County Executive Dow Constantine, Seeking Reelection: “The Status Quo Has Been Upended”

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who served in the state legislature and on the King County Council before beating eight other candidates for county executive in 2009, was supposed to run for governor—until the current governor, Jay Inslee, decided he wanted to keep the job. With a bid for higher office thwarted until at least 2024, many political observers expected Constantine to step down this year rather than seek a fourth term.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly, all eyes were on King County and its public health department, whose capable response to a fast-moving, ever-evolving crisis made the county a model for the nation. Constantine decided to run again, and for the first time in 12 years, drew a credible opponent—Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents the same West Seattle district Constantine did in the state House and Senate. (In a further twist of internecine West Seattle politics, Nguyen defeated Shannon Braddock, who’s now Constantine’s deputy chief of staff.)

I sat down with Constantine over Zoom last week, and started out by asking him why he decided to seek another term.

Dow Constantine: I mean, I was thinking about running for governor, but then the governor ran for governor. And because I’m a good Democrat, and I want to ensure that we have Democratic leadership in Olympia, I chose not to run for governor along with all the other potential candidates.

I have lots of options in life. But the best opportunity right now coming out of this crisis is to advance the work we’ve been doing. I think this is a unique, exciting moment where the status quo has been upended. And a lot of the things that we have been dutifully building toward in equity and social justice and environmental restoration and police transformation and so forth become dramatically more possible. So, you know, once the, the COVID crisis started, we’ve been in it, and there’s really been no looking back.

PubliCola: Looking back over the last 14, 15 months of the pandemic, is there anything that you would have done differently in the early months, if you had known kind of how things would turn out?

With hindsight being 20/20, instead of trying to distance people in a congregate setting, like in shelters, we would know that having people just farther apart but all in the same room, was still going to be problematic. We [eventually] moved to the hotel model, which immediately and dramatically slowed the spread of the disease. Obviously, if we had more knowledge at the time, we might have made different choices about requiring mask use early on, or getting people into hotels and single-room settings rather than shelters. But in general, I think that the people responded well to a crisis with a lot of unknowns.

“Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.”

PC: One of the things [Downtown Emergency Service Center director] Daniel Malone has said since early in the pandemic, when DESC moved people from their downtown shelter to the Red Lion in Renton, is that they’re never going to go back to the way things were, with people staying in overcrowded, congregate shelters. And yet it feels like that’s kind of what’s happening at the city level. Do you think that in a year or two years, we’re going to be right back where we were?

DC: That is not what the county is doing. Other than in isolated cases, for an immediate overnight emergency, we’re not going to be investing in mats-on-the-floor, get-kicked-out-in-the-morning shelters, because we have seen what having a room of your own, a place of your own, even just space of your own, can do for people.

It used to be that people were very focused on long-term, purpose-built, supportive housing, and it was sort of, we’ll just wait and let people rotate through these congregate shelters until those things are ready. With some exceptions, I think we’re moving much more toward a model where we try to get everyone a place that is genuinely a better alternative to the streets or a tent—a place that has a lock on the door with their own bathroom and some dignity and the ability to get rested and cleaned and centered. And that seems like kind of an obvious thing. But the pandemic created the opportunity to demonstrate how much better that works than a congregate shelter setting.

“I do think it’s likely that we want to find [a new sheriff] who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes.”

PC: The opiate task force came out with its recommendations almost five years ago, and I remember at the time thinking that, in particular, the [supervised consumption site] recommendation was never going to happen. And sure enough, it hasn’t. Why do you think that is? And do you think the county has come through as promised on the remaining recommendations, including access to treatment on demand?

DC: I do think that the task force was correct that a safe, monitored place would save lives. And we’re seeing continued deaths from heroin that’s tainted with fentanyl, for example. And for the parents, for the families who’ve lost their children, the moralizing that I come across in the media about not facilitating drug use rings kind of hollow. Simply saying that the government can’t be involved in anything that in any way facilitates someone using the substance to which they are clearly physically addicted is just inhumane.

Will we, as a practical matter, be able to get one of these things up and running? I don’t think, unless there’s a significant political change, that it’s going to be possible to do. But I will say this. The advances in both treatment and the drugs to reverse overdose mean that it’s absolutely imperative that people not be in basements and alleys and other places where they don’t have eyes on and them can’t get help, because we can save lives in the short run. And we can save people from addiction over time. And we have much better mechanisms that we had even a decade ago to do that.

“It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.”

This is not your question, but this has been bugging me lately. There are a lot of people on the streets who have some level of opioid dependence. And some of them had it before they were homeless, and a lot of them developed it on the streets and are at grave risk because of tainted drugs that can come in to the community. And there have been plenty of suburban kids and parents who have died. But I continue, as I make calls, to hear this basic, moralistic perspective—like, they’ve just got to get off the junk, and then we can offer them all these services.

And we know that’s not how it works. Getting just some solid ground under people’s feet first is an almost indispensable prerequisite to people being able to succeed in treatment. When you’re fighting for survival every night, it’s very hard to adhere to some sort of program that’s going to help you get off of whatever you’re addicted to.

PC: Your opponent has said that it’s hypocritical and inconsistent for you to say you support closing the youth jail, while just having opened a new one. How do you respond to that criticism, and how has your view on youth incarceration changed since you were first elected?

DC: First off, we had a youth detention facility built decades ago that had 212 beds, and rusty water and asbestos and the whole nine yards. In building a new building to house the courts and all the other programs, we were able to incorporate a new, much smaller—this has been misreported consistently—a new, much smaller detention facility with 112 detention beds, and clean water and much, much better facilities. It is the state of Washington that requires us to have a youth detention facility. And we would very much welcome the state legislature actually removing that legal obligation, and instead providing us with the funds and the mandate for alternatives.

That doesn’t mean we’re not continuing the same work have been doing every single year to reduce youth detention. And we are going to get to zero through our various efforts. But it takes a lot of time. And the most complicated cases are those that are left in detention. They’re very, very tragic cases.

What we have seen is that a lot of the prevention, the diversion, the alternatives that we have put in place, can help reduce the number of youth who are detained. There were about 90 on an average night when I was sworn in. Yesterday, there were 14. And that is just grinding, difficult work to build the community capacity. And the most important alternative is robust behavioral health, including inpatient behavioral health treatment for those youth who need it. But a lot of this also has to do with increasing the capacity to expand things like Community Passageways and Choose 180, where they can take on these more and more complicated cases and put kids safely in the arms of community mentors to protect both kid and those the kid might harm in the community.

PC: Do you think that changing the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position is a reform in itself? Or is it just a way of getting rid of the current sheriff that people are unhappy with? And what are what are some of the first steps that you’d like to see the new sheriff, whoever it may be, take towards reforming the sheriff’s office?

DC: I think it’s a reform in itself. I think that the ability of the executive and the council to hire and fire the sheriff dramatically increases accountability. Having the sheriff be elected creates deep rifts within the sheriff’s office, it creates these political camps that continue to war long after the election is over. And that is profoundly unhealthy. So I think this is a real step forward.

I want the new sheriff to step in and lead the implementation, obviously, of the new approach to policing. And that is clearly going to involve having the police be asked to do less and to leave some of these challenges to behavioral health, public health, and human service interventions. We know that a lot of the tragedies that have happened on our streets are people who are having behavioral health episodes, and the police get called. And things escalate. And a tragedy happens. That doesn’t need to be—at least not nearly as often as it’s happening right now.

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So that is one thing. The other thing is around culture and accountability. In addition to the fact that there are dozens of discipline cases still sitting around unresolved, which I’m tremendously afraid I’m just going to inherit, there are challenges around the culture in the sheriff’s office—you know, circling the wagons around, not being fully candid about what has happened, particularly in a shooting incident. And I want to get to the bottom of that, because when I inherit responsibility for this agency, I want to know what’s going on inside it. And I feel like I don’t right now. And as I talk with community members who’ve been impacted by our sheriff’s office, as I talk with the attorneys for those who the families who have lost a loved one, I get a much broader picture of what the shortcomings may be in that office. And I want to dig into those this year to help inform both the community conversation and the decision I need to make about hiring a new sheriff.

PC: Do you want to hire someone from outside the sheriff’s office or an insider?

DC: I would not categorically exclude anyone, but I do think it’s likely that we want to find someone who is an outsider, someone who doesn’t owe anyone anything and is not beholden to people so that they can make difficult decisions and see things with clear eyes. We’re definitely doing a national search, and probably an outside perspective would give us the best chance of creating the transformation we want.

PC: Can you talk a little bit about the kind of changes you’d like to implement in the sheriff’s office, in light of the 2020 charter amendment granting the executive new authority over hiring and discipline?

DC: Well, the training needs to flow from the policy, so we need to decide what it is we are trying to accomplish as an agency and the training will flow from that. But we’ll talk about the fact that so many officers are drawn from a military background and have a military perspective on the job that they’re doing. I have a lot of veterans I’ve hired and they are certainly among our best employees. But if you have too much of a warlike mindset, it can set up the kinds of scenarios that we’re seeing in cities all across this country, [where police are] heavily armed with military or quasi-military equipment, and a notion that everyone presents a clear and present danger to your life and is not a person to be engaged with compassion, but a person to be feared. And that can lead to tragedy very quickly. And that means that we’re going to have to have some new people too, because the warrior culture is pretty deeply embedded in policing, and just about every department across the country.

PC: As the county executive, you’ve talked about how it’s frustrating that people don’t really know what the county does. What are some things that you wish that the public knew about the county, or an issue or challenge you’ve had to deal with that you never get asked about?

DC: You know, public health always frustrated me because it was so invisible, and it’s so important. I think the pandemic has at least temporarily cured that—people now realize what public health is and how critical it is to our quality of life. And that is an example of the sorts of things that only a county government can do.

I think of the environmental work—we are the environmental agency here, we are the ones who are preserving the woods and restoring the waterways and putting countywide climate action in place. I think people don’t often realize that we’re the lead agency on climate action here, and that includes electrifying the Metro fleet and my role in creating and getting past a three-county high-capacity electric rail system.

One thing that that folks really need to understand is that for whatever conversation goes on inside cities about criminal legal system reform, almost all of that needs to happen on a regional basis. Yeah, there’s individual police departments, but there’s hardly any other jurisdiction specific stuff for courts, the prosecutor, the defender to detention, two alternatives. The county plays second fiddle to the cities, which are much more visible. But in fact, the work we are doing is the thing that is going to transform the region into one where everybody has a chance.