Monday, July 20, 2009

Hutchison: 'I probably will vote against' Eyman spending initiative

From left, King County executive candidates Dow Constantine, Ross Hunter and Susan Hutchison participate in a debate sponsored by CityClub and The Seattle Times at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue on Thursday.
Seattle PI:
Exec candidate also talks about the budget and why she won't discuss social issues--Judging from the frequency and the ferocity of the attacks against Susan Hutchison, you'd think she was a long-time elected official.

She's not. The former television broadcaster has never held public office, but now finds herself the frontrunner in the King County executive's race. Her four main opponents -- all elected Democrats who have served in government for years -- have slammed her, saying she's a stealth conservative candidate in a liberal county and that she has too often ducked a serious debate of the issues.

Hutchison, who does have Republican ties, dismisses such criticism as a smokescreen designed to obscure the problems the incumbents have created. She recently sat down with to discuss the county's budget problems, why she avoids talking about divisive social issues like abortion and why she'll most likely vote against Tim Eyman's latest government spending initiative. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

As you know King County's looking at a $50 million operating budget deficit next year. Tim Eyman has an initiative (I-1033) on this fall's ballot that could make it much tougher for governments like King County going forward by requiring that taxes collected above a certain rate go to property tax relief. Current government officials say such a measure would tie their hands at a time when maximum flexibility is needed. Do you support Eyman's initiative?

The voters would like property tax relief, especially with the value of their properties going down. A lot of them think it's going to mean they are going to pay less taxes this year, but of course because of the structure of the property tax that's not going to happen, so there are a lot of people who are going to be upset about it.

So it will be interesting to see how the citizens react to that initiative. I have talked to a number of county mayors, cities large and small, they're very concerned about it. So not just at the county level, but at the city level, folks who depend on property tax to fund various services are very concerned because they feel that government has to provide services, many of which are promised to their citizens. And it's based on a certain amount of tax revenue.

And of course this initiative, came about because there's this sense that government has abused the privilege of taxation. We need to have enough money to provide services or there will be such severe cuts that people will regret it. But at the same time it's a bit of a pendulum swinging right now where people are fed up with the size of government. Not to mention the attitude and the arrogance that we've talked about at these forums. I've talked about it continually since I got into the race. So, most of the time these initiative votes are protest votes. People are trying to say to government, 'I've had enough.' And I think that if this initiative passes, that's what they're saying. Whether or not it's good policy, I defer to these very conscientious and responsible mayors of some of our smaller towns who also say, along with county government, that this will be a disaster for them. So I think our voters need to be very careful. So my promise to the voters is that we are going to cut waste, eliminate duplication, increase government efficiency, which of course will improve productivity of government. We're going to implement performance audits, so we make the right decisions. We're going to get our priorities straight and we're going to make government work for the people.

So will you be voting for or against the Eyman initiative?

You know I haven't looked at it enough, but I probably will vote against it. Not because I wouldn't love to have my property taxes go down, but I do think that there is a enough of a strain, a significant strain on county government right now, that's going to force us to get our act together, to live within our means, to do what our citizens want us to do.

None of the candidates for county exec want to raise taxes and they pretty much all say public safety is the number one priority. If you cut all public health and human safety general fund spending that only solves $41 million of your $50 million deficit problem. Doesn't the county pretty much have to stop providing public health and human services?

I want to correct, first of all, your statement that nobody wants to raise taxes. We've got four politicians who are running, some of which have continually raised taxes to pay for bigger and bigger government. One of the reasons why some people don't want a tax hike on the November ballot is they are afraid of the people who would come out and vote against it, who would then vote for me, because I've been the one out in front from the moment I stepped into this race, talking about our first line of defense against budget deficits is not raising taxes.

I am delighted that some of my opponents are now on the record of not wanting to raise taxes, because when we've won the executive's race and I'm working with those council members I will hold them to their word.

Would you, though, support giving voters a say in November about a possible tax hike?

I've always said, I've talked about a levy....what I have said is that human services are an important part of county government. And the people need to decide, with a human services levy, what their priorities are. And I always think it's best to give that opportunity to the voters. I support a human services levy. Now, that said, there's no question that there are human services that the county provides that no one else has stepped up to.

And these are very important, because in the long run they're good public policy. It's spending a nickel now to save a dollar tomorrow. When we have intervention programs that help young people stay out of jail, for example, that saves taxpayers in the long run a tremendous amount of money. So we want to focused on those solutions in the community that really do save us money in the long run, that help the most vulnerable, that provide the services to our disabled community, that give them a chance at a job. However we've got a lot of duplication in our human services agency. For example there are six agencies that provide services related to homelessness and drug addiction and abuse. Each one of those agencies has their own leadership and staff. If we consolidated that, we could combine those staff people and cut the size of bureaucracy and save money.

So that's what I mean about duplication. It's a terrific opportunity to say, 'we can consolidate these services so that we don't have such a huge overhead.' Those of us who have served in the human services community, as I have for almost 30 years on various boards, know that the most important thing is not to be spending money on overhead. We want to get it to the programs and the people. I have a good perspective on that and I look forward to being able to do that.


ZoomJoshua Trujillo /

From left, King County executive candidates Ross Hunter, Susan Hutchison and Fred Jarrett answer a question during a debate at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue on Thursday.

One problem the county has is the state keeps mandating that it provide things to people that they want, but they don't provide any money for these things. If you're elected county executive, who is the first person you'd call in state government and what would you talk about?

I've gone to Olympia twice since I announced that I was running, and I've met with elected officials there. I paid a courtesy call to the governor, and we had a terrific discussion about issues that were related to both state and county government. And I think at the state level, what you want to do is talk to the people who are working on those specific issues.

My idea of leadership is to bring together the best talent with the most experience. And I keep saying everyone is going to have a seat at the table, because we have to get a better dialogue going between all the people who are affected by these issues. And I think that's been sorely lacking in county government. We will tap into the best minds and hearts - when you're talking human services you need minds and hearts - at the state level. And we'll also bring together the folks who actually provide those services and solve the problem.

The county executive's race is nonpartisan. But your opponents, all proud Democrats, have called you an arch Republican with values out of step for a county that almost always votes Democratic. Why won't you tell voters your views on things like abortion or teaching evolution in schools?

First of all, the social issues are not part of the executive's race. And I want to stay focused on those things that are very important for the executive to be dealing with. As I've said about abortion - the whole choice/life debate, and I've been very clear about this - it is not relevant to the King County executive's race. It's the most divisive issue in America today. There are strong opinions on both sides. I am not here to divide people. I'm hear to bring people together so we can solve our complex problems in the county. I think as soon as you get into these very divisive issues, they become overwhelming to certain people for whom they're very important. We want to get focus back on solving problems we can solve, at the county level.

Now on the evolution in schools, I run a foundation that funds science. I am a pro-science individual. And I would say that, again, these issues are just red herrings. It's silly.

I would love to talk science with any of my opponents who have criticized me. I spend a lot of time dealing with science and in fact fund the inquiry science program in Seattle Public Schools for middle school and high school. So, I've been deeply involved in science education and funding it through the Alliance for Education.

One of the things you talk about, proudly, is helping the Seattle Symphony get out of financial trouble. One of the ways you did that was by increasing the donor base. You got more money in there to help their problems. In some respects, the county is in a similar situation, why is the way you helped the symphony out - increasing the amount of revenue coming in - not the right way to go for the county?

If only we had donors who wanted to donate to government.

Actually, that was one means of solving the problem. When we built the symphony hall, a lot of people in the community saw that and had a vision for it and got on board and felt that was very important. We hadn't tapped into those sources in many years, so we went to them and said, 'you know, we need you to help us out.'

But that was just one group of people. We had to involve all the stakeholders. We had to get involved with the city. I asked Mayor Nickels, one on one. I said, 'we need your leadership. You own Benaroya Hall and we're your only tenant. We have to help this institution survive.'

There had been a bond revaluation. And so we moved quickly to make sure that that affected the symphony in a positive way. And I'm grateful to the mayor for stepping up. We worked with corporations as well. Because corporations understand how the arts institutions in this city affect their ability to hire, affect the quality of life, affect revenues in the city. So it's a total win for people support our culture institutions throughout the region because of the benefits it brings to tax revenues through commerce.

But we had other problems. We had labor/management problems. We had staff problems. We needed a new leadership at the staff level which required us hiring a new executive director...but we also worked with the stakeholders who are our patrons. When you're talking about bringing people together this is what we did at the symphony. We balanced the budget the first year, and we balanced the budget the second year. It helped to stabilize that institution and increase the morale of everybody associated and the reputation of the place.

I expect after a few years of leadership at the county there's going to be a new hope in the county and we're going to increase tax revenues by making it a better place to do business. It's through people having jobs and spending money that we get the tax revenues that fuel our services at the county level. That's what we've got to do. So this attitude, this disdain for business large and small that people feel in the county when they're trying to do business is unacceptable. That's going to change...we're going to be a county open for business.

If you're elected, you're going to have to have some tough conversations with the unions. As contracts are renegotiated they are going to have to be a part of fixing the problem. Organized labor is still a big part of King County. What would you say to people in the labor community who may be suspicious of you. What can the labor unions who work with King County expect from you?

From the time I stepped into the race I began meeting with labor leaders. I've probably met with six unions that have contracts with the county. And I sat for an interview with the King County Labor Council. I am the only person running who has been a member of a union, for 25 years. I've been on strike. I understand union issues, I would contend, better than anyone running for office. I have reached out to our unions and said 'we have to partner.' We've got an economic reality that we've got to deal with. And it's going to cost jobs, unions don't want to lose jobs. And I said it's going to cost jobs unless we can adjust to the economic reality that we're in. As you know the county employees have very good wage and benefits packages. And many people are astounded to realize that that benefits package - with that medical benefit where they don't pay any premiums - that was negotiated during the economic meltdown that we were all experiencing last year. It was signed in March of '09.

Now I've talked to the unions about it and I've heard their point of view. I appreciate the fact that union leadership's job is to the best they can for their membership. I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the executive for having not demanded that the unions respond as everyone else was responding in our economic crisis. We have to tighten our belts, we have to live within a new reality, otherwise we're going to lose jobs, we're going to hurt our economy. So I've met with these union leaders and asked for their help...quite frankly our union leadership is very sharp, very smart and very profession. I assured them that we would have labor in our administration and I look forward to working with them.

Another thing your opponents rapped you for was missing many of the early campaign forums. Why did you miss so many of those debates and forums when this race started?

I put my hat in the ring in mid April. I had basically six weeks to get a campaign up and running. I'm not a professional politician - I didn't have a fundraising Rolodex, I didn't have a Web site. I didn't have a campaign staff. I needed to meet with many people in the county about the issues that mattered to the people.

And so my dedication for those six weeks was getting our campaign up and running. In that time I did a number of things. I did a number of candidate issues, I did a few media interviews, I spoke, I gave a few keynote addresses, I emceed an event that was almost a 1,000 strong. I felt like I was everywhere. I just didn't happen to be able to attend one of the forums because I had another commitment with Children's Hospital, a breakfast that I had committed to and they were counting on me for. I missed the other breakfast, which was a forum, and that was about a week after I stepped into the campaign.

When we filed, which was around June 5 I believe, I was off and running. I've attended eight forums in the last five weeks. And let me say this about the forums. For me, the forums are a place where we are birds on a wire, and we talk and we talk and we fill and hour and a half or two hours. I'm sitting in front of people who represent a wealth of experience and knowledge. I would love to flip the tables and be the listener. I want to hear their issues and their concerns. This is one of the reasons I've spent so much time meeting with so many people one on one to try do understand the broad picture.

I'm a journalist, I'm a listener, I'm an interviewer, that's what I know how to do. You may hear an issue portrayed one way, but it's not until you talk to all the stakeholders that you really understand the broad reasons why people act and do and want the things that they want.

So I've been working really hard since I stepped into this race to get to know the issues. I think it shows. I think it shows in my answers in the forums. As you know I've been out in front on a lot of things. I demanded a hiring freeze, I said it was the first thing I would do when I stepped into office in January. This week the county government is going to implement a hiring freeze - finally. What took them so long? It's the first thing business does.

When you get into economic trouble in business you implement a hiring freeze. That gives time to analyze your situation, regroup, figure out what you're going to do. Then you cut spending. So I've advocated for cutting the council and executive offices. That can be done very easily and very quickly. Streamline those offices. Nothing was done. Well now they're announcing they are going to make some cuts. I don't know how big those cuts are going to be, but it's a start.

I can understand, it's the hardest thing to do is to cut personnel. It's painful, it hurts. So I can understand that they've avoided it and why last year the whole budget deficit was borne on the shoulders of the sheriff's department and the prosecutor's office and the courts. But they've been cut substantially and it's time to look at the rest of county government.

It's going to be a hard time, but everybody's hurting. There are so many people who are unemployed, who've taken cuts in pay, who've taken unpaid vacations. It's a very hard time for all of us, and government is part of that, and until they take the steps that are needed citizens are going to resent the fact that they're on a steak diet when the rest of us are on meatloaf.

Last question. You were a longtime broadcast journalist. You talked to a lot of people. Who are some of the people who most impressed you and what did you learn in you years in front of the camera that would help you run the county?

You know, I met a lot of celebrities through the year. A lot of folks who are impacting our culture. I look back, and there's a wealth of wisdom in people who have lasted a lifetime. Our older citizens who are wise and have lived through a lot. Let me just throw out a few. One was Peter Ueberroth. Remember, he came in and turned around the L.A. Olympics. He was an amazing guy. Had private industry experience and he came to KIRO TV back around that time and I was fascinated by what leadership was required in order to take a mammoth organization like the Olympics and turn it around so that it was viable, it didn't lose money, it satisfied its mission and so forth. He was a real impressive guy.

You know I've met a lot of political leaders through the years. You know I've interviewed Jimmy Carter and Laura Bush and Ronald Reagan and some others who aren't political leaders but they've certainly been involved in the political scene, like even Billy Graham. And having that privilege it's been amazing to see how they bring to a time in history, a certain know how and knowledge of the needs of our society. And I thing I have taken away little bits and pieces from each one of them. Rev. (Samuel) McKinney of Mount Zion Baptist Church and I had a discussion at one of the political conventions I attended back in 80s, it might have been the '88 Democratic Convention. And he said, 'politics is about compromise. It's about taking two different points of view and finding the compromise position between them.' And then he added, as only a reverend can, 'but you cannot compromise with evil.' And I think that's a wise word. Because there are lots public policy positions we can find common ground on. And then there are some things in our society that we have to fight. And so that was, to me, I remember those words so very well so long ago, over twenty years ago, and those were important to me.

Thank you for your time.

Howie P.S.: Susie is pretty slick. She sounds like a cross between Tim Hill and Barack Obama here. Steve Zemke takes a look at Hutchison's political contributions over the last few years and finds a distinctly partisan trend. Another local election, another story: "Nickels is down, but his opponents aren't moving up" (Joel Connelly).

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