IT SEEMS LIKE a good time to mark the anniversary of Ron Sims' descent into a political death spiral.
Last Christmas, Sims instructed county workers not to wish each other "Merry Christmas" because it was culturally insensitive. Even I, a heathen in a Christian culture, could see that was dumb.
Since that time, however, Sims has embraced a political self-destruct principle: See how many of your core constituents and potential statewide voters you can alienate. Sims has long been touted for—and eyed—statewide office. In recent years, he has been biding his time, watching and waiting for the moment when Gary Locke would sicken of Olympia and move on. Sims is still regarded as a potential candidate for governor in 2004, pending Locke's mood. But other doors have closed: With Al Gore's 2000 defeat, Sims' hope of a position in a new Democratic administration is as dead as a dimpled chad. With Maria Cantwell's election to the U.S. Senate, there's no room for another Democrat in D.C. Both Sims and Locke have been stymied by these developments, which hasn't helped either of them. The longer you stay in office, generally, the bigger the stink.
MAKE NO MISTAKE: I like Ron Sims. He's intelligent, passionate, energetic, and smart. Which makes his political self-destruction all the more painful. When he became King County executive, following the short, opportunistic administration of Locke, Sims was a breath of fresh air. And he seemed coated with thick layers of Teflon. Every day brought new stories about how Sims was proactive in running the booming county, pushing for SmartGrowth, saving salmon, letting the Mariners know who's boss. Sims seemed both charmed and charming.
But then things went wrong.
With declining revenue, traffic trouble, a lousy economy, and less territory to rule, many are wondering at the continued relevance of county government, except as a provider of jails. Sims, through no fault of his own, has found himself lording over a rapidly eroding political atoll. Yet in the face of declining power, he is still beset with large problems.
Once frustrated and skeptical, at least privately, about Sound Transit, Sims chose to leap in with both feet to become the chief cheerleader and apologist for the troubled, over-budget boondoggle that will tear up the streets to run trains to Tukwila. He could have positioned himself as a skeptic, a "WPPSS-on-wheels" reformer ࠬa Mark Sidran or Rob McKenna. He could have spent his political capital asking the tough questions—including an insistence that we must go back to the transportation drawing board. Instead, he seems in Sound Transit's thrall.
This is underscored by Sims' vigorous resistance to Seattle's "popular" monorail project and his maneuverings to scuttle it. It has earned him the enmity of many grassroots, pro-transportation Seattle liberals who might have been counted as likely Sims voters in the future. They are now murmuring about political payback.
And many other Seattle liberals weren't happy with Sims' attack on social services in the latest budget round. Even hard-core Republicans on the County Council accused Sims of being too harsh.
And while no one expects him to please the Tim Eyman crowd, Sims' lead role in taking $30 license-plate tabs to court isn't going to win him votes elsewhere in the state, where Initiative 776 won big. It's a principled stand, and he's right to do it—the courts, after all, are the place to settle constitutional issues—but if you're thinking of running for statewide office, embracing a lousy tax and overturning the will of the people clearly expressed in two elections isn't the way to show state voters you're the guy who feels their pain and can fix what's broken. You look like a still-doesn't-get-it-tax-and-spender who is more willing to defend the waste of Sound Transit than the little people who are paying for the mess. Aren't liberals supposed to have big hearts?
It's worth pointing out that much of Sims' political attractiveness has come from his being able to run against type. At one time, the state GOP tried to tag Sims with the label "inner-city Democrat," which is Trent Lott code for, "He's a black liberal. And did I mention he's black?" But Sims has always been hard to stereotype: He's been a pragmatic New Democrat with a largely mainstream agenda. But increasingly, he seems more like just another pol trying to protect his turf and defend the indefensible.
THE CHERRY ON the kamikaze cake is the recent election debacle. The King County elections department screwed up getting out the absentee ballots and then lied about it. They blamed it on the mail, they blamed it on the printer, they blamed it on the D.C. sniper, then they blamed it on a guy who didn't even work there anymore. At some point, it will all get sorted out, one hopes. It's only democracy that's at stake. But the publicity isn't good. It makes King County seem like south Florida. But worse than the bad P.R. and the lies Sims' employees and appointees told was Sims' reaction. They were apparently having problems customizing the ballots for nearly 1,700 precinct committee officer elections. A software screwup, they said. But Sims' proposed solution for the future? Reduce the number of precincts and don't elect precinct committee officers anymore; let the parties pick 'em.
Now that's public policy at its best. Let's shape our elections to suit the capabilities of the incompetent county elections department. Now, if we eliminated those pesky elections altogether, it would really ease the workload of our election workers.
And Ron Sims wouldn't have to worry about running again.