Sarah Perry celebrates on Election Night
Democratic County Council hopeful Sarah Perry celebrates her Top Two showing on Election Night in Redmond at Postdoc Brewing (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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%.

Sarah Perry celebrates on Election Night
Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­ty Coun­cil hope­ful Sarah Per­ry cel­e­brates her Top Two show­ing on Elec­tion Night in Red­mond at Post­doc Brew­ing (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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