In her campaign for King County executive, Hutchison has highlighted her 2 ½ years as chairwoman of the symphony's volunteer board of directors more than she's touted her 20-year career as a KIRO-TV news anchor, and more than her current job heading a two-person nonprofit foundation, the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.

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Susan Hutchison says she saved the Seattle Symphony from the brink of bankruptcy.

On top of that, she helped hire new symphony leaders, calm labor squabbles and turn around what she called a “dysfunctional” institution.

In her campaign for King County executive, Hutchison has highlighted her 2 ½ years as chairwoman of the symphony’s volunteer board of directors more than she’s touted her 20-year career as a KIRO-TV news anchor, and more than her current job heading a two-person nonprofit foundation, the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.

As a political newcomer, the symphony work is the closest she’s come to executive experience running a large organization.

It’s prominent in her brochures, stump speeches, debates and interviews — especially when she is asked about her qualifications for the county’s highest office.

While the county has almost 14,000 employees and the symphony just 138, Hutchison says her experience would translate to the executive job. “We had labor issues; we had leadership issues. We had to hire, to build a team. We had to increase revenues. … The whole situation had to be turned around, and that’s what we did,” Hutchison said in an interview.

There’s widespread agreement that Hutchison stepped up at a perilous time for the symphony and helped balance the budget two years in a row. “She drove extraordinary fundraising. She was our chief development star, which is what the chair should be,” said Girish Nair, head of the symphony board’s finance committee.

But while Hutchison gave the symphony a lift, its budget problems, like King County’s, haven’t been fixed.

The symphony ended its fiscal year Aug. 31, a month after she stepped down as chairwoman, with a $1.2 million deficit. Its accumulated debt had reached $4 million. And its endowment — an investment fund that is supposed to offset expenses and plug budget gaps — remains “very small” for an orchestra of its size, Nair said.

And the symphony, during Hutchison’s tenure, got a lot of help: Millions in assistance came in from the city of Seattle and the Simonyi foundation, and even the musicians union gave back $3.2 million in wage and benefit concessions.

Hutchison stands by her record, saying she raised millions that kept the symphony afloat. She brought leadership and discipline, including payroll cuts, to the symphony. Until she took charge of the fragile symphony, she said, “nobody took the bull by the horns and said, ‘It’s time to make tough choices and move forward enhancing revenues and cutting costs,’ which is exactly what we did.”

H. Jon Runstad, who heads the board that oversees Benaroya Hall, the symphony’s home, said, “It was a team effort, and she was a leader.”

Stepping in at symphony

A lot of noise was coming out of the symphony when Hutchison became leader of the 45-member volunteer board in December 2006.

Players were feuding with one another and Music Director Gerard Schwarz. Executive director Paul Meecham had resigned abruptly earlier that year. Red ink and bad publicity were spilling from Benaroya Hall. Board members discussed the possibility of bankruptcy, Hutchison said.

The financial problem, Schwarz said, was that after a long push to raise $159 million to open Benaroya Hall in 1998, symphony leaders took a breather. “Things got a little complacent, and Susan energized the place again.”

Her first task was hiring a new executive director, Tom Philion. The search for Meecham’s replacement had dragged on. An executive recruiter, Pamela Rolfe, had quit in frustration. “Susan really recharged the [search] process,” Nair said.

Later, Schwarz said, she played a part in the hiring of a new chief fundraiser, Mark McCampbell, who came from the Virginia Mason Foundation.

Her chief priority, though, was balancing the budget, Nair said. It was projected to run a $2.3 million deficit the year she took over — on top of $3.2 million in existing debt.

Hutchison led many of the meetings with potential donors in corporate boardrooms and executive suites and “made the ask,” Schwarz said. “Susan was not afraid to put up a number, what she thought the right number would be. She was never timid. She was always forthright.”

One such presentation in February 2007 led to the seventh-floor City Hall office of Mayor Greg Nickels. The city is partner of sorts with the symphony because it owns Benaroya Hall.

In a meeting with Nickels and key aides, Hutchison emphasized the civic importance of the symphony, the prominence it brings Seattle with its Grammy nominations and recordings, and its role in revitalizing a part of downtown.

Nickels later came back with an idea.

The city had taken advantage of lower interest rates and refinanced debt on the new Benaroya Hall garage. Finance director Dwight Dively calculated that savings of $4.7 million could be passed on to the symphony in the form of a “rent holiday” that would stretch from 2007 to 2013.

Hutchison said there was no sign the city would have passed on the savings before she requested help. Dively said, “You have to give the symphony credit for asking.”

The bailout from Nickels and Seattle taxpayers amounted to about $700,000 a year. “That’s a good sum,” Hutchison said, “but it’s nowhere near what we had to make up in our debt.”

Symphony deficit remains

While Hutchison successfully asked for money, her achievement was “revenue enhancement, not an example of fixing a structural budget deficit,” said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who has contributed $800 to Hutchison’s opponent, Dow Constantine.

Melinda Bargreen, former Seattle Times music critic, who covered the Seattle Symphony for 31 years, agreed: “The truth is, the symphony was not saved and may never be unless it invents a new business model.” Like orchestras all over the country, the Seattle Symphony is financially dysfunctional, said Bargreen, who doesn’t live in King County and can’t vote in the election. Its earned income pays for only about half its budget. The rest of the budget relies on donors and endowment interest. As a result, Bargreen said, the orchestra still has a deficit “and is in peril of adding to that every year unless there’s a bigger endowment fund.”

“Susan’s success entailed persuading people to part with large amounts of money,” Bargreen said.

Does that mean she’s ready to lead a county drowning in red ink?

Hutchison says yes, absolutely. She says she oversaw cuts, including those to staff and guest artists — amounting to about 5 percent of the symphony’s annual operating budget of $23.7 million — as well as fundraising. “We found multiple ways to do both,” she said.

Moreover, her first priority was triage, to stanch the symphony’s financial bleeding. Addressing its structural deficit — it generally spends more than it takes in each year — was the next big project, and the symphony planned to launch an endowment drive last fall.

“Unfortunately, the economy tanked,” Nair said. “And we said we can’t do that in this climate.”

The symphony’s endowment stood at $27.5 million in August 2008. Hutchison said it eventually should be $100 million. The endowment now stands at $22.7 million, according to a symphony spokeswoman.

This year’s bottom line would have been a lot worse, Nair added, without fundraising that brought in $1 million more than the previous year.

Role at foundation

Hutchison has spent most of her career outside TV news working with nonprofits. After leaving KIRO in 2002, she went to work for Simonyi, a software engineer credited with developing Microsoft Word and Excel, whom she had met years before at a fundraiser for Seattle Children’s hospital.

As executive director, Hutchison has helped the Simonyi Fund distribute money to almost 100 groups, with the largest checks going to the symphony, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J, and a supertelescope that aims to peer into the universe’s dark matter.

She also has steered lesser amounts to groups on whose boards she has served, such as Seattle Children’s, the Salvation Army and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

She spent a decade on the board of the Discovery Institute, which studies a range of issues, including transportation. While the institute also is known as a proponent of intelligent design, Hutchison says she’s not a creationist and notes that her work at Simonyi Fund supports science related to evolution.

She describes her role today as the primary decision-maker on most of the foundation’s grants. She says the foundation planned to give away $100 million in 10 years.

Her first big decision at the foundation was to give $10 million to the symphony in 2004, and it got her a seat on the board.

That gift and the foundation’s continued support have lifted the orchestra’s finances and spirit.

There may be no better example of the foundation’s impact than the close of this fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31 on an “up note,” said Philion, the executive director, thanks to a last-minute gift from Simonyi Fund.

With just six weeks left in the fiscal year, an anonymous donor pledged to give $850,000 if the symphony could match the amount.

Money poured in from all over, including some from staff members, Philion said. But just hours before the challenge-grant deadline, the symphony was still short.

Then Simonyi came through. Hutchison called the symphony late at night on Aug. 31 to say the foundation would give the capping contribution, $83,000, that secured the $850,000 anonymous donation. That was in addition to the foundation’s $300,000 annual gift.

Hutchison said it would be “absolutely false” to suggest that she underwrote her success at the symphony with Simonyi money.

The foundation’s $10 million contribution was made in 2004, she notes. While it did allow her to help oversee the fund’s investment, the majority of that gift — $8 million — was spent before she became chairwoman. “It was the multimillions I raised that made a difference.”

In the years she was board chairwoman, the symphony raised a total of $24 million in donations from individuals, corporations, foundations and government. Hutchison could be specifically credited with raising $6 million of that through an “Extraordinary Fundraising Campaign” she led for two years, said symphony spokeswoman Rosalie Contreras.

Hutchison maintains the leadership she showed at the symphony can be applied to a county crisis like the threat of the Green River flooding this winter.

“You can take those same principles and lay those over Howard Hanson Dam and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this horrendous situation and nobody is acting in a timely manner and we’ve got an emergency on our hands,’ ” she said. “We need someone to take charge as a leader and bring these different elements to bear so we can get this done.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or