County Councilmember Dow Constantine is promoting himself as "the most progressive" candidate for King County executive and a bridge to the next generation. Appealing for support from Democrats on such issues as labor, the environment and gay rights, he's enjoying financial support from friends in the rock-music scene.
This is the first in a series of stories this week on the top contenders for King County executive.
When the moderator of a candidate forum asked Dow Constantine — seated “on my far right” — to answer the first question, the would-be King County executive laughingly objected.
Then, determined to clarify his position on the political spectrum, Constantine noted that from the audience’s perspective he was “on the far left.”
In the most competitive race for King County executive in 16 years, Constantine is appealing to the Democratic Party base on labor, the environment, gay rights and growth.
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At 47, and still plugged into the local rock-music scene, Constantine also is portraying himself as a bridge to a younger generation of leadership. He is, he says, “the most progressive” candidate.
But as a County Council member for the past seven years, Constantine must overcome claims that he has been part of a liberal establishment that allowed government spending to spiral out of control.
Eight hopefuls are running for King County’s top administrative job after former County Executive Ron Sims’ resignation to accept a post in the Obama administration.
Polls suggest only one of four Democrats — Constantine, state Rep. Ross Hunter, state Sen. Fred Jarrett and County Councilmember Larry Phillips — will make it through the Aug. 18 all-mail primary to face former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison in the general election.
Hutchison, a past contributor to Republican candidates, is the only major candidate who hasn’t acknowledged a party affiliation in the ostensibly nonpartisan election. When Hutchison earlier declined a number of forums and requests for interviews, Constantine attacked her as a Republican with conservative views out of step with county voters.
A West Seattle native and attorney who served in the state House and Senate before he was appointed to the County Council in 2002, Constantine is known for his environmental activism.
He traces his environmental roots to the late 1960s, when he watched his grandparents and their neighbors successfully fight a proposed oil refinery in Snohomish County’s Port Susan Bay, where his grandfather had built a beach cabin.
Atlantic Richfield’s refinery plan “was the subject of much dinner-table discussion” and “a good lesson about the power of citizens to organize and fight back against a threat to their quality of life,” Constantine said.
It also was an inspiration for battles he later fought himself — first, working with activist Charlie Chong to stop construction of a residential subdivision on a wooded hillside near his childhood home, and, for the past decade, battling a huge expansion of a Maury Island gravel mine in his council district.
It’s given Constantine a reputation in some quarters as a feisty, take-‘em-on defender of the environment — and in other places as a not-in-my-backyard obstructionist.
Constantine lined up federal and county money to buy the mine property, but the two sides failed to come to an agreement.
Constantine blames the company’s intransigence; others blame him.
“Rather than getting everybody to the table, those Maury Island people led by Constantine would rather fight than settle it,” said lobbyist Martin Durkan Jr., who represented Northwest Aggregates.
State Rep. Sharon Nelson, an anti-mine activist and Constantine staffer, said her boss “understands that Puget Sound has been dying because we haven’t made those tough decisions.”
Constantine was at the center of another environmental battle in 2004 when, as chairman of the County Council’s growth-management committee, he guided deliberations over a new Critical Areas Ordinance.
Landowners turned out by the hundreds to oppose Sims’ proposal to require rural landowners to leave 65 percent of their land untouched when they build homes. Constantine softened the rule for smaller parcels, but the 65 percent requirement became law for most rural properties.
Furious property owners sued, and the law was overturned this year after an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Vashon Island rural property owner Armen Yousoufian tried in 2005 to remove Constantine from office, saying he misrepresented the law in a column in the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber.
“I think he’s just another politician who will say whatever he has to say to get re-elected,” Yousoufian said. A judge threw out Yousoufian’s petition.
After the local Sierra Club endorsed Constantine for executive, the club’s political chairman, Scott Otterson, praised “his fighting attitude.” Constantine and Phillips have split most of the endorsements made by Democrats, labor unions and environmentalists.
Constantine sometimes has been a deal-maker.
When Seattle’s First United Methodist Church decided in 2006 to sell its historic downtown sanctuary to a developer who planned to tear it down — spurning a lower offer that would have saved it — Constantine led an effort to preserve the building.
Working with preservation-minded developer Nitze-Stagen, Sims and Mayor Greg Nickels, Constantine persuaded the church to save the sanctuary, which has been converted into a recital hall.
“I love this place, and I couldn’t stand idly by to watch it be demolished,” he said.
Now, Constantine is trying to counter portrayals of him as a council member who helped bring on a wrenching financial crisis by failing to control spending. Latest projections show shortfalls of $110 million in the general fund and $200 million in Metro Transit over the next two years.
Constantine says spending could have been reduced if the executive branch had heeded directives from the council — proposed by him in 2002 and 2003 — to adopt “performance measures.”
He proposes a hiring freeze, wants higher-paid county employees to pay a share of their health-care premiums and favors elimination of cost-of-living increases when inflation is less than 2 percent.
A leading proponent of the county ferry district — whose two existing routes are in his district — Constantine now favors halting its expansion in order to pay for endangered Metro bus routes. County Councilmember Kathy Lambert said she initially voted for the ferry district because Constantine made that a condition of his support for a flood-control district.
A fan of both rock and opera, Constantine has found enthusiastic support among musicians and music promoters. Top contributors include Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden.
Music-industry people have sponsored fundraisers for him at the Crocodile and Neumos, clubs frequented by Constantine and his longtime partner Shirley Carlson, whom he met when they were University of Washington students and DJs on UW radio station KCMU.
“I have never seen any of his opponents at a show at the Crocodile or at Neumos,” said David Meinert, co-owner of the Capitol Hill Block Party and the Croc.
Constantine has outpaced his opponents on Facebook, amassing more than 2,200 “friends,” and he recently announced a goal of reaching 250,000 voters through online networking on Aug. 3. Tensions are running high between Constantine and his council colleague, Phillips, political allies for years. Of Constantine’s involvement in the music scene, Phillips said, “It doesn’t intrigue me, wandering around the bars of Belltown. I was in my 20s once. I had a very full life, but that was then.”
“It’s crazy,” Constantine said of Phillips’ comments. “He may be jealous that I have young supporters who are helping my campaign. The fact is that there’s a generational change occurring.”
An Eagle Scout and West Seattle High graduate, Constantine describes his life as “family-centered.” He lives a few blocks from his parents, and he and his partner frequently attend church with them and join them for Sunday dinner.
“What I represent,” he said, “is the next generation’s attitude, the same one that the president and many others have articulated, that change is our friend, that innovation is not merely good. It’s indispensable to us for being able to deliver on the promise for the next generation.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org