On November 24, 2009, James Dow Constantine (b. 1961) is sworn in as King County Executive. Elected to the position three weeks earlier after a contentious race against Susan Hutchison (b. 1954), a popular former television news anchor, he takes office as soon as the results are certified because the previous elected executive, Ron Sims (b. 1948), has resigned to take a federal post. In recognition of the county's serious budget deficit, Constantine's earliest actions as executive include reducing the size of his staff and taking a pay cut.
Problem or Solution?
The King County Executive position is among the most important political positions in the state of Washington. The county is the state's jobs center, and its population of more than two million is 30 percent of the state's population. Ron Sims served as county executive from 1996 until 2009, when he was tapped by newly inaugurated President Barack Obama (b. 1961) as Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This created an opening for the executive position, and Constantine -- known by his middle name, Dow -- announced he would run in the August primary.
Constantine had served on the county council since 2002 and was well-positioned to run for the executive spot. Bright and approachable, he'd chaired many of the council's committees, and had become council chair in January 2009. But while he was known in county political circles, his name wasn't a household word in the county itself. Worse, during his years on the council the county's budget deficit had grown and in 2009 it was steadily worsening thanks to the Great Recession then underway. This left Constantine with the potential of being considered the problem, not the solution.
A Crowded Primary
A year earlier, county voters had approved a charter amendment that made most county offices nonpartisan, which meant that candidates were not identified by party affiliation on either the primary or general-election ballot. The primary race, which would narrow the field to two, was crowded. In addition to Constantine it included fellow councilmember Larry Phillips (b. 1956) and two state legislators (Senator Fred Jarrett and Representative Ross Hunter) -- all of them, like Constantine, were Democrats -- and Susan Hutchison, a popular former KIRO-TV news anchor who had become chair of the state Republican Party in 2013. There were also two perennial candidates (Stan Lippman and a man who had legally changed his name to Goodspaceguy), and a little-known engineer named Alan Lobdell.
Hutchison finished first in the primary with 33 percent of the vote, while Constantine was second with 27 percent. He faced a big challenge against Hutchison in the general election. She had been in Western Washington living rooms for two decades during her anchor years. She had more name recognition than Constantine, more ease in front of the camera, and more support in Seattle's more-conservative Eastside. Plus she was an outsider, an asset in a year filled with falling fortunes.
Networking and Campaigning
It was a tough race for Constantine, with polls showing a Hutchison lead or a virtual tie into October. Hutchison focused on the woes of the current council and tied Constantine to them; Constantine argued that Hutchison was too conservative to lead the county and that she was a Republican despite her claim of no party affiliation. More so than Hutchison, he provided specifics about his plans to govern and to resolve the county's budget crisis.
Since his earliest days in politics Constantine had understood the power of networking and coalition building, and he reached out once again in this election. Among those he turned to were his contacts in the music industry, an interest since his days in the 1980s as a DJ at University of Washington radio station KCMU (now KEXP). Two weeks before the election he got a shout-out from musician Eddie Vedder (b. 1964) at a Pearl Jam concert, possibly a first-ever endorsement for a King County executive at a rock show.
Constantine also understood the power of aggressive campaigning, and because his campaign raised more money than Hutchison's, he was able to increase his television ads and field operations as ballots were mailed to King County voters on October 14. It helped, and he was also helped by a surge of liberal voters who came out to vote for some of the hot-button issues on the ballot in 2009: for Referendum 71, which expanded the rights of domestic partners in the state (informally known as the "everything but marriage" law) and against Initiative 1033, a tax-limiting measure by anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman (b. 1965). Voters were also swayed by TV and print ads depicting Hutchison as a Republican in nonpartisan clothing, out of tune with King County values. During the final weeks of the campaign, sentiment shifted to Constantine, and he won comfortably on election night with 59 percent of the vote.
All Hands on Deck
Sims had left office in May to take the HUD position and his former chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, had been appointed to serve as executive through the election. As soon as the election results were certified, the election winner would take office to serve the remainder of Sims's term. (Normally newly elected county officials take office in January following November elections). The elections board certified the results on November 24, 2009.
Dow Constantine was sworn in as the county's eighth executive in a ceremony that same day at the Daniels Recital Hall in downtown Seattle. In recognition of the county's budget crisis, Constantine announced he'd trimmed the size of the executive staff by 15 percent and that he and his aides were taking pay cuts of 10 to 15 percent below their predecessor's salaries. But in his inaugural address he also reached out:
"The world around us is changing. King County will change as well. We are looking to build a King County government that is more user-friendly, transparent, efficient and effective. This is a tall order. ... We will need all hands on deck to succeed" ("Dow Constantine Sworn in ...").