Longtime King County Councilmember Jane Hague is being challenged by Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci in the Nov. 3 general election.
At a recent campaign forum in Bellevue, Metropolitan King County Councilmember Jane Hague leapt to her feet and virtually shouted her introductory remarks to a roomful of Eastside leaders, including her support for affordable housing, transportation options and a sustainable budget.
Her challenger for the County Council seat, Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, remained seated. She said she’d take the moderator at his word that the breakfast meeting, hosted by the Bellevue Downtown Association, was meant to be a conversation. In a low-key style she listed her own very similar priorities: transportation, housing and jobs.
“It’s not a pep rally,” groused one Balducci supporter, but Hague had made her point. Despite six terms on the County Council and at an age, 69, when many politicians might have opted for retirement, the moderate Republican hasn’t lost her energy for the job.
Balducci, 48, is widely credited with her work over the past 12 years to guide a fractious Bellevue City Council to an agreement to bring light rail to the Eastside. The County Council, like the Bellevue City Council, is nominally nonpartisan, but candidates typically pick up endorsements based on their party affiliation — in Balducci’s case, as a Democrat.
But in the race for the County Council seat for District 6, which takes in Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond and adjacent cities, Balducci has struggled to drive home her main criticism of Hague: that the veteran legislator isn’t fully engaged in the county’s most pressing concerns.
To back up her assertion, Balducci points to Hague’s council attendance. Hague has missed more council meetings — 14 in the past two years — and votes this year — 106 out of 319 — than any other council member, according to county attendance records.
“She hasn’t gotten involved in the challenging, contentious issues,” said Balducci, specifically citing state funding for Eastside transportation projects and the new county juvenile-justice facility. “She hasn’t been at the meetings I’ve been at. She hasn’t rolled up her sleeves and helped resolve them.”
Ballots in the all-mail election must be postmarked by Nov. 3.
Balducci holds a law degree from Columbia University. As King County Jails director, from 2010 through 2013, she earned a reputation as a manager who identified cost savings and secured better treatment for mentally ill offenders. More recently, as manager in the county budget office dealing with criminal-justice strategy, Balducci also has been deeply involved with transportation issues. She has served 15 years on the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) transportation-policy board, the past five as chairwoman, and five years on the Sound Transit board.
At the breakfast forum, Balducci raised her criticisms of Hague — but only in the last few seconds of her closing remarks, as if she were reluctant to openly attack.
Hague has no trouble defending her record. She counters that if she’s missed meetings, it is because of the many commitments she’s taken on for the council. She serves on the board of the National Association of Counties, as well as its Large Urban County Caucus. She’s also been appointed to county leadership teams, such as one dealing with negotiations between the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center, over a new contract.
Those commitments can sometimes conflict with council meetings, she said. And she’ll sometimes prioritize constituent meetings over council attendance.
“I’ve been very engaged,” Hague said.
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Among her list of achievements, Hague cites her leadership to bring together Bellevue, Kirkland, Metro Transit and a nonprofit housing provider to build affordable apartments at the South Kirkland Park and Ride.
She also points to her work with the council’s three other Republicans and with Democrat Rod Dembowski as he led the charge a year ago to find savings in the Metro budget to keep from eliminating 250,000 in annual service hours. County Executive Dow Constantine had proposed the cuts after voters rejected $60 car-tab fees and a higher sales tax.
And she raises her own concerns about Balducci’s attendance record as a county employee, suggesting that her opponent billed taxpayers for time she wasn’t at work.
Time sheets while Balducci was jails director show her reporting eight-hour work days about 50 times over three years even though she attended either Sound Transit or PSRC meetings on those days. About 15 times she attended both meetings on the same day, missing as many as four hours of work.
Only in the last six months at the county did Balducci take leave or vacation time to attend the outside meetings.
“I think the public would have concerns about that,” Hague said.
Balducci said she was a salaried employee who worked long hours, including evenings and weekends, overseeing more than 900 employees and a $125 million budget and being on-call 24/7 for jail emergencies.
“It was a big, serious job,” said Balducci. “I have no doubt that I worked more than enough to earn my hours.”
Hague, who like Balducci lives in Bellevue, had a highly publicized DUI arrest in 2007 (reduced to reckless driving) and admitted to falsely claiming a college degree that she had not earned. She attracted three opponents for her last re-election bid in 2011, but won in the general election over a little-known candidate, attorney Richard Mitchell, with 54 percent of the vote.
Hague is again showing the strength of incumbency. She’s raised more than $324,000 for the race, more than double Balducci’s $142,000. She’s also picked up endorsements from groups that traditionally back Democrats, including some labor unions and women’s organizations.
Council colleague Larry Gossett, a Democrat, has also endorsed Hague. He said she reached out to him when both were first elected in 1993 and that over the years, she’s supported improved protections for domestic-violence victims, help for veterans and programs that keep people out jail while also protecting public safety.
Gossett credited Hague’s ability to “work in a bipartisan fashion to help the poor and working people of King County.”
Former State Attorney General Republican Rob McKenna, who served with Hague for 10 years on the County Council, also praised Hague for working across the aisle to find common ground. At the same time, he said, she’s remained attuned to what voters on the Eastside care about.
“The secret to Jane’s longevity is her diligence in paying attention to constituents’ needs and interests. She has not lost her enthusiasm for the work of the county council,” McKenna said.
Former Republican County Councilmember Bruce Laing, of Bellevue, said he admires Hague’s long and faithful service. But he’s supporting Balducci.
“If it hadn’t been for Claudia, I’m not sure we’d have light rail coming to the Eastside. Jane wasn’t an obstructionist, but she wasn’t a big promoter, either,” said Laing, an early supporter of a regional transit authority who took on Bellevue businessman Kemper Freeman in the battle over light rail.
Laing said he doesn’t want to pass up the opportunity for a quality candidate willing to tackle tough issues.
“My feeling is it’s time to change.”
State Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, also praised Balducci for getting a “NIMBY” Bellevue City Council to support an East Link light-rail extension. Over the past 10 years, he said, she built community support, helped elect more centrist council members, found a route that aligned with planned growth through the Eastside, and led the city’s negotiations for a revised deal with Sound Transit that saved Bellevue more than $60 million on a downtown tunnel.
One of the big payoffs, Habib said, was the announcement in June that Microsoft, the University of Washington and Bellevue would partner with a prestigious Chinese university to open a graduate institute in Bellevue’s Spring District, He said the partnership would be inconceivable without light rail.
“I can’t overstate Claudia’s role in getting Bellevue to where it needs to be. She did it,” said Habib.
In other County Council races, State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, is running for the open seat being vacated by Larry Phillips, who is retiring after 23 years. Kohl-Welles’ challenger, Rufe Orr, has raised no money for the race.
Two other Democrats up for re-election, Gossett and Joe McDermott, are unopposed.
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 17, 2015, was corrected Oct. 19, 2015. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Cyrus Habib. He is a state senator.