PSBJ: Dow Constantine is the ‘social studies nerd’ who became King County executive

This article was published in the Puget Sound Business Journal on May 16, 2018.


King County Executive Dow Constantine is a serious politician, but his mornings sound more like a sitcom.


“Daddy’s not so good at braids,” he tells his daughter as he negotiates with her over whether she’ll have her hair in a ponytail or pigtails, what she’ll wear and how much iPad screen time she’ll get.


It’s a light warm-up to the work day for Constantine, who leads a sprawling, diverse county of nearly 2.8 million people.


Constantine accomplished a lifelong goal in 2016 when voters approved substantial tax and fee hikes to fund the $53.8 billion Sound Transit 3 expansion of the region’s mass transit system.


Last year he won a third term, though months earlier voters narrowly rejected his call to raise the sales tax to fund access to museums and cultural events for low-income citizens.


Lately, protesters have dogged Constantine over his support for the $210 million Children and Family Justice Center, which opponents call the “youth jail.”


Constantine recently spoke with the Business Journal about these and other issues and growing up in Seattle.


You worked as a DJ. How did that happen? I volunteered at University of Washington student station KCMU and eventually they let me go on the air. I think it was the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. There’s no headier experience than broadcasting to literally tens of people.


What kind of music did you like then? It was the post-punk era and I was into the whole Minneapolis scene: the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. This was right before Seattle exploded onto the global stage.


How did you get into politics? I was alway a social studies nerd. I watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report every night when I was a little kid and saw a lot of the events in the latter half of the 1960s and early ‘70s through that lens.


When did you first run for office? On a whim I ran for student body president of West Seattle High School and somehow managed to win.


What do you think your biggest accomplishment has been as a public servant? Without question Sound Transit 3. I worked toward this not just in my time in office but my whole life. To get it passed was a remarkable experience.


Will Sound Transit really be able to build out the system as approved? Yes, absolutely. A project that extends out over more than two decades is obviously going to go through a lot of different economic cycles. Advances in construction will help. Tunneling used to be quite exotic but is becoming quite run-of-the-mill.


Are you going to run for governor? My job is to do the best job that I can for the people of this county today. Whatever the future holds, I’m not going to be afraid to pursue it, but I do think there’s probably not a better elected office than this one.


What’s your biggest regret in public service? Not reforming the state’s tax system. I authored with state Sen. Lisa Brown the tax system commission bill in 2001. We got Gary Locke to recruit Bill Gates Sr. to chair it. I put in there that we needed them to provide proposals that did not include a personal income tax because I knew that would derail the entire conversation. I’ll be darned that when the report came out the headline was, “Commission recommends income tax.”


What do you think about the backlash to the youth justice center? I wish we could harness all of that energy to do the hard work required to continue to reduce juvenile detention. You can’t do it by slogans. You have to create the conditions where kids aren’t coming into the system in the first place. We’re making progress, reducing the number of detained kids from an average of around 200 20 years ago to 50 last year and 34 the other day.


The homeless crisis is getting worse and the government’s response feels disjointed. How do you respond? Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and I started One Table, which brings together not just governments and service providers but also the business community and philanthropies to focus on root causes.



Do you support or oppose the Seattle City Council’s head tax? Oppose. We spend enormous energy trying to bring jobs to the region. Taxing jobs is counter-productive. When it comes to homelessness, you don’t start talking about funding. You start talking about need. The first thing to do is have regional agreement on what resources are available and then determine gaps and what additional public and private resources can be brought to bear. That’s what we’re doing with One Table.


If you had it to do over again, how would you present the arts and culture levy? We felt like we had covered all the bases and understood all the interests and needs. I think if we would have kept talking and dug further we might have gotten it passed. There will be a day when we can come back and ask the question again. Some lessons will have been learned.


Would you favor extending the urban growth boundary? You constantly have to re-examine where you want growth to be. There may be places that are currently outside of the urban growth boundary that need to be inside the boundary, and there may also be places inside it that should be permanently protected as open spaces or farms because living in a denser and denser urban environment requires you to have some nature close at hand.


What is the biggest change you’ve seen in Seattle? We’ve always had this split personality between the civic boosters — the go-getters — and the doubters, the people with low expectations and little tolerance for risk. I don’t know if this is permanent or cyclical, but I sense we have finally shaken off some of those insecurities.


Dow Constantine

Title: King County executive
Education: Constantine holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in urban planning and a law degree, all from the University of Washington.
Previous jobs: He worked at Spud Fish & Chips in West Seattle, was a DJ at KMCU (now KEXP), practiced law, served in the Washington state House and Senate and as a King County Council member.
Family: He and his wife, Shirley Carlson, have a daughter, Sabrina (4).
Residence: West Seattle
Currently reading: “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown
Favorite movie: “2001: A Space Odyssey”


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