Sullivan, Cynthia (b. 1949)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 11/08/2006
  • Essay 8006
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Cynthia Sullivan, a Democrat, served for 20 years on the Metropolitan King County Council, making her one of the longest serving Council members. During that time, she had a major impact on growth management in the county, helping to determine where development could occur and where agricultural and rural zones would be protected. She chaired the committee that drew the urban-rural line under the state Growth Management Act. In the process, she helped limit sprawl and provide for affordable housing. She was also an unstinting supporter of mass transit plans.

An Urban Planner

Cynthia Sullivan, the daughter of a Teamsters' Union organizer, attended the University of Washington, where she studied urban planning. However, sensing an opportunity for public service, she quit graduate school to run for King County Council in 1983. She defeated incumbent Scott Blair, whom she described as being an entrenched Republican. She said the developer-friendly Republican-led Council needed shaking up, and she personally knocked on more than 1,000 doors in her Northeast Seattle district.

According to reporter Keith Ervin, writing for The Seattle Times, her "vision of growth management ... was shaped in part by a train ride between Haarlem and Delft in the Netherlands in 1980. She saw compact cities separated from one another by large expanses of farmland without sprawling suburbs."

Urban Density ... Rural Preservation

After becoming a councilmember, Sullivan worked with others on the now-Democratically controlled council over the next two years to develop a comprehensive plan that restricted development in much of the county. This was a time of fast growth in King County, with the county adding nearly three-quarters of a million people from 1980-1990. Many critics attacked Sullivan's vision of funneling growth into cities, while preserving farmland, forests, and rural areas.

However, that vision was incorporated into the state Growth Management Act of 1990. Under the provisions of the act, Sullivan became chair of a committee consisting of county and city leaders that was charged with carving out a line between urban growth and other land uses. This line would govern development over the following decades.

Housing Plus Transit

As this plan resulted in greater densities, Sullivan pressed for better mass transit to serve the developed areas. "If growth management fails," she told Ervin of The Seattle Times, "it's for two reasons. You didn't build housing where you need it -- which is in urban centers -- or you didn't build the transportation system to link up those urban centers."

In 1988, Sullivan and fellow Councilmember Greg Nickels (b. 1955) sponsored an advisory vote that showed public support for a rail transit system. This ultimately led to the Regional Transit Authority votes of 1995, which failed, and of 1996, which established Sound Transit.

Shifting Perceptions

As time went on, Sullivan began to support certain developments that slow-growth advocates opposed. Although these advocates had initially viewed her as an ally, they began to perceive her cooperation with developers in urban growth at the edge of Issaquah and on Novelty Hill Road east of Redmond as pro-developer.

At the same time, developers, who at first viewed her as their worst nightmare, gradually became big supporters. Judd Kirk, president of Port Blakely Communities, which developed the property near Issaquah, praised her courage in recognizing that "development means jobs and housing."

Even as she worked to support certain developments, Sullivan ensured that there would be developer-provided public open space at the urban-growth boundary and affordable housing within the developed area.

Helmets, Health, and Human Rights

Sullivan also backed a number of measures in health and human services, such as requiring bicyclists to wear helmets, banning baby walkers that were determined to be hazardous and discourage teen tobacco use. She was an ardent supporter of rights for gays, women, and minorities.

During her last two years in office, she was chair of the Council. She also fought with tax-cut initiative sponsor Tim Eyman over his efforts to reduce revenues she believed were necessary for County services.

Bob Ferguson's Campaign

In 2003, newcomer Bob Ferguson defeated Sullivan in the Democratic primary (tantamount to the general election in overwhelmingly Democratic northeast Seattle). To do so, Ferguson used an approach that was uncannily similar to Sullivan's initial electoral campaign of 1983. He knocked on thousands of doors throughout the district and portrayed Sullivan as being entrenched. He also criticized her support for Sound Transit, which at the time appeared to be faltering, and her resistance to reducing the number of County Council districts from 13 to nine.

Sullivan still lives in her Wedgwood neighborhood. In 2004, County Executive Ron Sims, a longtime Sullivan ally, named her to a County post as director of his Metropolitan Initiative, which is intended to bring national attention to the way the needs of urban America are addressed and funded.

Sources: "Inside Politics," The Seattle Times, July 30, 1990; Keith Ervin, "Sullivan's Legacy is a Dividing Line; Democrat Steps Out After 20 Years on County Council," Ibid., December 27, 2003; Erica Barnett, "The Year's Biggest Loser," The Stranger, November 6-12, 2003; "Historical/Current Data Set: Total Resident Population by Year by County, Washington," Office of Financial Management, State of Washington, 2006 (

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