Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Dow Constantine: The Coalition Builder

Profile / Dow Constantine: The Coalition Builder

November 2018 Bar Bulletin

By Gene Barton

As the leader of nearly 15,000 employees, King County Executive Dow Constantine is more than just a “boss.” He is not just some paper-pushing desk jockey. If you spend a few minutes with him, you will find that he is a visionary, a go-getter in every sense of the word, and not someone to underestimate.

Where others in his shoes might be satisfied with the administrative task of running the most populous county in Washington, Constantine seems to be constantly thinking about his next initiative. Now in his third term, Constantine has taken on climate change, revamped the County’s animal shelter program, spearheaded a massive transit development program and increased focus on youth and homeless initiatives.

His philosophy for governing and his genuine presence are grounded in his upbringing in West Seattle, where he still lives a block away from his childhood home. His mother was a “home economist by the book,” he says, with “high standards” and a creed to always “follow the instructions.” His father, who at 90 still volunteers as a docent at the Museum of Flight, is a “visual artist, perhaps more free ranging.” Constantine says he is more like his mother, but follows the “sense of public duty my parents instilled in their kids; this notion of community responsibility.” 

Like many others of his generation, Constantine grew up with an interest in what was happening around his community and his country. In his teens, his activism began modestly, as it does for any youngster just setting out on his or her path. 

The impetus was a pier and oil port facility proposed by Atlantic Richfield at Kayak Point on Port Susan Bay in Snohomish County. The site was near the beach community where Constantine’s grandfather had built a cabin with his own hands and Constantine spent his summers. His grandfather had a “strong conservation ethic” even though he was a conservative Republican, and joined in the community opposition. The effort “went on for years” and was “a constant presence,” Constantine recalls, coinciding with the environmental movement and the first Earth Day in 1970.

“There was very little in the way of environmental laws in place at the time; advocacy would have to carry the day,” he says. “The communities and the Tulalip Tribe got organized, got active and found good legal representation.” The County eventually obtained the land and created Kayak County Park.

Constantine was moved by a “stewardship obligation and the idea that people could unite and change things and not just be resigned that the wealthy and powerful can dictate what would happen,” he says. “It was an interesting lesson for a young person,” he adds, which is reflected in his efforts today.

Boy Scouts was another gateway to public service. “Scouting is a great program,” he says. “I’m glad it’s open to more kids now. It provides lessons you learn about working as a group and eventually getting to lead the group. It really did add a lot to my sense of self and understanding of my responsibility to others.” Not surprisingly, he rose to the top Eagle Scout rank.

Scouting also helped to mold his “modern sensibilities,” he says. “It gives you a really solid grounding and provides a set of ideals for yourself and an environment where those are tested and made real. It teaches that you can finish what you started, to stick through things when they get tough.”

He was also riveted to television news. “I don’t know how I got interested in current events and the news,” he recalls, “but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching Huntley and Brinkley. I watched the latter half of the ’60s and ’70s unfold on TV. What I’m doing and interested in now goes back to those tumultuous days.”

After graduating from West Seattle High School in 1980, Constantine attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. That is also when he met his “much cooler” wife, Shirley Carlson, who was the music director at the UW radio station where he spun records as a DJ. They eventually married in 2013 and now have an active 4-year-old.

While at the UW, Constantine also served as a state legislative intern to then-Sen. Phil Talmadge, who was serving on the House Judiciary Committee, and later served on the state Supreme Court and now heads an appellate law firm. Some of that rubbed off on Constantine. “That really got me started,” he says, in both law and politics.

Constantine says “cultural influences” and an interest in community and society also spurred him toward law school. “I would see people doing good work. It just seemed like a natural fit.” After studying political science and the philosophy of law, “it was a natural evolution to continue my education by studying the law. And I wouldn’t discount the role of ‘Perry Mason.’”

Plus, it was the 1980s. He envisioned “a picture of what it might be to be a lawyer and practicing law,” he recalls. “I knew I would practice, but I was pursuing it more as an extension of my undergraduate studies. An educated person has to study the law. It’s about how things tick and how you can change things.” 

After earning his law degree in 1989, he started as a solo practitioner in an office at First Avenue and Virginia. When undergraduate classmate Christopher Benis (UW Law ’87) joined him, they moved to Sixth and Lenora. “I learned a lot from him about real property work; the nuts and bolts,” Constantine recalls. The field melded nicely with the land use and environmental law Constantine studied at UW. He later earned a master’s degree in urban planning from UW in 1992.

Eventually, he found himself back in solo practice, in an office in the Columbia Center — just a stone’s throw from the county office building — and “slowly allowed my hobby of politics to take over my life.”

His first foray was a three-year stretch as chair of the 34th legislative district Democrats. Along with his brother, Blair, they teamed with Charlie Chong — then an unknown on the activist scene — and other neighbors in a successful effort to preserve the College Street Ravine. That’s also when he first met then-County Councilmember Greg Nickels.

“Charlie helped show us how we could create a united front,” Constantine says, “and get the City and County to buy the land and add it to the Duwamish Head greenbelt.” This effort eventually led to his current Land Conservation Initiative, “accelerating the preservation of all remaining high-value open space countywide to help complete a system that will be a legacy; something to leave to our children.”

In 1996, when he was working on Nickels’ staff, Constantine was elected as the 34th District representative to the state House. His candidacy was “a leap of faith” and winning the open seat exceeded his expectations. Prior to that his only political experience was as student body president at West Seattle High School. “I was really stepping outside of (my) comfort zone,” he says, but as time passed, it turned out to be a good fit. It was a moment “when you do something that allows you to suspend disbelief for a while. You can’t always go through life playing it safe.”

Two years later, he was re-elected and became co-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, coming full circle from his college days as an intern. He later was elected to the state Senate where he served as vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

He segued to county politics in 2002 when Nickels was elected to the Seattle mayor’s office and Constantine was appointed to Nickels’ seat on the King County Council. Constantine won his first term as county executive in 2009, after Ron Sims was appointed by President Obama to be deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Constantine admits he was essentially an on-the-job trainee from the day he entered the Executive’s Office. “You have to be good at running a large organization and I had no proof that I could do that,” he says. “But it turns out I’ve had some success. We’ve made this a better place to work and foster improvement. We have set the pace for public entities around the country. The real challenge is to get the big things done; you just can’t do it yourself. You have to spend your time and effort forming coalitions.”

It’s a challenge because, as Constantine notes, “this state was built on distrust of central authority.” In terms of “big things,” he views the success of the Sound Transit 3 initiative as his key accomplishment, which he spearheaded not only as the office holder responsible for King County Metro Transit, but also as the board chairman of Sound Transit, the regional transit agency.

“I passionately believe that every person in King County and in our region must have access to jobs and education and all that this remarkable place has to offer,” Constantine said in his 2016 budget address. “It’s why we pushed for a system that deployed our Metro bus service based on productivity rather than politics.”

Looking back, Constantine says ST3 was a major effort to “bring all the governments, advocates, business community, labor and philanthropy to the table. It’s the same thing we’re pushing to do on homelessness.” It was the ultimate coalition effort. Even though he was still “grumpy about rail transit measures in the 1960s and ’70s,” he adds, “I got into a position where I could put the coalition together and get this done. It’s absolutely indispensable to our economy and environmental future.”

While attacking climate change at the county level may seem like tilting at windmills, Constantine is intensely dedicated to that effort as well. “Our Department of Natural Resources and Parks became the county’s first carbon neutral agency, and they did it a year ahead of schedule,” he noted in 2016.

“We will continue to focus on King County’s most significant sources of emissions from transportation and buildings,” he continued then. “We will continue to finance energy efficiency retrofits through the innovative ‘Fund to Reduce Energy Demand’ …. In fact, we’re extending this county financing program to our city partners as part of our climate collaboration. And we will significantly increase recycling options at our transfer stations, and keep building on the proud legacy of preserving and protecting farms, forests, and open spaces.”

Constantine says the County has pushed aside the “stodgy old way of doing business. We have to work like a business in this community and unleash creativity. We are not punishing people for coloring outside the lines.”

In revamping Regional Animal Services, the agency now finds homes for more than 90 percent of the animals that come into its care. “From a distance, it might not seem as important (as other programs), but it is an example of how we can cause the government to truly respond to the wishes of the people,” Constantine says. “People want us to remove the impediments. The untapped value is in the people and putting them to work solving the problem. That’s the thing that’s unlocked a lot of this value.”

Homelessness programs; Best Starts for Kids, which seeks to ensure that every baby born here and every child raised here has a strong start in life; and other programs are designed to improve the quality of life for every King County citizen.

“What we want is this,” Constantine said in his 2016 budget message, “a King County where all people have equitable opportunities to thrive, where every person can live a full and productive life and fulfill his or her potential. How far we go in accomplishing this goal will be our ultimate measure of success.”

Going forward, he says, the “real work of this office is finding the trick to keep moving this unwieldy group forward. It’s not in the formal job description.”

How long he will keep at it is anybody’s guess. But Constantine does have one goal beyond the Executive’s Office. Although he hasn’t practiced law since the late 1990s, Constantine diligently keeps up with his CLE credits and has maintained his lawyer status. “I worked hard for it,” he says. “I’m not letting it go. I’ll be back lawyering in some way, some day.” 

Gene Barton is the editor of the Bar Bulletin and a shareholder at Karr Tuttle Campbell where he maintains a general litigation practice.

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