Dow Constantine is in a unique position to witness King County growth.
For starters, the 56-year-old has lived in the county his entire life. He was raised in West Seattle by parents, John and Lois, who were public school teachers, and continues to live in the neighborhood today with his wife, Shirley Carlson, and four-year-old daughter, Sabrina.
But he’s also the top elected official in King County government, overseeing a staff of approximately 14,000, and governing a region that spans some 2,300 square miles (stretching as far east as Snoqualmie Pass, and as far west as Vashon Island), and is populated by 2.2 million residents. Since Constantine was elected to the position in 2009, the county has added more than 270,000 residents (Seattle, alone has added about 1,000 residents every week in recent years), and has experienced all the usual challenges — namely traffic congestion and housing affordability — that come with being the 13th-most populous county in the United States.
The King County that Constantine grew up in is not the same King County he governs today.
“My parents would not be able to afford the modest little house I was raised in today unless they chose an entirely different career path, which, you know, people now have the option to do,” Constantine said one recent weekday afternoon over coffee at a small café located along tree-lined California Avenue in West Seattle. “There were no software millionaires because there was no such thing then. Really, the economics have changed pretty dramatically.”
To be clear, Constantine wasn’t parroting old-timers who pine for simpler times.
“Prosperity is a very good thing,” he said. “I remember when everybody was broke after the region went bust (in the 1970s). This is much better, folks. For everybody who is carping about Amazonians coming here and driving up prices, or the tech industry, this is way better. But it still comes with some challenges. We need to figure out how to harness some of that wealth to preserve the ability of longtime residents to stay here in their communities.”
Constantine’s career in politics dates back more than 20 years, and includes elected positions in the Washington State House of Representatives, the Washington State Senate, and the King County Council. He was elected King County Executive in 2009, and started his third term in that capacity this year. It’s a highly visible position once held by John Spellman and Gary Locke, two people who went on to become Washington governors (Locke was later appointed the United States Ambassador to China).
Constantine recently discussed a range of issues specific to the Eastside, such as housing affordability and his plan to make King County Metro — the transportation agency that offers about 200 bus routes, counts 5,000 employees on its payroll, and operates under a $2.75 billion bi-annual budget — its own standalone department.
Q: The rising price of Eastside housing, where the median price of a single family home is around $1 million, is something many people have been following for a while. What has been your takeaway?
A: My main takeaway is the economy is doing very well, and there is more demand than there is supply. In the abstract, it’s a good thing to have that much prosperity but, of course, there are consequences that you want to figure out how to mitigate. The amount of new money chasing the existing housing stock and the new stock that the market is able to produce are really squeezing out people who may have lived here for a very long time and whose labors helped build the foundation for prosperity that people are enjoying right now.
Each individual jurisdiction needs to really sharpen their pencils on zoning and other regulations. Across the region, we need to focus investments on preserving existing affordable housing stock, creating new stock that is affordable to the people actually working in the community, and creating some permanent affordability so that people are going to put down roots and not be disrupted by rapid changes in the market, which is what we are seeing right now.
Q: By making King County Metro its own standalone department, what will that mean to commuters who live and work on the Eastside and use Metro?
A: It will provide a platform to move forward and really expand the mission from simply being the bus agency to providing mobility and the opportunity for every person, including every person on the Eastside, to get where they want and need to be in as seamless and hopefully as effortless a fashion as possible.
Expanding it to include mobility means thinking about the products Metro provides, but also the products that others provide and what we can do to knit those things together, whether it is single-occupancy vehicles, forming a carpool, company-operated buses, or rideshare companies. All of these things we need to consider in creating the infrastructure to serve the current and future land-use patterns of the Eastside. This is kind of our new and expanded mission. I’m very excited about it. I think it provides us a lot of opportunity to partner with the private sector to get more value.
Q: Outside of housing and transportation, what is an issue that is specific to the Eastside and that you are closely following?
A: One of the things that I really enjoyed (was the creation of) a local food initiative that helps us have a vibrant agricultural economy, helps farmers earn more from the things they are producing by being able to sell directly to the consumer, and helps us to preserve the farmland on which they are growing those things.
King County, remarkably, for being the most urban county in this part of the country, has a very healthy agricultural sector. But it’s not the same agriculture as when I was a kid. It’s not commodities anymore. It’s specialty products.
We have a festival called Chomp! each August at Marymoor Park. It’s sponsored by different restaurants and celebrated by people who are into the locavore scene. I really think there’s a lot more mileage there. There’s a lot more we can build on because there’s a ton of money chasing that kind of product. We can have not just preserved farmlands, but functioning farms and successful farmers for a long time to come.
Q: In the past, people who have held the King County Executive position have gone on to become governor…
A: Or ambassador to China. I just want to be ambassador to China (laughing).
Q: I know you are going to punt on this, but what does the future look like for you beyond being the King County Executive?
A:My core interest is in doing the very best I can at being the executive of one of the largest counties in the country — a county that is bigger (in population) than 12 or 13 states.
What the future holds (for me), I’m not sure. I will have lots of opportunities public and private. Whatever I do, I’m going to find something that will allow me to continue to serve the people and leave this place better than I found it.
Q: You touched on this earlier regarding the size of the area and the number of people in King County. How do you stay on top of an area that is so wide and so populous?
A:You have to rely on excellent staff to highlight for you what is going on, and not just in different communities, but within different sectors across the county.
I delight in the fact that every single day there is something new I discover about King County. It could be its own country. It’s an enormous place, and 2.2 million people is nothing to sniff at. It would be one thing if there were 2.2 million people, but there wasn’t much going on. But this is also a global center of economy and culture and politics. It’s dynamic.