Metropolitan King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips is stepping down at the end of the year after six terms. But first, he’s attending the climate summit in Paris.
With 50 thumb-drives bearing the Martin Luther King County logo, County Councilmember Larry Phillips will fly to this week’s Paris climate summit, hoping to spread the word that what nations and states have failed to achieve in reducing greenhouse gases, local governments may accomplish instead.
The thumb drive contains the county’s ambitious, 151-page climate-action plan adopted this month, a set of targets and timelines that Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes calls one of the best he’s seen. It includes regional strategies for lowering carbon emissions such as expanded transit, green building codes, renewable energy, recycling and enhancing the quality of life in urban areas to help protect the county’s rural areas against sprawl.
For Phillips, 64, the plan is a fitting final accomplishment in a political career that has spanned four decades and has had as one of its hallmarks the preservation of open space — 445,372 acres in all — of farmlands, forests and salmon habitat.
Phillips, a fourth-generation Seattleite and the county’s longest-serving council member, opted not to run for a seventh term this fall and will leave office at the end of the year. After a career that has seen much success on the council, but fell short of his hopes to become county executive, Phillips said he wants to “step off the treadmill,” catch his breath, and consider, with his wife, Gail, the next chapter of their lives.
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Phillips is among an estimated 25,000 delegates to Paris and as many as 50,000 participants. Gov. Jay Inslee is going as part of a State Department-sponsored delegation.
Phillips is part of a 12-member local-government group that includes representatives from 11 cities. He’s the only one to represent a county, a recognition, he said, of the extent to which King County is viewed as a national leader on climate action.
Phillips’ trip will be paid for by four associations that advocate for the environment, including the National League of Cities.
What does Phillips hope to achieve in Paris? He said that with an ever-shrinking timeline to act on climate change, delegates can elevate and publicize the global threat.
“You’ve got massive numbers of people from every country going to herald this issue. It makes it more difficult for the Capital D Deniers to scam the topic,” he said.
He’ll also attend a summit for local leaders being hosted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. An announcement of the gathering to be held at Paris City Hall notes that because the world’s urban areas hold most of the population and contribute 70 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions, they are “key contributors to any global success” at the climate summit.
Local environmental leaders praise Phillips for his longstanding commitment to protecting the environment and advancing early policies, such as the Growth Management Act, which helped preserve rural areas.
Gene Duvernoy, president of the conservation group Forterra, called Phillips an “extremely thoughtful, very nonpartisan leader who could advance the environment and health of the county in a way that achieved widespread support.”
As a freshman state legislator, Phillips was an author and sponsor of the 1990 Growth Management Act. Two years later, he was a freshman County Council member charged with implementing the act.
Chris Vance, a 31-year-old Republican council member at the time, recalls screaming negotiations with Phillips as they hammered out hundreds of compromises to work out the urban and rural boundary and the strict criteria that would allow the line to be redrawn to accommodate new growth.
“Larry Phillips believed passionately in his position, but instead of saying no to Republicans, we worked together to craft a growth-management vision that has stood the test of time,” said Vance, a former state GOP chairman now seeking to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
Phillips concedes he and Vance “had their moments” and “screaming is not an exaggeration.” But he gives some insight into the uses of passion to achieve political goals.
“What it allows you to do is let your opponent know that you’re willing to fight and that there are principles and values worth fighting for. Now you can sit down and talk. Now you can see if there’s a way to bridge the gap for our citizens who expect us to be productive,” Phillips said.
One of Phillips’ only disappointments was not serving as county executive. He finished fourth in the 2009 primary, after announcing early that he would run against his longtime friend and ally, three-term incumbent Ron Sims. When a top housing job in the Obama administration came up, Sims took it, leaving Phillips to face a crowded field.
In the campaign, Dow Constantine found a path to victory, in part, by positioning himself as a change agent willing to reform a fossilized county bureaucracy.
Constantine also distinguished himself against Phillips and other Democratic contenders by attacking Republican Susan Hutchison — who ran against Constantine in the general election — for past support of conservative candidates and causes.
Phillips called the loss “a long time ago” and said he didn’t want to focus on it. But he chafed at the suggestion that Constantine was more of a reformer than he has been.
“My career has been about challenging the way we do business in King County,” Phillips said. He pointed to the restructuring of Metro bus services, taking parks out of the general fund and supporting them with public levies, and constantly finding new ways to pay for county services.
Phillips lists the problems facing the county in the coming years. Light rail still hasn’t been built out to the region’s employment centers outside of Seattle. Property taxes can only grow by 1 percent per year. The county, which cut $93 million from its 2009 budget, faces an additional $48 million in trims for the next biennium.
After 42 years in government, he said he’s ready to let new leaders “make this place work.”
“We have challenges for the future, but somebody else is going to get those,” Phillips said. “Now I can call them up and complain like any other citizen.”