By Jeff Switzer / Herald Writer
Aaron Reardon sits pensively, gold tie thrown over his shoulder, dark-rimmed reading glasses near the tip of his nose.
The moment doesn’t last.
Peeling off his glasses and speaking as fast as an auctioneer, he rattles off the job growth figures in Snohomish County: Five times the national rate, twice that of the state.
“We are creating our future,” he said. “We are in a strong financial position today because of decisions we’ve made in the first two years.”
This is a typical moment for Reardon, the youthful and sometimes controversial county executive more than two years into his term.
Supporters and critics agree: He’s articulate and energetic, seen uniformly as a rising star with sharp political instincts and a long career ahead.
The moderate Democrat with a ready-for-TV smile also faces criticism for his leadership style.
Reardon’s only declared opponent in next year’s election, Sheriff Rick Bart, has dismissed him as an “arrogant son-of-a-bitch.”
He travels in a world of sound bites and press releases, a key former staffer says.
County councilmen from both parties say Reardon takes too much credit, such as his repeated claims that he rescued county government from financial disaster.
Some say Reardon is driven more by blind political ambition than public service. They call him brash and opportunistic.
“I think he’s become a bit of a king,” said Steve Neighbors, county Republican chairman. “He’s pulled in most of the authority his departments have had. Aaron has a knack for taking credit for things other people do.”
Reardon is Snohomish County’s third executive – and its youngest. He follows 12 years under Bob Drewel, a seasoned and affable administrator.
“Everybody’s got their slant on who Aaron is,” said Mark Hintz, county Democratic party chairman. “He’s not Bob Drewel and a backslapper and such. He’s pragmatic and down to earth and gets business done.”
Reardon’s rise has been meteoric. In 1998, he was the youngest person elected to the state House of Representatives. In 2003, he was the youngest in the state Senate. He was 33 when he was sworn in as county executive in 2004.
“Aaron was in the right places at the right times,” said Carolyn Edmonds, a former Democratic legislator who served with Reardon.
Though he worked for former Everett Mayor Ed Hansen and Seattle business leaders, he was untested as a top manager, let alone one supervising a $540 million budget and 2,700 employees.
“Certainly there has been an adjustment to the CEO point of view, but I think he’s moving into it,” said Connie Niva, a longtime Reardon adviser and Everett port commissioner.
“There were a lot more eyes on every move (he made), because people thought he was young.”
Reardon is now responsible for a county budget that has grown to $590 million and nearly 2,900 employees.
Reardon said he brought an impatience to the executive job, and an expectation that the taxpayers be treated like stockholders.
“Government changes too slowly,” he said. “I wanted to bring a sense of purpose to this office and this government.”
Reardon has faced several challenges in office, each capable of changing the county forever.
He was at the center of a controversial bid to host a $250 million NASCAR racetrack near Marysville. Reardon’s pro-business leaning didn’t outweigh the high public costs.
“I pulled the plug,” he said.
He’s convened a panel to study allowing airlines at Paine Field airport. Reardon campaigned against commercial flights in 2003 and says he still opposes them.
Last year, much of his 20-year plan for housing and population growth was adopted.
Reardon’s staff and the County Council closed a $70 million deal to allow construction of King County’s Brightwater sewage treatment plant near Maltby.
Reardon also settled contract negotiations with the county’s biggest unions. He has yet to reach agreements with corrections officers and court clerks.
“There’s not a harder working guy in local government,” said Chris Dugovich, head of the government employee union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union won a three-year freeze on its rising share of medical payments.
Reardon has vetoed three County Council actions, most notably higher salaries for elected officials – including his own – at a time he was negotiating with unions.
Despite challenges, Reardon said he has no enemies. “I focus on my allies and making friends,” he said.
He said his only mistake in the first half of his term was to twice ask the council to approve a spending limit. Any other mistakes he discusses only with his staff.
Red ink to black
The challenge Reardon talks about most came in summer 2004.
Finance director Roger Neumaier predicted 2005 would bring a $13.4 million gap between county spending and incoming revenues. The figure reflected a worst-case 9.4 percent increase in county spending.
“We were bleeding red ink as far as the eye could see,” Reardon said.
Tough decisions were needed to control spending, he said, including a hiring freeze and layoffs. He nixed talk of raising taxes.
According to budget documents, the economy was in a slump and county government faced increased labor and medical costs.
Paying millions to operate the new county jail also was part of the challenge.
Reardon asked to cut 52 jobs while adding 92 other positions. Some reserve accounts were eliminated. His budget also redirected the way money went to pay for programs.
The moves created a $173 million general fund budget in 2005. In the end, proposed spending was 2.4 percent higher than the 2004 budget, an increase similar to previous annual increases.
The county actually spent about $2 million less than it budgeted in 2005, Neumaier said. Even so, that was $5.6 million more than the year before.
Reardon supporters hail the achievement.
“He balanced the budget that was poorly led by a Republican council,” Democratic chairman Hintz said. “With his leadership, he put the county in the black. It’s probably one of the more important things.”
County councilmen from both parties roll their eyes when they hear that sort of talk.
There never was a deficit and the county was nowhere near the financial ruin Reardon predicted, they say.
The county had an estimated $12 million in reserves and the economy was on the rebound.
“As finance chairman, I never was able to find the $13 million” hole, said Democrat County Councilman Kirke Sievers, now council chairman.
County Councilman Gary Nelson said Reardon is dissembling.
“He says he saved the county from bankruptcy, from a $13 million deficit. We certainly know better. That just isn’t the case of what he did. That spending trend was not going to continue,” Nelson said.
Still, the council voted 5-0 to approve the 2005 budget, Reardon said.
Executive with roots
Reardon said his start in politics came in the fifth grade, when President Reagan’s administration sought to classify ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches. As part of a class project he called and wrote Congressman Al Swift, who surprised Reardon by calling back.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to go into public service,” Reardon said.
Reardon was raised in Everett. He’s spoken several times about how his mother left her abusive and alcoholic husband when Reardon was 2 years old. She taught him courage and humility, he said.
Reardon said his first priority is family.
“I’ve seen him with his daughter and how caring and loving he is,” Hintz said. That care transfers to how he works with the people in the county, he said.
Some farmers say they see an executive who cares.
“He’s the first county executive in Snohomish County who has really taken a strong look at agriculture and its needs, and considers it as another portion of the economy,” said Cliff Bailey, a former Republican county councilman and state legislator who serves on Reardon’s citizen cabinet.
“There hasn’t been a lot of effect, but things are starting to change,” he said. “Aaron talks a good story, but he means it.”
Some officials said they wonder who the real Aaron Reardon is. They question his style of governing.
“He’s a very likable man, that public persona,” said Susan Neely, who oversaw criminal justice and human services for Reardon as an executive director.
“I often felt things were done merely for the headline and that was it,” she said.
Neely quit in May, ending 13 years with the county that included eight years as a County Council analyst and three years as a key staffer under Drewel. Neely is proud of her public safety work, but said the executive’s office under Reardon became a hostile workplace.
In her resignation letter, she said policy questions e-mailed to Reardon and Deputy Executive Mark Soine were rarely acknowledged or went unanswered. She complained of being excluded from discussions, and treated with disrespect.
The day she resigned, Neely was hired by King County as a council budget analyst.
In a letter to Neely, Reardon said he took the allegation seriously but was “completely unaware” of any indications that Neely faced a hostile workplace. In interviews, he said his actions are always guided by his deep connection to the place he grew up.
“It’s a community that has given me tremendous opportunities,” he said. “This is the community where I received my education, that allowed me to learn life’s lessons and works everyday to better itself, and become competitors in the regional economy. It’s a community where I’m now raising my family.”
Neely’s departure marked the latest in what some call a brain drain of experienced officials.
Losing 11 key people including Neely and department heads has diminished the trust and severed relationships between the executive and the County Council, Nelson said.
Reardon said he’s confident he’s assembled the team needed to move the county into the future.
Critics say Reardon uses press releases to announce his plans, instead of building support by first bouncing his ideas off other government officials. They also complain he takes too much credit for long-standing county programs, issuing press releases when things go well.
“If you’re more concerned with getting credit than getting things done, it becomes an obstacle to good government,” said County Councilman John Koster, a Republican from Arlington. “Our citizens don’t care in the end.”
Reardon has issued 140 press releases – averaging one per week since he was elected.
“We’re doing a lot, and we’re telling folks what we’re doing,” Reardon said. “We think the public wants to know and has the right to know what Snohomish County government is doing. I don’t care who gets the credit so long as the work gets done.”
Not too long ago, people could walk into the county building and easily arrange to speak with the county executive. Under Reardon, the executive’s offices have become a fortress, even for county council members, Koster said.
Reardon’s office limits who speaks with councilmen and aides. Reardon seldom speaks with councilmen directly, Koster said.”There’s no dialogue,” Koster said. “The press release is out before the ordinance is up here.
“He’s barricaded on the sixth (floor).”
The West Wing
Late last year, Reardon’s offices moved to the top floor of the county’s old administration building.
It’s Snohomish County’s own West Wing.
“Information that goes out is very controlled, and everything is worked by the executive or the deputy executive and the person who acts as the PIO (public information officer),” Neely said. “It’s just not a lot of information that gets out.”
County employees are not allowed to speak to reporters without first going through Reardon’s spokeswoman Donna Ambrose, who came to the county from a similar job at Everett Transit.
That control is most visible in the $865,500 remodel of the sixth floor.
Reardon’s staff moved from the offices on the third floor that for decades were home to county executives Drewel and Willis Tucker.
Reardon opted for inch-thick bulletproof glass and a bank teller’s window to greet visitors. Key cards are needed to open every door.
“That just was sort of like the symbol of what the administration had become,” Neely said.
Reardon said the security measures are needed, and safety concerns dated back to his first days in office.
“For government, this is unfortunately a different era,” Reardon said.
Behind those locked doors work Reardon and up to 13 support staff. Together they earn $1.3 million in salaries. Reardon is paid $129,000 a year.
Reardon depends on a tight circle of confidantes. They include: deputy executive Soine, an attorney and former Everett city councilman; administrative assistant Brian Parry and legislative analyst Steve Smith. Parry and Smith both worked for Reardon in the Legislature.
Reardon said his actual circle of advisers is bigger, and includes department heads and a deep bench of employee and advisers, including business leaders, community activists and farmers.
To his credit, Reardon has moved farming issues to the forefront, and tackled land-use, which is the most complex part of local government, County Councilman Dave Gossett said.
“He’s seen as quite competent, quite smart,” Gossett said.
Council chairman Sievers, county government’s longest-serving elected official, said Reardon is sometimes “brash.”
Reardon prefers to think of himself as “candid.”
“I think people want that,” he said.
Former county executive Bob Drewel – now executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council – put Snohomish County on the map, Niva said.
Niva said she advises Reardon to make sure he’s at the table for key decisions on Sound Transit and other regional issues.
There’s a difference between being at the right meeting and attending every meeting, Reardon said.
“This is a big job, and I’m a bit choosy about what I attend,” he said. “King County is in love with the process. I want action. Leadership is about making decisions. It’s not about holding meetings, holding a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.”
The next campaign
Reardon hasn’t lost a political campaign. He’s well on his way in his bid for re-election.
“He’s a helluva campaigner,” and on everybody’s short-list for higher office, said Ron Dotzauer, a political commentator and former Democratic consultant for U.S. Sens. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Maria Cantwell and former Gov. Booth Gardner.
“He’s certainly a person of interest,” Dotzauer said. “People speculate, not just in Snohomish County but in other parts of the state what he might do politically with his future. He’s 35. He’s got some time.”
A campaign to unseat Reardon in 2007 was launched Saturday by Sheriff Rick Bart, a Republican. Bart reports he’s raised about $8,000 to Reardon’s war chest of $142,000. The sheriff has scored points in some circles by attacking what he contends is Reardon’s arrogance and preoccupation with politics.
“He’s a professional politician,” Bart said. “He lives and breathes politics day and night, always looking for something in his future politically. I think he makes all of his decisions based on that.”
Bart said Reardon is practicing for higher office.
When asked about seeking the governor’s mansion or other office, Reardon said: “I see myself being a good county executive and getting better each day, living in this community for the rest of my life and enacting policies that benefit this community and my daughter and my neighbors’ daughters.
“This is my focus,” he said.
Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.