King County government is in shambles.
The county's budget is fundamentally unsustainable (projected 2010 deficit: $56 million), Metro bus riders are facing fare increases of as much as a dollar in the next year, the government's relationship with Olympia is a disaster, and the unions have a stranglehold on spending (the county pushed through cost-of-living increases in the middle of a historic budget crisis).
It's time for voters to demand major changes in the top spot at King County. Although we admire King County Council member Larry Phillips for his determination and optimism, and respect his colleague Dow Constantine for his urbanist sensibilities and support for strong growth-management laws, now is not the time for promotion from within. Constantine and Phillips have been part of the problem; we're unconvinced that either will be an effective advocate for new solutions.
Ross Hunter, a moderate Democratic state legislator from Medina, offers an appealing combo of effective leadership in the legislature and private-sector experience as an executive at Microsoft. Hunter's agenda is heavy on specifics: Creating a "stormwater czar" to coordinate Puget Sound cleanup efforts across the county; ditching the anti-Seattle "40/40/20" Metro formula and tying transit growth to housing growth, which encourages density; and requiring King County employees to pay part of the basic premium costs of their health care, as virtually all other public employees in the region do.
That last point speaks to another reason we think a fiscal conservative like Hunter is needed to lead the county in these harsh economic times. Hunter says he'll consider renegotiating labor contracts in 2011, possibly opening up existing contracts, so that King County employees' pay (much higher, on average, than City of Seattle employees just across Fourth Ave.) and benefits line up with other governments in the region.
Hunter has a reputation as a smart, tough legislator in Olympia. As head of the House budget committee, he fought to create new revenue sources for King County government (such as a new utility tax), ultimately creating new taxing sources for Metro and freeing up some existing tax sources to spend on basic county needs. In 2006, he was chosen as "legislator of the year" by the Washington Toxics Coalition for his successful fight against the chemical industry banning toxic flame retardants. And he was the prime sponsor of the state's rainy day fund, which set aside money for emergencies and economic downturns—another example of his economic pragmatism.
Hunter's biggest achievement in the legislature came this past session, when he led the fight against the intransigent state teachers union (a traditional Democratic ally) to pass a sweeping education reform bill.
Hunter has voted against his more liberal colleagues in a few key instances, including legislation—sponsored by West Seattle Democrat Sharon Nelson (D-34)–that would have prevented gravel-mining company Glacier Northwest from building a loading dock in an aquatic reserve on Maury Island. (Constantine, meanwhile, has stood up to Glacier for years, fighting against the environmentally destructive mine, which is located in his county council district). Hunter was also voted the wrong way on a pivotal vote against the business lobby in Olympia to expand unemployment insurance. (The liberals lost this one.)
These troubling instances, however, do not change the fact that Hunter is best positioned to beat former KIRO TV anchor, Susan Hutchison, a popular personality and conservative idealogue who is likely to make it to the general election. In fact, Hunter's rep for bucking liberal orthodoxy boosts his status as the best Democrat to send into the general. (His education reform bill, in fact, has made him a hero among Eastside PTSA moms, a major suburban voting bloc that otherwise might go for Hutchison.)
Hunter's three Democratic opponents, Fred Jarrett, Phillips, and Constantine, are certainly all qualified for the position; in fact, we wish Constantine had run for mayor, bringing his smart city agenda to a largely lackluster field. However, Hunter is the kind of tough, pragmatic outsider for a county desperately in need of a shakeup.
PubliCola picks Ross Hunter.
Full disclosure: PubliCola's part-time ad salesperson, Cynara Lilly, also works part-time for Hunter; PubliCola's cofounder and advisor Sandeep Kaushik works for Constantine. We've explained our endorsement process fully here (in short, neither Lilly nor Kaushik have anything to do with our endorsement process).