Is Dow Constantine more powerful than Mike McGinn?

Dow Constantine put himself through college tending bar, and counts among his good friends some of S

Two weeks before the November 2009 election, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder addressed a sold-out concert crowd at KeyArena.

“I got this phone call the other night from Krist Novoselic from Nirvana,” Vedder said as his bandmates played softly in the background and fans screamed for their favorite songs. “He asked me to tell everybody here tonight, because there’s a local election coming up...he suggested that in November...for sure we vote for a guy called Dow Constantine.”

It’s a good bet that most people at the concert had no idea who Constantine was. But he soundly defeated former TV anchor Susan Hutchison in the King County executive’s race, winning the office previously held by Ron Sims, who left for a job in the Obama administration. Since then, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been getting all the headlines for his fight over the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and his take-no-prisoners style of governing. Constantine, meanwhile, has quietly tackled profound budget problems in his shop, negotiated givebacks from the county’s unions and stared down sheriff’s deputies over pay raises. He is now being seriously discussed as a potential candidate for Washington governor in 2012.

At first glance, the youthful-looking, 49-year-old Constantine seems like a straight-from-central-casting politician. While one local columnist compared the rumpled McGinn to an “unmade bed,” Constantine—with close-cropped, gray-flecked black hair and a crisply pressed uniform of blue suits and white, cuff-linked shirts—brings to mind a bed made up with military corners.

But as the shout-out from Vedder demonstrates, looks can deceive. Constantine has the expected background of an elected executive: student body president at West Seattle High School, Eagle Scout, University of Washington law degree, and stints in the state Legislature and on the King County Council. But he’s also been a bartender, a ski instructor and a DJ at KCMU, the alternative music station that was the precursor to KEXP. It was while DJ-ing in the 1980s that he met people like Sub Pop Records cofounders Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, and Kim Thayil, guitarist for Seattle-based supergroup Soundgarden. Constantine moves easily between worlds—from the noisy music clubs of Seattle to the staid rubber-chicken events that are the staples of any public official’s life.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of politicians. Most are very smart, most are very wonky. Dow’s a really normal guy,” says Dave Meinert, who manages the Seattle bands Fences and Hey Marseilles. Meinert also owns the venerable Seattle dive bar The 5 Point Cafe and is active in civic affairs. “Dow can sit there at the Comet Tavern and have real conversations about music with that crowd, and then walk into a boardroom and talk to the business guys.”

Novoselic introduced Meinert to Constantine in the 1990s, when Constantine was in the state Legislature and Meinert was among the people trying to get Seattle’s music community more active in politics. “I held Dow up as one of the people we should be involved with, long term,” Meinert says.

Constantine says he was happy to help the musicians get their political act together by making introductions and suggesting how they could better organize. The effort eventually became JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee), a group that over the years has fought to create broader access to music shows, provide more opportunity for artists and back candidates it sees as friendly to its causes.

“I was in a position, as a fairly young politician, to lend a hand. I relished the opportunity, because I love music, particularly what became known as alternative music,” says Constantine, who believes a vibrant cultural scene is one of the keys to economic growth.

Meinert, who also owns the Capitol Hill Block Party, an annual, multiday summer music festival, insists Constantine is no poseur. “He may see more shows than I do,” says Meinert, one of Seattle magazine’s “Most Influential” honorees in 2004. The local impresario recalls a day in 2003 when punk stalwarts DOA were scheduled to play the Block Party, and Meinert’s phone rang. “Dow called me and says, ‘I really want to introduce DOA.’”

It’s hard to imagine Gary Locke, the former King County executive who went on to become Washington’s two-term governor (1997–2005) and President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce, making a similar request.

Constantine has been a longtime supporter of labor issues, not surprising for a Democrat. But with King County facing a $60 million operating-budget deficit, many wondered if he’d actually go to his political supporters—the unions—and ask for concessions. Throughout much of 2010, he did just that, getting almost every county bargaining unit to agree to waive 2 percent cost-of-living raises for this year. While some critics said the unions could have given up more, most observers were surprised Constantine got them to budge at all.

David Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council, says it was because of the longstanding relationship Constantine had with unions that he was able to get them to leave money on the table. “I think the thing that makes him successful with labor folks is he really understands our issues. He’s there when we need him. When he comes and says, ‘Look, I’ve got a problem, I need your help,’ we listen. We have a basic political trust,” says Freiboth, who has known Constantine since before he was first elected to the state Legislature in 1996.

Another home-team advantage: Constantine is a lifelong Seattleite. The son of two West Seattle teachers (John and Lois), he still lives in the quirky, insular Jet City neighborhood he grew up in, not far from his parents and younger brother Blair. Constantine earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and shares a passion for Huskies football with his father. He’s not married and has no children, but he is in a long-term relationship with partner Shirley Carlson (who works in strategic and brand marketing). The two met while both were DJs at KCMU.

Constantine says his parents aren’t always thrilled that their eldest son chose the difficult life of an elected official as opposed to, say, a less stressful, less visible career. “But they raised me, and who I am is a large product of my upbringing, so they have no one to blame but themselves,” he jokes.

Dow ConstantineHaving been involved in public affairs for more than 30 years, Constantine is obviously no kid. He pokes fun at his gradual transformation from young man on the rise to not-so-young power player by annually celebrating his 39th birthday at public bashes that draw friends and acquaintances from the many, varied parts of his life. The 12th such observance will be held this November; his birthday is November 15.

Constantine got his start in politics in his late teens, in West Seattle, which has produced more than its share of public officials. He worked for and with most of them during his rise: He was a legislative intern for former state senator and Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge; he was on former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ staff when Nickels was on the County Council; he worked with former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis’ mother during a stint with the 34th District Democrats, a local organization for West Seattle Democrats (Tim Ceis was on his transition team when he became county executive); and he honed his activist chops with “a funny little man” who successfully fought plans in the 1980s to develop a wooded West Seattle ravine. That man was the late Charlie Chong, the outspoken and often outrageous West Seattleite who served on the City Council and ran for mayor.

“He showed me and the neighborhood how to organize, sometimes theatrically, sometimes with reason,” Constantine says. “Ultimately, we succeeded in saving that ravine. I learned a fair amount from Charlie. He once told me, ‘Provide only quotable quotes.’ That’s one I’ve so far failed to internalize.”

Indeed, reporters searching through their notebooks after a Constantine news conference sometimes struggle for anything beyond standard political boilerplate. His public statements can be as dry as a good martini, and he’s extremely cautious, sometimes to a fault.

But, paradoxically, Constantine is also known for his high-profile brawls, whether it was his years-long battle over plans to expand a gravel mine on Maury Island, or calling out former TV broadcaster Hutchison during the putatively nonpartisan executive’s race as “an extremely conservative Republican whose views are way out of step with the general public.” Constantine’s attack allowed him to pull ahead of his Democratic rivals for the executive’s office and helped change the public perception of his opponent.

 He also rejected a late wage concession offer from sheriff’s deputies seeking to avoid layoffs, saying there were too many strings attached and the offer was a bad deal for the financially struggling county. And he says the powerful King County Police Officers Guild was seeking a deal that was better than the one to which all the other unions had agreed to help King County balance its books.

“I’m somebody who, by nature, wants to get along,” Constantine says. “I reserve getting in a fight for times when I think there’s a real matter of principle involved—where the stakes are really high. I don’t feel like getting in a fight just for the fun of getting in a fight.”

With the help of county employees, Constantine and his deputy, Fred Jarrett, have implemented a broad plan to repair the county’s broken budget. Specific non-management county employees like bus drivers and clerks—selected by their coworkers—have been charged with finding ways to deliver the same level of services to the public each year at 3 percent less cost. Constantine says it’s the employees who actually provide services, not managers or elected officials, and are therefore in the best position to effect change. In a government that has been running annual budget deficits in the tens of millions of dollars as tax revenue has fallen, and where demand for services has increased while the Great Recession has exposed unsustainable public employee wage and benefit packages, the status quo is no longer an option.

“There really is no alternative,” Constantine says. “Circumstances have changed and we failed to change to keep up.”

Dow Constantine
Even some of Constantine’s harshest critics say the new executive is making smart moves. County Council member Kathy Lambert, a Republican who was often at odds with Constantine on the council, says, “I think Dow is doing a great job. He has selected excellent, qualified people....They are making changes and working with the council in a collaborative, respectful and truthful manner. They are dealing with the current economic challenges while maintaining one of the highest county credit ratings possible.”

And while Seattle’s feisty mayor gets all the attention from the press and the public, Democratic insiders are increasingly talking about Constantine as perhaps his party’s best hope for keeping Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna from being elected governor in 2012. McKenna lives in Bellevue and may be able to blunt the Democrats’ natural advantage in the state’s most populous county. No fire-breathing conservative, McKenna is also a former King County Council member with an intrinsic feel for issues that resonate in the suburbs. If he can get more than 40 percent of the vote in King County, he will be tough to beat. But if Constantine continues to right King County’s listing ship, he would arguably be in a better position than someone like U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, another possible Democratic candidate, to take on McKenna. Constantine, unlike Inslee, is obviously well known in the area that is home to one out of every three voters in the state. He could point to his executive experience running one of the nation’s largest counties, and his collaborative style would allow him to call in favors accumulated over his decades in local politics.

Additionally, Seattle Mayor McGinn makes Constantine look less liberal than he actually is—which would help Constantine if he were to seek votes outside his big-city political base. Meinert, for one, says Constantine’s views about fostering a healthy business climate would appeal to people outside Seattle.

“Here’s Dow, I think, a very liberal politician, but he understands business maybe a little more than most liberals,” Meinert says. “He gets that our government income is dependent on transactions happening.”

For now, Constantine is focusing on the task at hand, but says after his time in the county executive’s office, he’d like to continue in public service. “I don’t know if that means higher elected office,” he says. “I have always, since I was a kid, been driven by a desire to make things better.”

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

Meet the YIMBYs, Seattleites in Support of Housing Density

A new movement is saying yes to urban density in all its forms
Ballard homeowner Sara Maxana (with daughter Nani) identifies as a YIMBY, and supports more housing density, including in single-family areas

Sara Maxana is exactly the sort of person you might expect to see getting involved in her neighborhood meetings. A single mom with two young kids, Maxana lives in a single-family 1931 Ballard bungalow of the type many neighborhood activists are fighting to preserve. Ballard, where the population grew 26 percent between 2010 and 2014, is ground zero in Seattle’s density wars, which pit pro-growth advocates, many of them young renters who moved to the city within the last decade, against the longtime homeowners sometimes disparagingly known as NIMBYs, for “not in my backyard.”

What you might find surprising is that Maxana isn’t a NIMBY. She’s one of a growing group of people who say “yes in my backyard,” coining a new acronym: YIMBY.

Maxana, who once worked at the sustainability nonprofit Futurewise, had more or less retired from politics. But she got re-engaged after Mayor Ed Murray proposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) in 2015. The plan (see sidebar, below), which proposes higher density across the city—including the addition of more backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas—quickly became divisive.

Maxana started identifying as a YIMBY because she felt Seattle decision makers needed to hear a positive story about the changes that are coming to the city. She began speaking up at public meetings, studying the details of HALA and tweeting as @YIMBYmom, a quiet rebuke to those who say all urbanists—i.e., people who believe that cities should be dense, culturally vibrant, diverse places with lots of different transportation options—are single, transient renters with no ties to their community.

By embracing the YIMBY concept, Maxana joins a growing community of activists, researchers, housing experts and community-based organizations that see growth as an opportunity to create housing for all the new people who want to live in cities, rather than a hostile invading force. These groups make up a loosely organized, informal coalition of organizations and individuals across the country and, indeed, the globe (groups using the YIMBY framework have sprung up from Melbourne to Helsinki to Iowa City), who believe that the root of housing affordability is a housing shortage, and that the solution to that shortage is simple: Build more housing.  

Image By: Maria Billorou
Zachary DeWolf at the 12th Avenue Arts Building: trying to make Capitol Hill a place for mansion owners and street people alike

Although they span the political spectrum, from far left social-justice activists to hard-core libertarian free marketeers, YIMBYs generally agree that cities should be accessible and affordable for everyone, whether they own a million-dollar mansion or rent a $900-a-month studio, and whether they work as a barista or just moved to Seattle for a new job at Amazon.

Seattle might not seem the most obvious axis for this pro-density revolution. For one thing, it’s a city where the single-family home, especially the iconic Craftsman bungalow, is sacrosanct. So thoroughly did Seattle embrace the postwar ideal of the detached single-family house with a yard that it’s written into our zoning code, which preserves a remarkable 57 percent of the city’s buildable land exclusively for single-family houses. (In Portland, the number is 3 percent.)

But as more and more people move to Seattle—the city’s long-range plans anticipate 120,000 new residents by 2035—tension between longtime homeowners and renters, many of them relative newcomers to the city, has mounted. Rents in Seattle increased more last year than those in any other big city in the country, and in the past five years, the median rent has increased from just over $1,500 to more than $2,000. Meanwhile, the median income of renters, $47,847, is less than half that of homeowners, $108,768.

Instead of merely complaining about the housing crisis, Maxana says, YIMBYs “see growth as something that can catalyze change and bring about good things for cities.”

“I don’t see YIMBYs as addressing a problem so much as addressing an opportunity,” Maxana says. “We’re not trying to stop things; we’re trying to say yes to change. I think it’s much more exciting to be pushing for a vision than against what’s happening.”

For Maxana, that vision includes more new neighbors, more interesting shops and coffeehouses, more places to walk and bike and ride—in other words, more of all the things that are coming to her Ballard neighborhood already. “In Ballard, we have all these new breweries, and they’re child-friendly and they’re dog-friendly, and there are places to sit outside with your kids,” Maxana says. “I see more people in the parks, on the streets, on the bus. In my neighborhood, I can walk to five bus lines that get me across town to everywhere I could possibly need to go in the city. And all of that activity lends itself to more vibrancy, and just a more interesting place to live.”

Maxana can rattle off the statistics that describe Seattle’s housing crisis—for example, 40 new people and 35 new jobs are added every day, yet only 12 new housing units a day. But she and other YIMBYs argue that statistics don’t change minds; values do. “We cannot convince anybody with the data alone. We have to be speaking about our values and we have to be speaking from our heart—not ‘I feel this way and so should you,’ but ‘I’m a mom in Ballard and I want my kids to be able to live here when they grow up, and ultimately, this is why I support [density].’”

YIMBYs are starting to make waves at city hall. In July, under pressure from YIMBYs and other urbanists who argued that the city needed to do more to include marginalized groups such as renters, immigrants and people of color, Murray announced the city was cutting formal ties with the 13 neighborhood councils that advise the city on growth and development, eliminating their funding and creating a new advisory group to come up with a more inclusive neighborhood outreach strategy. (The neighborhood councils, Murray noted, are dominated by older, white, wealthy homeowners, and are not representative of an increasingly diverse city.)

While the YIMBYs didn’t make this change happen on their own, their support helped provide political cover for Murray and his neighborhood department director, Kathy Nyland (a former Georgetown neighborhood activist who is openly sympathetic to the YIMBY cause), for what turned out to be a controversial move. Many neighborhood activists liked the neighborhood councils as they were.

Some neighborhood groups are starting to move in a YIMBY direction. A Capitol Hill renter and self-identified YIMBY, Zachary DeWolf stepped into a leadership vacuum on the Capitol Hill Community Council in 2014. He was first elected vice president in 2014, and then president in 2015. As president, he restructured a traditional neighborhood group dominated by older homeowners into an organization run almost entirely by young renters.

His goal: to make the group that represents Capitol Hill more welcoming and inclusive. He has encouraged young renters to run for leadership positions; changed the style of the meetings from a traditional format with leaders sitting at a table facing the audience, to a circular roundtable where everyone can participate; and instituted more after-work hours/evening “community conversations” and “socials” to give a wider range of people a chance to get to know each other and discuss neighborhood issues.

The group’s policy emphasis has been different, too. Instead of advocating for anti-urbanist causes, such as banning corner stores in residential areas and placing a moratorium on new micro apartments as it did in the past, the council is discussing how to accommodate a supervised drug-consumption site in the neighborhood. As DeWolf puts it, “Instead of pushing [drug users] out to neighborhoods that are farther out, where there’s less resources and community, why not just keep them here and take care of them ourselves?” He adds, “At the end of the day, every person that’s in our neighborhood—whether it’s someone living in North Capitol Hill in a gajillion-dollar mansion or someone sleeping in the doorway on 15th in front of someone’s business, every type of person is our neighbor. To me, that is very YIMBY.”

Dennis Saxman, a longtime Capitol Hill activist and renter who opposes what he sees as out-of-control development and gentrification in his neighborhood, believes YIMBYs are well-meaning, but that they misunderstand the root causes of Seattle’s affordability crisis. “I don’t think they understand that Seattle was once notable for the strength of its neighborhoods and their differing characters, and that at one time, that was seen as something important to preserve and desirable,” Saxman says. “Now it’s seen as a way to market neighborhoods while at the same time destroying what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.”

Saxman says he admires a lot of what DeWolf has done to bring new people into the council, but argues that “they’re falling short” when it comes to including more racial minorities, longtime residents and low-income people. “I don’t think they’re authentically community-based,” he says.

Will Seattle’s future look more like DeWolf and Maxana’s vision—an ever denser city, where newcomers and their ideas are welcome—or more like the city of the past, where conversations were dominated by residents resistant to change? That may depend on whether YIMBYs can make the leap from a vocal group of contrarians who provide a counterpoint to conventional wisdom at city hall to a force that helps guide city policy while bringing new allies, including more single-family homeowners, on board.

One sign that yimbys in Seattle are having an impact came last June from 1,300 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. A group of 150 YIMBYs from all over the country convened at an inaugural conference, YIMBY 2016, to talk about their challenges and successes. The Seattle contingent, which included Maxana, Sightline Institute staffer and Capitol Hill renter Serena Larkin, and University District renter and YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein (who tweets at @YIMBYSea), showed up feeling a bit discouraged by local rancor over HALA. But they left energized after delegations from other cities expressed enthusiasm for what they see as an inclusive coalition of Seattle groups that support HALA, which include urban activists, developers, environmentalists and social justice organizations.

“All these other groups and cities kept telling us, ‘We need to do that work—how did you get all of those people at the table together?’” says Larkin. “It wasn’t the policies [the details of HALA] we came up with, but the relationships that they saw had been built through HALA.”

When you’re in the thick of things in Seattle, it’s hard to see what’s being accomplished here, notes Bernstein. “But when you compare Seattle to other cities, then all of a sudden we look like the success story. I think that there are battles that we’re losing, but we’re winning the war.”

Maxana points to the success of the housing levy, which funds low-income housing and which Seattle voters approved by more than 70 percent in August, as a sign that many Seattleites support the idea of building more housing, including affordable housing. “I see that, and I just have to believe something is clicking,” says Maxana. “And even though you have such a volume of vitriol on [private social media site] Nextdoor and in some of these neighborhood meetings, I think, for the most part, when I look at the city, I see people who want a good place to live not just for themselves, but for their kids and their neighbors.”

Including neighbors they don’t even know yet.

What The Hala?
The proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), billed as an “action plan to address Seattle’s affordability crisis,” aims to build 50,000 new housing units in the next 20 years, 20,000 of those affordable to people making less than 60 percent of Seattle’s median income ($37,680 for an individual and $53,760 for a family of four*).

To help accomplish this, HALA will: 
Increase the maximum height of new multifamily buildings in multifamily areas and commercial buildings outside downtown, South Lake Union and the University District by 10–20 feet.

Require rental housing developers to make a percentage of the new housing they build affordable to people making less than 60 percent of median income, or pay a fee that will go toward affordable housing elsewhere in Seattle. (Commercial property developers will also have to pay a similar fee.)

Ease restrictions on backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family areas, to allow as many as one of each on single-family lots.

Expand the boundaries of urban villages and rezone about 6 percent of Seattle’s single-family areas to allow low-rise multifamily housing in those areas.

Implement anti-displacement strategies in neighborhoods with low-income residents who are especially vulnerable to displacement, and promote homeownership, especially for vulnerable populations.

See a full list of HALA strategies at
* Source: City of Seattle