Democrats’ steady gains threaten to wash away one of three remaining Republicans on the officially nonpartisan King County Council, the latest in a series of pickoffs that have turned a once-red political landscape into shades of blue.
Endangered is veteran Republican Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who has as of this afternoon a less-than-impressive 41.38% of the vote with Democratic challenger Sarah Perry not far behind at 34.23%.
While The Stranger saw an opportunity to wipe the Council clean of Republicans, two hearty perennials – Peter von Reichbauer (R‑7th District) and Reagan Dunn (R‑9th District) – appear safely on path to reelection.
King County government is low key, lately in the news mainly when County Executive Dow Constantine buys up hotels to house the homeless, and with a move back to appointing rather than electing the King County Sheriff.
Executive Constantine has long plotted a run for Governor, a transition made by predecessor Gary Locke in 1996. But Governor Jay Inslee has just begun his third term and shows no signs of going anywhere.
Besides, running county government can be a low-key job.
Jimmy Carter, on a book peddling tour, made a cameo appearance at Constantine’s annual Filing Week luncheon, one of many recurring Westin ballroom fundraisers, a few years back. The former President spoke only briefly, but found words of praise for Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
What has changed is the political makeup of King County. It’s easy to forget that Republicans John Spellman and Tim Hill once held the county’s top job. Or that the state’s most powerful Republicans once came from the 41st, 45th and 48th legislative districts. The County Council was split, with a one-vote majority for either party, and chummy relations among the members.
That was then.
Twenty years ago, Democrat Maria Cantwell won the closest U.S. Senate race in the country, ousting Republican incumbent Senator Slade Gorton by a margin of 2,229 votes. She won only five of Washington’s thirty-nine counties but piled up a 150,000-vote margin in King County. Twenty years later, Joe Biden and Jay Inslee were carrying the county by a half-million votes.
The Puget Sound region’s one Republican-held seat in Congress, the 8th District, flipped in 2018 with the victory of Democratic U.S. Representative Kim Schrier. The Republican Party had held the seat since it was created out of the 1980 census.
The 41st, 45th, and 48th District are now represented in Olympia by all-Democratic delegations. The most recent Senate flip, a special 45th District election in 2017, saw Democrats secure control of the Washington State Senate with the victory of Senator Manka Dhingra.
The county’s last reliably Republican legislative district, the 5th in East King County, has of late become a solidly Democratic district.
In fact, its 2020 State Senate race was between two Democrats, pitting incumbent State Senator Mark Mullet, a moderate Democrat friendly to business, against labor-backed nurse Ingrid Anderson.
Mullet survived by a sixty vote margin.
If Perry unseats Lambert, there will be seven Democrats on the officially non-partisan, nine-member County Council.
King County government is a grooming ground for the state’s political leadership. John Spellman, our last Republican governor – he served from 1981 to 1985 – was, as mentioned above, a King County Executive before winning statewide.
He was surprisingly progressive, particularly on civil rights and with a willingness to raise taxes to cover state programs in time of recession. Mike Lowry had his start on the King County Council before winning election to Congress and becoming Governor. Lowry was succeeded by King County Executive Gary Locke.
Two other courthouse alums are the most recent Washington State Attorneys General, Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Bob Ferguson, who had their start as members of the King County Council. Ferguson defeated fellow Council member Reagan Dunn in 2012 to win the state’s top legal post.
Years ago, the Seattle Weekly described Mike Lowry as “the one Councilmember who works.” King County government has needed the occasional shakeup.
The most famous of these arguably came in 2003 when Ferguson, a young attorney working for a prominent Seattle firm, challenged twenty-year King County Council member Cynthia Sullivan in the Democratic primary.
He beat her, proving that nobody outworks Bob Ferguson.
Courthouse insiders were not pleased. When voters reduced the thirteen member County Council to nine seats, they abolished Bob Ferguson’s district, and celebrated at the New Orleans Café in Pioneer Square.
Ferguson went out, ran against fellow Democratic incumbent Carolyn Edmonds in a new district, and unseated her in the 2005 Democratic primary.
He celebrated on election night at the New Orleans Café.
The county saw a similar turnover two years ago, when thirty-two-year-old lawyer Girmay Zihilay ousted twenty-five-year incumbent Larry Gossett, a major figure in Seattle’s 1970’s civil rights movement. A son of Ethiopian immigrants, Zihilay has become an important pro-active progressive voice on the Council.
With Wednesday’s vote drop by King County Elections, Dow Constantine has 53.64% of the Top Two vote, to 29.68% for his challenger (and mutual constituent) State Senator Joe Nguyen. Nobody is counting out Nguyen’s future in state politics, however, and there is widespread if muffled thanks that he is challenging Constantine’s bid for a fourth term. A Microsoft manager, Nguyen has already upset the apple cart of West Seattle’s political establishment.
The Constantine vs. Nguyen runoff will be yet another high profile race between two Democrats, on the heels of last year’s matchup for Lieutenant Governor between Democrats Denny Heck and Marko Liias. (Heck won). Seattle legislative races have featured two Democrats in the runoff ever since the Top Two election system now in use was authorized by the United States Supreme Court in 2008.
As recently as 2009, Constantine faced former KIRO TV news anchor Susan Hutchison in the county executive contest.
Despite Republican ties, Hutchison insisted she was not a partisan. Voters suspected otherwise, and he defeated her by a big margin.
Hutchison went on to serve as the chair of the State Republican Party and ran as the Republican nominee against Senator Cantwell in 2018. Cantwell beat her in King County by 461,583 votes, and statewide by a sixteen point margin.