When Ron Sims goes to Washington, D.C., he will leave King County a legacy of denser suburbs, more open space, a larger trail network and a technologically advanced sewer system designed to handle continued growth.

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When Ron Sims goes to Washington, D.C., he will leave King County a legacy of denser suburbs, more open space, a larger trail network and a technologically advanced sewer system designed to handle continued growth.

He also will leave much unfinished business, including a bitter legal fight by rural landowners to overturn Sims’ tough new environmental laws and a budget crisis that appears bound to deepen.

Sims, King County’s highest-ranking politician for more than a decade, had been campaigning for an unprecedented fourth four-year term when he and federal officials announced Monday that President Obama is nominating him to be deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“To be asked by the president of the most powerful nation on this planet to be part of his extraordinary administration — it’s just great … it is a life opportunity,” Sims said. “It is an incredible gift and I wasn’t going to pass this up.”

If the U.S. Senate confirms the appointment, Sims will oversee HUD’s day-to-day operations. Sims won’t resign before he’s confirmed; that process has taken about three or four weeks for other Obama appointees.

Throughout his time in elective politics, as a King County Council member, and since 1997 as executive, Sims has prided himself as ahead-of-the-curve and left-of-center — a politician perfectly suited for this time and place — pro-environment, determined to help the homeless, and urging that gay marriage be made legal.

At HUD, Sims will be charged with helping people hurt by the mortgage crisis. The agency will be approving grants to cities with plans to buy foreclosed properties and turn them into affordable rentals and for other programs to create housing for those displaced by foreclosure.

Sims, 60, said he hadn’t sought the appointment but was called “out of the blue” by the Obama transition team and asked if he would meet with the president-elect, which he did in Chicago in late November. He later met Obama’s new HUD secretary, Shaun Donovan.

Political insiders had been saying for the past 10 days a HUD job was being offered. Sims made it official Monday at a news conference in the county’s downtown Chinook Building, where county staffers lined a hallway and squeezed into a room to applaud Sims and hear his announcement.

He alternated between excitement and sadness. “I grabbed the ring,” said Sims, whose previous ambitions included unsuccessful runs for senator and governor.

Sims, who backed Obama’s opponent, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic presidential primary, will take a pay cut to work for Obama.

His expected departure sets the stage for political jockeying over who the Metropolitan King County Council will appoint as an acting executive and who will run for a four-year term in November.

Sims urged the council to appoint a “caretaker” who has no interest in running for the job. He said that recommendation wasn’t intended as a repudiation of County Councilmember Larry Phillips — who last week announced his candidacy for county executive — but rather as a way to give voters a freer choice of candidates.

Sims was appointed county executive after Gary Locke was elected governor in 1996.

“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” said Councilmember Jane Hague, R-Bellevue. “I wish Ron absolutely the best. He’s going to be as much of a leader nationally as he was within our region. … People will certainly be energized and enthused by his leadership.”

A one-time lay minister who worked with youths on the streets of downtown Seattle, Sims is co-chairman of the Committee To End Homelessness in King County. His commitment to housing the homeless and working poor make him well-suited to HUD, said Bill Block, the committee’s project director. “I love his vision, I love his passion.”

Hague said Sims made a lasting impression on the county by permanently protecting more open space than any of his predecessors and by directing growth into urban areas — not into the countryside. She called his failed $42 million financial-computer-replacement project “a real low point for him and for the taxpayers.”

As executive, Sims:

• Started building the Brightwater sewage-treatment plant, the cost of which ballooned to $1.8 billion.

• Won council approval of restrictions requiring rural landowners to keep up to 65 percent of their land in native vegetation — a law that led to a property owners’ backlash and a state Court of Appeals ruling against the county.

• Persuaded the Port of Seattle to buy BNSF Railway’s 42-mile Renton-to-Snohomish rail corridor for a combination of future trail and rail use.

• Closed a $93 million gap in the 2009 budget without losing the county’s coveted AAA bond rating.

• Gained national recognition for his focus on climate change and new strategies for controlling spiraling employee health-care costs.

After being widely credited with getting Sound Transit’s troubled light-rail program back on track, Sims — once the Sound Transit chairman — disappointed many longtime allies when he opposed ballot measures funding light-rail expansion. Voters last fall approved the funding.

“I didn’t understand it and I still don’t understand it,” Phillips said. For growth management to work, he said, “You have to do the land use and you have to do the transportation.”

Sims took political heat for two ideas he championed then dropped: shifting Southwest Airlines flights from Sea-Tac Airport to county-owned Boeing Field; and trading Boeing Field to the Port of Seattle for the Eastside rail corridor.

Sims is known for his propensity to hug friend and foe alike. Former Councilmember Steve Hammond, president of Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, said Sims’ growth-management policies “have essentially created two classes of citizens: those who live inside the urban growth boundary and those who live outside.”

But Hammond also remembers that on his first day on the council, Sims showed up at his office to welcome him. “That was a class act. That meant a lot to me,” Hammond said.

Rob Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said he and Sims continued to work together even after Sims came out against Sound Transit’s 2007 ballot proposition.

“He’s certainly more comfortable in his own skin than most officials I’ve worked with,” Johnson said. “When he was going to oppose Sound Transit 2 he was honest about it, he was forthright, he let people know where he was coming from and he certainly didn’t dodge conversations. That’s not something you see every day in a lot of elected officials.”

Lobbyist Martin “Jamie” Durkan thinks Sims’ most enduring legacy will be the open space he protected in parks, trails and working forests.

“His word was his bond,” Durkan said. “When Ron Sims told you that he was with you, he was with you.”

Reporter Emily Heffter contributed. Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105, kervin@seattletimes.com