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SGN EXCLUSIVE: Mr. Sims goes to Washington
SGN EXCLUSIVE: Mr. Sims goes to Washington
Ron Sims talks about his 24 years in county government

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

"It's been an incredible experience," says Ron Sims, describing his 24 years in King County government. Sims was first elected to the King County Council in 1985, succeeding the legendary Ruby Chow. He was re-elected in 1989 and 1993. In 1996 he was appointed King County executive, succeeding Gary Locke, after Locke was elected governor. He won re-election three times, in 1997, 2001, and 2005.

On February 2 this year, President Barack Obama announced he was appointing Sims deputy secretary of HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development), charged with managing HUD's day-to-day operations, a nearly $39 billion annual operating budget, and the agency's 8,500 employees.

In an exclusive interview with SGN, Sims talked about the nomination. "I got the first call two weeks ago, the Thursday before the public announcement," he said. "As for the [confirmation] hearings, they're working on that now. I don't know for sure, maybe we'll have hearings in two weeks. It's out of my hands. When they're ready, they'll call me and I'll go." Presidential nominations must be confirmed by the US Senate, and usually require hearings in which senators interview the nominees.

PRIDE IN HIS CAREER

Even as he looked forward to serving in the Obama administration, Sims looked back at his career in King County. "I can't list just two or three things I'm proud of. We've done a lot to be proud of," he says, ticking off a long list of accomplishments. "We preserved what is now 175 acres of forest land. & Green buildings, we had to persuade builders it was a good idea to build green. No one was doing that before. Now it's their fastest-growing product. & Sound transit, I spent a lot of political capital on that, when everyone was critical of it. & The county's credit rating, the best in the country & health care, we don't just have good practices, we've established best practices on the widest scale ever. & I supported civil rights for everyone & you bet I'm proud of what we've done!"

An ordained Baptist minister, Sims has differed from many of his Baptist colleagues in being a long-time friend of the LGBT community. In 2004, Sims advocated for amending King County's Public Accommodations Ordinance to add gender identity to sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds for discrimination. Voters recently amended the County Charter to add similar anti-discrimination language. The County provides domestic partnership benefits to its own employees, and its Equal Benefits Ordinance requires businesses that contract with the County to provide equal benefits to domestic partners as are offered to married spouses.

Sims has also been an outspoken advocate for marriage equality. "It's not a religious judgment, it's a civil one," Sims says. "When I debated Rev. Hutcherson, he wanted to make the issue about religion, I wanted to make it about the law. The law needs to be independent of religion." In 2006, Sims debated the notoriously anti-Gay Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond. More recently, Sims gave a rousing speech for marriage equality at the November 15, 2008 march and rally in Seattle protesting the victory of California's Prop 8.

MARRIAGE EQUALITY "CLEARLY A CIVIL ISSUE"

As county executive, Sims declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds that public officials should not practice civil disobedience, but he encouraged couples to sue King County in order to bring the issue into court. Andersen v King County was decided by the State Supreme Court in 2006. In a controversial 5-4 ruling, with Justices filing six separate opinions, the Court found that there is no constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples.

"The constitution does not prohibit marriage equality," Sims declared. "In fact, the constitution was designed with a purpose to not let religion be the guide. This is clearly a civil issue. I believe the court decision will be reversed in the future, by the next generation of jurists."

While he easily won his King County elections, Sims was less successful running statewide. In 1994 he lost a US Senate seat to Slade Gorton, and in 2004 he lost the Democratic Party's gubernatorial primary to then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire. Gregoire went on to win the general election, and to win re-election in 2008. Gorton was ultimately unseated by Maria Cantwell in 2000.

MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS

Asked if his reputation as a champion of progressive causes hurt his statewide political ambitions, Sims replied "Oh, I don't know. When you're in this business, you learn to listen to everyone, but you still have to make the tough decisions and you take the heat. I've had to make very tough decisions. But, you know, no one is complaining anymore. Even the CAO [Critical Area Ordinance] has people liking it now."V The Critical Area Ordinance was perhaps the most controversial of Sims' environmental initiatives. Passed by the King County Council in 2004, it restricted development in environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands, and on hazardous sites like flood plains and landslide-prone slopes. Developers and property rights advocates saw the CAO as a threat, and filed three separate referendums aimed at repealing it. The State Supreme Court ultimately ruled that a state law empowering local governments to protect environmentally sensitive areas prevented such referendums. However, the State Appeals Court ruled on July 7, 2008, that the portion of the CAO regulating clearing and grading is an indirect and illegal tax, and that prior to restricting the clearing of land, King County must demonstrate how that act could cause harm.V In addition to the environmental protections he has sponsored, Sims also points to King County's Equity and Social Justice Initiative. "When it comes to racial disparity and poverty, you can predict the outcomes by ZIP code," he points out. "That's not acceptable. Now we're measuring it and we can issue a progress report." Launched almost exactly one year ago, in February 2008, the Equity and Social Justice Initiative aims "to eliminate long-standing and persistent inequities and social injustices."V "You know why I was appointed [Deputy Secretary of HUD]?" Sims asks. "Because I've never been a one-issue person. I've always been a multiple-issue person, and President Obama is the same way."

"I MADE THE LAST SHOT"

Sims showed no bitterness when asked about recent criticisms from former political allies. Before the announcement of Sims' appointment to HUD, State Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz suggested Sims not run for a fourth term as county executive, and King County Councilmember Larry Philips let it be known that he was interested in running for Sims' spot.

"No, it doesn't bother me," Sims said. "I talked to my wife about it. You know what she said? She said the most popular, most powerful figure in the country - Barack Obama - asked you to be part of his administration. What do you care what other people say?"

"I'm like Michael Jordan," Sims continued. "I made the last shot."

Throughout his career, Sims has been known for his ebullient public persona. "Life is a gift to be used as fully and as energetically as possible," he says. "Sometimes it's time to rest, and I do rest. But I want to live as fully as I can. We all need to do what we need to do, to improve the quality of our lives. Let's move, let's make it better!"

As King County executive, Sims managed the 13th most populous county in the US, with 1.8 million residents and 39 cities including Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond. King County accounts for 40% of the state's jobs and is home base for major national businesses like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon.com, and Nordstrom's. The county government has a workforce of over 13,000 and an annual budget of $4.9 billion.

Sims is a graduate of Central Washington University. He is a board member for Reconnecting America Center for Transit Oriented Development, advisory board member of the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, board member and former chair of Sound Transit, board member of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the National Committee of Quality Assurance and Rainier Scholars. He is Co-Chair of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County and founding chairman of the board of the Puget Sound Health Alliance.

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