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.
Having 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.”
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.”