The ink is barely dry on King County Executive Ron Sims's nomination as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and already speculation is running wild about who will fill his shoes.
Currently, there are two likely outcomes, both with their own powerful proponents. The first, favored by Sims, county council chair Dow Constantine, and council Republicans, is for the county council to appoint a "caretaker"—someone acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats who would agree to keep the seat warm until the election in November. The list of people who'd consider such a role breaks down into two groups: "elder statesmen"—retired politicians such as former mayor Charles Royer, former governor Gary Locke, and former King County Council member Louise Miller—and professional government managers. And then there's former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who said Tuesday that he's "intrigued with the idea." Steinbrueck says he would carry on Sims's legacy as a progressive, pro-transit, pro-density county executive.
The Republicans on the county council like the caretaker option because they don't want to give a head start to any Democrat who wants to run for county exec in November. Likewise, Constantine doesn't want to cede the advantage to a potential competitor.
"Right now, I have one job to do as chair of the council, and that is to guide us through this appointment process," Constantine says—adding, sardonically: "You'd have to have a particularly strong commitment to public service to take an impossible job that you'd have to give up in six months."
Favoring the appointment of someone who can run and win in November are King County Council member Larry Phillips (to whom an appointment would give an obvious advantage) and state Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz, who is believed privately to favor Phillips.
Although Phillips says he's "in full campaign mode" and that "the interim [appointment] issue is secondary," observers say he wants the job now, not later. County council member Bob Ferguson, meanwhile, remains a wild card; he says that "if the council decides they want to appoint someone who could win in November, I'll definitely be interested," but adds, "I think everyone [on the council] has an equally bad chance of getting five votes."
Privately, Phillips has raised questions about whether the Democrats can afford to appoint someone who can't win reelection; given that all county positions are now officially "nonpartisan," a Republican-in-all-but-name could conceivably win in November. Among the names in (still very speculative) circulation: former KIRO anchor Susan Hutchison and billionaire entrepreneur John Stanton. "We've had a series of progressive Democrats in the seat for a long time, but nevertheless, you do run the risk" of giving the advantage to a Republican by not appointing a strong Democrat, Phillips says.
Whatever happens with the appointment process—at this point, a caretaker seems like the path of least resistance, though anything's possible—Sims's departure leaves the race wide open. Constantine, who has expressed interest in the job in the past but said he wouldn't run against Sims, seems almost certain to jump into the race, and Ferguson says he'll decide in the next few weeks whether he will as well.
Although Phillips has $26,000 on hand, giving him a bit of a head start on his potential opponents, he also has one major disadvantage: His campaign thus far has been all about Sims. Without that foil, it's unclear what his focus will be. On Monday, he gave a hint of what a campaign against his fellow Democrats would look like. Unlike his potential opponents, he said, "I have no desire to go on and do anything else. One of my potential competitors [Constantine] wants to go on to be the mayor of Seattle, and one [Ferguson] wants to be attorney general. I'm happy right here in King County."