for the House of Representatives seat as a Democrat. The Democratic primary that September was close. Constantine was still a relative unknown outside of West Seattle -- the vote results later showed he only received 28 percent support outside of that area -- and he faced a tough opponent in Sally Nelson, Valle's choice for a successor (and later mayor of Burien). On the night of the primary Constantine had a slender 400-vote lead, but there were thousands of absentee ballots left to be counted. The race hung in the balance during the six days it took to count them, but Constantine prevailed by about 1.5 percent of the vote. As of 2017, it remained the only close election of his career.

Once again Constantine had built a coalition that helped achieve the victory. Along with approaching politicians he had talked to friends from his radio days, such as Kim Thayil (b. 1960), the lead guitarist for the band Soundgarden. Thayil talked to Krist Novoselic (b. 1965) of Nirvana and asked him to help. Novoselic was working with the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC) and through JAMPAC was in a position to help Constantine raise money and support. Constantine later said the music connection made a difference for him in the primary, noting that he would not have won without its help.

Constantine easily defeated his Republican opponent, Marilynn Sears, in the general election in November 1996. The first bill he introduced in the House of Representatives was one to regulate onsite sewage-disposal systems. It didn't pass, but his consumer advocacy won him rave reviews. He ran unopposed for reelection in 1998, and in 2000 he was elected to the state senate. Once again he demonstrated his networking skills in the campaign, getting donations from such opposites as Novoselic and Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran (b. 1951). During his brief tenure in the Senate (he resigned when he was appointed to the King County Council) he served as vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee and vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

County Council

Constantine was appointed to the King County Council in January 2002 to fill the seat formerly held by Nickels, who had been elected mayor of Seattle two months earlier. He represented the county's 8th District, which included West Seattle, parts of the southern suburbs of Seattle, and Vashon and Maury islands. He was a strong proponent of light rail during his time on the council, and he chaired many of the council's major committees during these years. He had little trouble being elected to the council later in 2002, and he was reelected in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

One of his bigger challenges during his seven years as a councilmember came in 2004 when the council approved the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), a collection of three ordinances that placed restrictions on rural development in the county. Buffers (protected areas) around slopes, streams, and wetlands were expanded and restrictions were increased on managing water runoff from development. These first two ordinances were controversial in and of themselves, but it was the third ordinance, which affected clearing and grading of rural land, that generated the most vehement controversy. It required that 50 to 65 percent of land that had not previously been cleared be left in its natural state. While some rural residents supported the ordinance, others were furious at the restrictions it placed on the use of their property -- especially since the restrictions didn't apply to land that had already been cleared.

Constantine worked to mitigate the ordinance in response to these concerns, and it ultimately passed the council in October 2004. This didn't end the controversy. Three months later, a Vashon Island resident filed a recall petition against Constantine, alleging he had deceived his constituents about the CAO's impact. It was summarily dismissed by a judge, but the ordinance didn't fare as well. After various legal challenges, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled in 2008 that the land-clearing restrictions placed an indirect tax on development, which violated a state statute prohibiting counties from imposing such taxes. The rest of the ordinance remained in effect.

County Executive

In some ways the King County Executive position is one of the most important jobs in the state. It involves running a county with 40 percent of the state's jobs and a population of more than two million, bigger than the populations of more than a dozen American states. During Constantine's years on the council, Ron Sims (b. 1948) served as the county executive. Early in 2009 Sims was tapped by newly inaugurated President Barack Obama (b. 1961) as Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This created an opening for the executive spot, and Constantine announced his candidacy.

In the August 2009 primary he was up against four mainstream candidates and three others, and he came in second behind former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison (b. 1954) by a margin of six percentage points. This was enough to earn him a slot in the general election, but Hutchison was expected to be a formidable opponent in November. She was a popular former news anchor for KIRO-TV in Seattle, and she had more name recognition and ease in front of the camera than Constantine. He had been on the council for seven years, becoming council chair in January 2009 -- but during these years the county's budget deficit had grown, leaving him with the risk of being seen by voters as the problem rather than the solution.

Constantine knew that his traditional liberal base wouldn't necessarily guarantee a win, and once again he reached out. He got the expected endorsements from unions and Democrats, and (thanks to Novoselic) he also got a shout out from musician Eddie Vedder (b. 1964) at a Pearl Jam concert two weeks before the election. At the same time, he made sure voters knew of Hutchison's ties to the Republican Party, even though she disclaimed party affiliation -- the contest was officially nonpartisan, voters having amended the county charter in 2008 to make most county offices nonpartisan. During much of the campaign, polls showed either a slight Hutchison lead or a virtual tie, but late in the race sentiment shifted to Constantine and he won handily with 59 percent of the vote.

He was sworn in to a county budget crisis. The Great Recession had been ongoing for more than a year. Tax revenues were falling and deficits were soaring. Constantine needed to find a way for the county to cut costs, and he took a novel approach. Instead of departmental heads drafting and making reductions, non-management county employees -- even clerks -- were selected by their coworkers to cut costs by 3 percent a year while maintaining the same service level. Constantine's rationale for this approach was that since it was these employees who actually served the public, it followed that they would be best suited to identify areas for improvement and to effect change.

He also cut costs in other unexpected ways. Though he was a longtime supporter of labor, he got agreements from nearly all of the county's unions to waive a scheduled 2 percent cost of living raise in 2011. The head of the King County Labor Council, David Freiboth, explained that Constantine's solid relationship with the unions was the secret to this success: "[H]e really understands our issues. He's there when we need him. When he comes and says 'Look, I've got a problem, I need your help,' we listen. We have a basic political trust" ("Is Dow Constantine ..."). Also during his first term, Constantine formed a coalition to finance and build the new South Park Bridge (completed in his second term), a critical connection over the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle, and he helped secure financing to repair the aging Howard Hanson Dam in the Green River Valley, protecting the valley from an increased risk of flooding.

Constantine was reelected in November 2013 by the largest margin recorded to date for a King County executive, winning with more than 78 percent of the vote over his challenger, Tea Party candidate Alan Lobdell. The following month he was elected chair of the Sound Transit Board. But he was disappointed in 2014 by county voters' rejection of Proposition 1, which would have implemented a vehicle fee and bumped up sales taxes in the county in order to preserve the then-current level of King County Metro bus service. Service cuts did follow, though they turned out not to be as draconian as first feared.

During his second term Constantine also addressed the struggle that many county residents faced in the mid-2010s in finding affordable housing. In July 2016 he signed legislation investing up to $87 million to create more than 1,000 units of affordable workforce housing near transit stations, one of a number of actions to provide affordable housing to a county in dire need of it.

Dow and the Arts

Constantine maintained his commitment to the arts despite the other demands of his job, and in 2016 he was honored by the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts for this commitment. In 2015 he announced a partnership between the county and 4Culture (King County's cultural services agency) to back a $28 million bond to support cultural capital projects by some 100 arts and cultural organizations in the county, as well as plans to spend an additional $1 million to support minority arts organizations. Not all politicians are so generous toward the arts, something he noted in an August 2016 interview with Nicole Brodeur of The Seattle Times:

"There was always some negativity in some [political] quarters toward arts funding. But people coming to this region expect to have a cultural life and discourse here ... Art is a way we can communicate differently from the standard language we use. It provides a shared experience that we can't achieve in some other way" ("When Art and Politics ...").

Constantine married his longtime partner, Shirley Carlson, in 2013. In 2014 they had a daughter, Sabrina. They live in the same West Seattle neighborhood where he grew up.


Sources:

Chris Grygiel, "Is Dow Constantine More Powerful than Mike McGinn?," Seattle magazine, April 2011, website accessed August 16, 2016 (http://www.seattlemag.com/article/dow-constantine-more-powerful-mike-mcginn); Peyton Whitely, "Constantine Ready for County Council," The Seattle Times, December 3, 2001 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Matt Kreamer, "Constantine Keeps King County Executive Job," Ibid., November 5, 2013; Nicole Brodeur, "When Art and Politics Intersect: Dow Constantine Honored by Americans for the Arts," Ibid., August 19, 2016; Laura Onstot, "Dow, but Not Out," Seattle Weekly, September 22, 2009 (http://archive.seattleweekly.com/home/880643-129/story.html); Tim St. Clair, "Constantine Wins After Lengthy Absentee Count," West Seattle Herald, September 25, 1996, pp. 1, 2; Tim St. Clair, "Charlie Chong Dies," West Seattle Herald, May 1, 2007, West Seattle Herald (http://www.westseattleherald.com/2007/05/01/news/charlie-chong-dies); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "King County Council approves controversial Critical Areas Ordinance on October 25, 2004" (by Kit Oldham), "Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels loses in the primary, Susan Hutchison leads for King County Executive, and city voters defeat a shopping bag fee on August 18, 2009" (by Kit Oldham), and "Washington voters support domestic partnerships, reject tax limits, and fill local offices on November 3, 2009" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org (accessed August 16, 2016); "Dow Constantine to Chair King County Council in 2009," January 12, 2009, King County website accessed April 14, 2017 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/council/news/2009/January/reorg.aspx); "County Executive and Council to Take Next Steps with Defeat of Proposition 1," April 23, 2014, King County website accessed April 14, 2017 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/council/news/2014/April/transit_FAIL.aspx); "Executive Proposes Partnership to Develop or Preserve More than 2,000 Units of Affordable Housing Across King County," May 19, 2016, King County website accessed April 14, 2017 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/elected/executive/constantine/news/release/2016/May/19-housing-authority-partnership.aspx); "Executive Constantine Signs Legislation to Invest $87 Million in Workforce Housing Around Transit Stations," July 20, 2016, King County website accessed April 14, 2017 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/elected/executive/constantine/news/release/2016/July/20-transit-development-ceremony.aspx); "About Dow," Re-Elect King County Executive Dow Constantine website accessed August 13, 2016 (http://dowconstantine.com/pages/1/about-dow); "Dow's First Term," Re-Elect King County Executive Dow Constantine website accessed August 13, 2016 (http://dowconstantine.com/pages/146/dows-first-term/); "Kayak Point County Park," Snohomish County website accessed August 22, 2016 (http://snohomishcountywa.gov/DocumentCenter/View/9831); "Election Results Search," Washington Secretary of State website accessed April 14, 2017 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/results_search.aspx).


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