When Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Phillips announced in January that he would run for King County executive — against his longtime friend and political ally Ron Sims — he was breaking with his past.

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When Larry Phillips announced in January that he would run for King County executive — against his longtime friend and political ally Ron Sims — he was breaking with his past.

For a decade and a half the two Democrats stood together on issues ranging from transit to wastewater, growth management to gay rights. Then they parted ways.

Phillips says he broke from Sims because the executive lost his focus on the nuts and bolts of county government.

Some observers believe that Phillips, widely viewed as Sims’ heir apparent, also was frustrated by his friend’s reluctance to step aside after three terms.

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“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. It’s like telling someone in the family it’s time for someone else to run the business,” said Phillips, a Metropolitan King County Council member since 1992.

“I have deep affection for Ron, but the people in my district didn’t send me there to be somebody’s best friend.”

Splitting up

The rift, which became painfully obvious more than a year ago, came after the two clashed over the skyrocketing cost of a jail-security project, an elections office that repeatedly fumbled elections, Sims’ proposal to operate commercial airliners out of county-owned Boeing Field, and the executive’s last-minute opposition to a 2007 ballot issue to build highways and extend light rail across Lake Washington.

Phillips, 58, who fought hard to get Sound Transit light rail on the ballot again last year, began to consider running against one of the most popular, if controversial, executives in county history.

Half a year before he made it official, Phillips said, “It just seems like Ron has moved on but isn’t willing to move out of the position he’s in.”

“He’s waited and been patient,” lobbyist and developer Martin Durkan Jr. said of Phillips. “The question is whether he waited too long. This may be the year of the non-politician” — referring to candidate Susan Hutchison, a former TV news anchor who says it’s time for an executive who isn’t a professional politician.

County Councilmember Larry Gossett endorsed Phillips when Sims resigned to accept a top housing job in the Obama administration. Before that, Gossett told Phillips “I would be supporting Executive Sims for a fourth term, but if he did not run I thought that he was next in line for the job.”

Gossett said Phillips “does his homework,” sometimes sees policy implications of legislation that his colleagues haven’t noticed, and, as the senior member, carries much institutional memory.

Harsh, but optimistic

When Republican Chris Vance was on the council, he and Phillips frequently clashed. But, Vance said, “We made probably 100 deals together over the course of eight years. He was always reasonable and he understood he couldn’t get 100 percent of what he wanted and he was willing to give ground.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this. There were times Larry and I were in a room screaming at each other, but in the end we would come back together and make the deals.”

Although council members credit Phillips for assembling a strong personal staff and as budget chairman including Republicans in every step of the process, some grumble that he too often takes credit for others’ work.

Phillips sometimes uses some harsh words for his opponents: State Sen. Fred Jarrett and state Rep. Ross Hunter are alternately “Sour and Dour” or “Gloom and Doom.” Of fellow Councilmember Dow Constantine’s propensity to frequent rock-music nightspots, he says, “By contrast, I don’t sit on a Belltown bar stool very often.”

Despite those zingers and his difficult split with Sims, Phillips delivers an upbeat message on the stump and in his first TV ad before the Aug. 18 primary.

“This is a spectacular county we live in,” he said in an interview. “It’s got its challenges but we’re not broken in spirit. There’s hope and optimism. … If you’re going to lose your optimism in this business, you really need to get out.”

His first priority as executive, Phillips said, would be to create jobs by keeping major transportation projects on track: light rail, a new Alaskan Way tunnel and replacement of the Highway 520 bridge.

His career in politics

The son of former Seattle Times feature writer and editor Margery Phillips and World War II Navy veteran John Phillips, he is an Eagle Scout and a graduate of Queen Anne High, was a basketball coach for years, and has been married almost 30 years “to the love of my life,” flight attendant Gail Phillips. Their son Brett, whose day job is at Unico Properties, spends evenings and weekends working on his father’s campaign.

After obtaining his law degree and working for the late U.S. Sen. Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson, Phillips returned to Seattle, where he managed Randy Revelle’s county-executive campaign and in 1982 became a top aide to Revelle.

After Revelle lost the next election, Phillips managed the Shidler McBroom Gates & Lucas law firm and was elected to the state House of Representatives, where he helped write the Growth Management Act.

Later, on the County Council, he negotiated with members of the Republican majority to draw the county’s urban-growth boundary.

A hallmark of Phillips’ council years has been his work to preserve forests and farmland by buying land or development rights. Under Revelle, he helped jump-start the stalled farmland- preservation program, which subsequently protected 14,000 acres from conversion to subdivisions or shopping centers.

In 1993 the council adopted his proposal to accelerate open-space purchases by selling bonds backed by an existing tax source. Using that new $60 million fund, the county soon bought 1,800 acres of Rattlesnake Ridge south of North Bend and then thousands of additional acres mostly on the Eastside.

One deal turned 1.3 miles of shoreline on a gravel-mining property into Maury Island Marine Park.

For years, Phillips worked on a nonprofit group’s campaign to buy Weyerhaeuser’s 90,000-acre Snoqualmie Tree Farm in the Cascade foothills. When Congress failed to pass authorizing legislation for the deal Phillips envisioned, “Larry didn’t give up and Ron [Sims] didn’t give up,” said Cascade Land Conservancy President Gene Duvernoy.

Phillips and Sims teamed up to buy development rights from the tree farm’s new owner.

Duvernoy, who has worked with Phillips on preservation efforts since they both worked for Revelle, said Phillips has been “the key” to saving much of the 165,000 acres of farms, forests and meadows the county has protected from development.

Duvernoy, who is backing Phillips for executive, said, “Larry has carefully studied for that position for 25 years. What you’re getting is a guy that doesn’t want to go anywhere else. What you’re getting is a guy who wants to make his home terrific.”

Budget woes

Now, in a tough primary, Phillips and Constantine are trying to fend off claims that they have jeopardized county government by allowing costs — particularly employee pay and benefits — to grow faster than inflation or county revenues.

“The first instinct for both of them seems to be that government always needs more revenue and they’ve not been able to come forward with any strategic ways for the county to live within its means,” said Luke Esser, state Republican Party chairman, former state legislator and aide to County Councilmember Rob McKenna before McKenna became attorney general.

Phillips responds that the county has cut $200 million from the general fund since 2002 by trimming services and overhead, diverting drug addicts and mentally ill offenders from jail into treatment programs, and shifting regional park funding to a voter-approved levy.

Generally a strong ally of labor unions, Phillips warns against balancing the budget by forcing too many concessions from employees in pay and benefits. “Do you want to hire the last dregs of the law-school class to be your prosecutors? Probably not.”

But shortly before Phillips announced his candidacy, he balked at a labor contract Sims negotiated with sheriff’s deputies that raises their pay more than 25 percent over five years.

Phillips was the only council member to vote against the agreement, declaring, “In light of our current economic situation with tens of thousands of Americans losing their jobs, I think this is a hard contract to swallow relative to those in our community who are suffering.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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