There were a lot of very important announcements by very important people yesterday. Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled his plan to overhaul the United Nations, which could lead to adding Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Egypt, and South Africa (or Nigeria) to the Security Council. Governor Christine Gregoire released her budget proposal, which included fully funding the class size and teacher pay initiatives and adding thousands of poor children to state health insurance rolls, while closing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall with only $200 million in new taxes.
So of course, with all this important news breaking around me, I decided to spend the afternoon attending King County Executive Ron Sims’ “State of the County” address.
Speeches like this are generally staged events, newsworthy only in and of themselves — their contents rarely produce breaking stories, and this one didn’t disappoint. Oh, there were a few interesting tidbits, including a proposal for wireless internet access in White Center and on Metro buses, and the announcement of an innovative “Healthy Incentives Program” for county employees. But mostly Ron just laid out his vision for the region’s future, ten years and beyond.
So why bother covering the address if it didn’t generate much actual news? Well, first of all… I’m a blogger Jim, not a reporter! And second, Ron’s vision for King County’s future could have more direct impact on the day-to-day lives of its residents than anything Kofi Annan or Christine Gregoire might pronounce.
Although soon-to-be-unemployed Councilmember (and Sims challenger) David Irons myopically mocked Ron for his ten-year plan — “You can’t set your sights that far out” — this is exactly the kind of farsighted leadership our region needs to meet the demands of a county projected to add 300,000 new residents by 2050. In addition to recounting some of the recent accomplishments of the county and its residents, Ron laid out a broad list of priorities for the coming decade, including protecting our water supply, cleaning up Puget Sound, reining in health care costs, increasing affordable housing and eliminating homelessness, reducing the spread of HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis, investing in our transportation infrastructure and more.
Talking to a reporter afterwards, Irons attacked the speech as “a nice fairy tale, with no substance,” but really, how much substance do you expect from a speech like this? Hell, President Bush made privatizing Social Security the focus of his domestic agenda in his State of the Union address, yet months later he still refuses to paint a little flesh on the bones of his proposal. So no, Ron didn’t provide a lot of details, but then this was just a speech, not a budget proposal or a piece of legislation.
Moving on to the next reporter, Irons called the speech “a nice fairy tale, with no substance,” charging that while Ron’s speeches are all “warm and fuzzy,” he implements his policies with “an iron fist.” Irons said he wants government to be just as “warm and fuzzy” as Ron’s speeches… too bad Irons himself comes across as “cold and slick.”
With the next reporter, Irons mixed things up a bit, referring to Ron’s speech as “a nice fairy tale, with no substance.” Yeah… we get the point.
To me, the contrast between Ron’s passionate, forward-looking speech, and Iron’s cynical, dour rebuttal illustrates not only the fundamental difference between the two candidates, but between the parties they represent. Democrats like Ron view government as a powerful tool for positively impacting the lives of its citizens, whereas Republicans traditionally view government as a necessary evil, that they might as well control, if only to prevent the other guys from doing too much harm. In short, Democrats believe in government, while Republicans, well… don’t.
Much of Ron’s speech was actually spent congratulating individual citizens for their contributions to the county; on seven occasions he asked individuals to stand up and receive recognition, alone or in pairs, for their hard work and dedication. Jose Abarca, an officer at the Regional Justice Center in Kent, who just returned home from Baghdad after a two-year military leave, received a standing ovation. (Appropriately, the citizen who received the second-most applause was also in uniform: Porter Mathis, the Metro Transit bus driver of the the year.)
Irons dismissed the entire event as little more than a staged press conference, countering with what I cynically hope will be his campaign slogan: “Everything is not wonderful.” Both his observations may technically be correct, but they completely miss the point. Voters aren’t dumb. We know that everything is not wonderful, and we don’t expect it to be. What we expect government to do is to constantly help make things a little bit better.
And that’s what Ron offered yesterday, a positive, passionate vision for the future that builds on his and our accomplishments of the past… while all Irons offered was criticism. He derides Ron for daring to plan ten years into the future, because like most politicians, his horizons don’t stretch beyond the next election. Listening to Irons talk to reporters yesterday, it made me wonder if he actually believes in the job he’s seeking.
I know a lot of people think Ron is vulnerable because of backlash over Sound Transit, the CAO, and the trumped up election controversy. It is true that Ron’s brand of strong, aggressive leadership can rub people the wrong way, but sometimes it is the only way to get things done. No doubt there are a lot of voters angered over his strong-arm handling of the Brightwater waste water treatment facility, but fortunately for Ron, most of them live in Snohomish County.
And if Irons is the best candidate the GOP can throw up against him, that too will be fortunate for Ron. Having nothing better to do is not enough of a reason to run for county executive, and voters will quickly sense that Iron’s candidacy stems more from expediency than passion and commitment.
I don’t know if I’ll ever attend another State of the County address, but I’ve got a feeling this wasn’t Ron Sims’ last.