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When Kevin Quigley first suggested that Gov. Jay Inslee appoint him to lead the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), he was not exactly taken seriously.

It was November, and Quigley made his pitch in an email to public-affairs consultant DJ Wilson, who had been an informal adviser to the Inslee campaign.

Wilson responded with a joke.

“He emailed me back and said, ‘Well why not CIA? That’s open,’ ” Quigley recalled. The exchange occurred just after news of CIA Director David Petraeus’ abrupt resignation.

It’s easy to see why the notion of Quigley as head of Washington’s mammoth social-services agency might at first glance have seemed absurd.

Quigley has worn a lot of hats — state senator, satellite company lawyer, Internet company executive, and for the past decade, president of an Everett shipyard.

But he had no experience in social work or running a large government bureaucracy.

Still, when Quigley followed up with a more detailed appeal on New Year’s Eve, Wilson realized he might be just the sort of “disruptive force” that Inslee had pledged to bring to state government.

Quigley was swiftly connected with Inslee’s hiring team, became one of two finalists interviewed by the governor and was announced as the new DSHS secretary on Jan. 10.

Quigley, 52, is arguably the most out-of-the-box Cabinet pick Inslee has named to his nascent administration, which has been largely filled with government veterans and political advisers.

Since taking the job, Quigley has been making a long commute. He rises at 4 a.m. each weekday to drive his red Prius from his Lake Stevens home to DSHS headquarters in Olympia, typically not returning home until about 8 p.m.

Wealthy thanks to his private-sector jobs and investments, Quigley said he doesn’t need to work to earn a living. He pursued DSHS because “it’s likely to be the biggest opportunity that I have in my life to help people.”

An avid mountain climber — described by one friend as “fearless” — Quigley has scaled Mount Rainier more than two dozen times, as well as peaks in South America and Africa. Those treks may prove easy compared with wrestling substantial changes out of DSHS.

High-profile agency

As the state’s largest agency, DSHS has 16,700 employees and a biennial budget of more than $11 billion in state and federal funds.

It serves some of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, running mental hospitals, distributing food stamps and welfare payments, overseeing adult-family homes and investigating child-abuse complaints.

The agency is frequently in the news, sometimes accused of failing to halt horrific abuse, and other times of overzealously trying to remove children from good families.

Over the past two years, DSHS has paid more than $55 million in lawsuit settlements and judgments, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

The largest was $7.3 million paid to three former foster children who were left for years in the care of Enrique Fabregas, of Redmond, despite dozens of complaints alleging abuse and neglect.

Such cases have been known to hasten the retirement of past DSHS executives. Quigley knows what he’s getting into.

Back when he served as a legislator, Quigley expressed skepticism that anyone could really manage the sprawling agency.

After the 1995 resignation of then-DSHS Secretary Jean Soliz, Quigley said that DSHS secretaries seemed to come and go while the same problems persist. “We appoint a new person, chew them up and spit them out,” he said at the time.

Asked last week what that bodes for his own future, Quigley said he is inspired to work harder to get things done quickly: “I joke around about it … I say the average DSHS secretary lasts 22 months, so I’m 5 percent through. So let’s go!”

Quigley said he wants to remove barriers to DSHS employees’ success, such as the time they have to spend on paperwork instead of in the field.

He’s already targeted a backlog of child-abuse complaints assigned to Child Protective Services (CPS). He got the governor to OK hiring 50 additional staffers at a cost of $10 million, by bringing on temporary workers in the short term while training permanent caseworkers in the long term.

Quigley also said he has ordered new training for managers so they can better hold poor-performing employees accountable.

Still, Quigley sounded almost fatalistic about his ability to help DSHS avoid future scandals.

“That can’t be my focus. It can’t be the focus of my team,” he said. “We can’t judge ourselves the way newspapers judge us or we will feel beaten all the time.”

Unless the state amends liability laws to reduce its exposure, Quigley said expensive lawsuits are inevitable given the agency’s huge workload. CPS alone receives 35,000 complaints of child abuse and neglect per year.

Political background

Quigley is not a total newbie in Olympia. In the mid-1990s, while working as a lawyer, he served one term as a Democratic state senator. He was regarded as a smart up-and-comer and was named chairman of the Senate’s health-care committee.

He also made one publicized ethical misstep, drawing an unusual reprimand from the legislative-ethics board for sending a memo to colleagues at his Seattle law firm offering to introduce their clients to key legislators.

Quigley left the Legislature to run for Congress, narrowly losing in 1996 to Republican incumbent Jack Metcalf. In 2003, he ran for Snohomish County executive but lost the Democratic primary to Aaron Reardon.

Since leaving the Legislature, Quigley has worked in the private sector, starting as counsel to Teledesic, the global satellite-communications company founded by Bill Gates and Craig McCaw.

In 1999 he became co-president of, an Internet sporting-goods retailer, restructuring the firm for an acquisition by

As that deal wrapped up, investor Nick Eitel convinced Quigley to come run his family’s Everett shipyard.

Although a novice in the shipbuilding and repair industry, over the next several years Quigley helped grow the small family-owned company into a major shipyard, working on state ferries and getting Navy contracts for the first time.

Quigley stayed on to run the yard after it was acquired in 2008 by Seattle-based Todd Shipyards.

Steve Welch, Todd’s CEO at the time, described Quigley as a “very good — emphasis on the very good — business person. … He got great results for Todd.”

“He’s smart, he’s detailed, he’s technical, he’s incredibly fast at learning and he’s thrifty,” Welch said.

Outsider benefits

Quigley’s DSHS appointment is scheduled to be confirmed by the state Senate on March 18.

Some human-services advocates said they like what they’ve seen of Quigley so far, but they’re waiting to see if he’ll become an outspoken champion for those in need.

“One of his jobs is to reconstruct a safety net that has far too many holes in it,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance. That won’t really be possible unless Inslee gets behind higher taxes to fund social services, Gould said.

He noted that while the recession has brought more need — more than 1 million state residents receive food stamps, for example — both the state and federal governments have been cutting services.

DSHS also has shed employees due to those cuts. The agency is down 2,600 employees from its peak in 2008, according to spokesman Thomas Shapley.

Quigley even drew a compliment from a frequent DSHS antagonist, state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who said it was a good sign that Inslee has hired an outsider.

“To that I say, Thank goodness. He’s not starting off with a ‘protect the citadel’ mentality,” she said.

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or On Twitter @Jim_Brunner