SUSAN HUTCHISON WAS on the line, her voice rising: “From your questions, I believe you’re trying to hurt me!” It wasn’t the first time during our conversations that she’d shown her prickly side. But it was a very different Susan Hutchison from the warm, comforting presence who spent 22 years tucking Seattle into bed as coanchor of KIRO TV’s eleven o’clock news.
Then again, Hutchison has been full of surprises lately. A year ago, who would have guessed that with no experience in office and a decade largely out of the public eye she would seek the King County executive’s post Ron Sims suddenly vacated to join the Obama administration? Or that two months before the primary she’d be far and away the front-runner in the polls?
Hutchison the candidate has plenty of positives, on paper and in the flesh. At 55 she still has her anchorwoman looks, though her hair’s now brown with highlights rather than telegenic blond. Her face and voice are familiar to those 50 and older, a demographic that votes. She’s smart and articulate, though green at campaigning and vague on some issues. And her major opponents, Seattleite county councilmembers Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips and Eastside legislators Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter, are all Democratic politicians with conspicuous voting records. That makes them easy to criticize, and to lump together. Local politicos call the race “Cinderella and the Four Dwarfs.”
So who is this Cinderella? Hutchison insists she’s a nonpartisan candidate for a nonpartisan post, but her opponents, the alt weeklies, and liberal bloggers have variously dubbed her a stealth Republican, “an extremely conservative Republican” (Constantine), a conservative Christian, a creationist activist, and Sarah Palin minus the moose. For two months after announcing her candidacy she dodged the press and shunned candidate forums. Through most of that period her campaign manager promised me an interview but failed to confirm a time or place or even return phone calls. Finally the call came, and we met the next day at a picnic table in the greenbelt outside the elegant daylight-basement offices of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences in Laurelhurst for the first of several extended conversations.
Hutchison has worked for six years as executive director of the $75 million foundation founded by Simonyi, a Microsoft billionaire and serial space sojourner. She’s given his money to institutions ranging from the Seattle Public Library to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the Russian National Orchestra, dined at Windsor Castle, and rubbed elbows with some of the world’s most celebrated artists, scientists, and tycoons.
As we spoke she offered few specifics on the more humdrum issues facing King County but adamantly stressed two broad points: Voters are sick of partisan bickering and 12 years of Ron Sims, and she wants to “bring people together.” She did say she would freeze county hiring and seek to reduce business taxes and roll back employees’ (including sheriff’s deputies’) benefits. As for cutting services to meet a $46 million shortfall, “everything’s on the table. The executive’s staff has 150 people; I’d happily trade some of those for a sheriff’s deputy.” She would appoint a county transportation czar and work to get the region’s fragmented transportation agencies gathered under a single “umbrella” agency.
Hutchison readily invoked populist conservative catchphrases: “political class,” “bloated bureaucracies,” “out-of-control spending.” But she exploded when I referred to her in passing as a Republican. “You got that from the alternative papers! You all line up to discredit me! You’ve decided that because Obama won by this big margin in Seattle that anyone who isn’t a declared Democrat has no right to run for office!” Because this is for a magazine, not a newspaper, “I thought you were going to be different.”
Hutchison’s campaign contributions certainly suggest GOP allegiance: She’s given to George W. Bush, Dino Rossi, Mike Huckabee, and various Republican congressional candidates, and to the King County Republicans, the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, and ChangePAC, which bundles campaign contributions for the hard-right Building Industry Association of Washington. (She also considered running as a Republican against Senator Maria Cantwell in 2006, until Slade Gorton, Chris Vance, and other party poo-bahs pushed her aside and anointed Safeco CEO Mike McGavick.)
“You all line up to discredit me! You’ve decided that…anyone who isn’t a declared Democrat has no right to run for office!”
“You know that because you read it in The Stranger!” she replied. “The source of all knowledge is The Stranger?”
“Then where else would you know this information?”
State public disclosure filings.
“Oh, I’m so sure all you reporters go down to the PDC all the time!”
It’s all online.
“Na-na-na-na-no! It’s because The Stranger published it! You must follow along!”
I asked if she’d ever supported a Democrat. “I have,” she said, regaining her composure: She voted for Governor Gary Locke in 1996, and in 2007 she gave to Seattle City Council candidate Tim Burgess. (Though Burgess is a Democrat, as are virtually all Seattle council contenders, his office is nonpartisan.)
Hutchison dated her interest in the executive post to the contentious recounts after the 2004 gubernatorial race, when Sims appointed her to a task force examining county election operations. She peeked into some dark corners and realized “we needed significant change in the executive’s office, and strong leadership.”
As evidence of the kind of leadership she could provide, Hutchison cited her role serving on the Seattle Symphony’s board since 2003, including three years as its chair. That venerable organization was nearly bankrupt when she became chair: “I turned it around, changing staff, building a team, and getting ahold of a structural deficit.”
Hutchison also spent 10 years on the board of the Discovery Institute, which spearheads the neocreationist intelligent design movement and hosts a transportation policy shop, the Cascadia Center, that advocates the sort of superagency Hutchison endorses. On the question of evolution versus intelligent design, she was noncommittal: “I believe in good science, and that’s what I stand on.”
She also declined to take stands on other indicator social issues. On gay marriage, a cause Ron Sims vigorously advocated: “When the time comes, I’ll weigh in. I will uphold the laws of the land.” On abortion, the issue that bedevils American politics like the pesky fly she kept batting away at the picnic table: “Abortion is not relevant to the job I’m running for. It’s the most divisive issue in America.” She repeated her campaign mantra: “I am not here to divide, I’m here to bring people together. I will uphold the laws of this land.”
Doug Parris, the president of an über-conservative state GOP faction called the Reagan Wing and a steadfast abortion opponent, has no doubts about Hutchison’s views. He grilled her for hours in 2005. His conclusion: “I believe very firmly she is a person of high moral standards”—classic code for pro-life.
Hutchison is hardly a fire-breathing fundamentalist. She attends a mainstream establishment church, University Presbyterian, where, she’s quick to note, Bill and Hillary Clinton worshipped in 1994. And as near as can be divined she’s a mainstream Republican in the mode of Attorney General Rob McKenna, whom she admires. But as conservative talk jock and sometime GOP candidate John Carlson says, “in Seattle, if you’re a Republican who goes to church they put you in the religious right.” Conventional wisdom in this increasingly Democratic-leaning county says Republican red means dead at the polls. King County hasn’t elected a GOP executive since Tim Hill, a moderate who was voted out in 1993.
Republicans have a new shot now, thanks to a successful ballot initiative they pushed last year making county offices nonpartisan and enabling them to run without the scarlet R. Critics accuse Hutchison of advancing her candidacy by campaigning for that initiative. She says all she did was add her name to a bipartisan list that included ex-governors Dan Evans and Booth Gardner. “At the time, it was not questioned that Ron was running for reelection.”
In such a political landscape, it’s hardly surprising Hutchison has coasted on name recognition. But eventually—certainly in the general election—she’ll have to reveal more of her views, and her temperament. In our conversations she seemed thin-skinned for the rough-and-tumble of politics and the media, and prone to take things personally. “None of you cared a thing about me for the last 28 years!” she interjected at one point. “Those of you who now seem so knowledgeable about me never, ever cared about what I did before. And that’s the truth!”