Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon first won election to his job as a precocious state lawmaker who many believed was destined for greatness.
Eight years later, Reardon, now 40, faces another electoral contest with his political star clouded, the result of protracted feuding with other
county leaders and a string of management gaffes that Reardon has blamed on others.
As the incumbent Democrat tries to win a third term, another relatively young, ambitious state lawmaker stands in his way.
Republican Mike Hope, a 35-year-old Seattle police officer, may be Reardon’s to
ughest rival yet. Though Hope boasts a solid resume, it’s not much heavier on large-scale management experience than Reardon’s was eight years ago.
The campaign features two energetic candidates known for their competitive natures and buff physiques.
Both men practice centrist politics. Reardon’s a Democrat who prides himself on having avoided any property tax increase for the county general fund since he’s been in office. Hope is a Republican who has snagged a prize that usually goes to the other party: an endorsement from the state’s largest teacher’s union, the 60,000-strong Washington Education Association.
Early in the race, Hope has waged an aggressive campaign chipping away at Reardon’s record on jobs, management and ethics.
“There’s this lack of leadership — there’s a void there,” Hope said.
Reardon, unruffled, said he’s helped the county weather the ongoing economic downturn in better shape than the region’s other large governments, including King County or the state. Reardon points to the county’s cash reserves, balanced budget and the absence of any recent tax increases.
“My campaign is based on what we’ve done, where we’re at and where we’re going,” Reardon said.
For the future, Reardon said he’s focused on trying to convince the Boeing Co. to build the next generation of its 737 jet in Snohomish County, rather than in Eastern Washington or elsewhere in the world. He also said he’s trying to promote other job opportunities at home while, fiscally, keeping the county government in check.
And for the record, Reardon said he’s not running for governor in 2012, a point of speculation for years.
“No, I’m running for Snohomish County executive,” he said.
Facing no challengers from within their parties, Reardon and Hope both advance automatically from the Aug. 16 primary to the Nov. 8 general election. The county executive’s job pays $147,098.74, an amount set by an appointed public commission.
Tense years for Reardon
Reardon grew up in Everett and graduated from Mariner High School. He served in the state House and Senate before setting his sights on the county.
Reardon first won the executive’s job in 2003, taking nearly 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for Republican Dave Earling, who’s now a candidate for mayor of Edmonds.
Four years later, Reardon took two-thirds of the vote against a Republican political first-timer named Jack Turk, a performing magician who used the stage name Turk the Magic Genie, and appeared on his business card with a parrot puppet named Doodles.
Reardon’s most recent term has seen his administration beset by management blowups that have called the executive’s oversight into question.
In 2009, Reardon fired former planning director Craig Ladiser after a sexual assault on a golf course against a female lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, one of Reardon’s big political backers. Reardon said he was unaware of what happened until the woman wrote directly to his office asking why Ladiser was allowed to take paid leave and seek treatment for alcoholism. Reardon also said he knew nothing of Ladiser’s claims that the woman’s building association boss had undertaken “damage control” efforts with knowledge of Reardon’s staff. The supposed aim was to preserve Ladiser’s position as county planning director.
Ladiser later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in King County Superior Court related to the assault.
Ladiser’s departure led to a domino-like toppling of other officials in Reardon’s administration.
The lawyer in charge of investigating harassment complaints at the county resigned before the release of an outside investigation that was highly critical of his work. He failed to document or respond in many of the cases that county employees brought to his attention, the outside report said.
Reardon’s former top deputy, Mark Soine, later sent a message to all county employees apologizing for poor oversight of the county complaint investigator. Soine soon left his job as well.
“I hold my team to very high expectations of performance,” Reardon said last week. “I expect them to follow through and perform. If they don’t meet my expectations, they don’t work for me.”
Outside reviews in 2010 found management problems at other departments reporting to Reardon. The Medical Examiner’s Office suffered from low employee morale and problematic workplace behavior, one report found, while another concluded that the county’s political environment was preventing the county’s technology department from adequately serving employees’ computer needs. The County Council requested both of those reviews.
Tension between the executive and other county leaders has eased over the past year. That owes much to Reardon hiring former Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson as his deputy executive and Clay White as his new planning director. Both have been well-received by county employees and elected leaders.
Reardon’s budget for 2011 passed with an unusual degree of cooperation with the County Council, compared to previous budgets. So far, this year’s budget has served intact, unlike those of 2009 and 2010, which were amended mid-year because of falling revenues.
Hope wants change
Hope grew up outside the Cleveland area. Before starting college, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. His first trip to Washington state was for training at Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
He accepted a job with the Seattle Police Department in his early 20s. He currently works patrolling West Seattle.
Hope is now in his second term representing the 44th Legislative District in the state House.
In that capacity, he’s launched an effort to generate 100 ideas to improve government and another to bring professional basketball back to the Puget Sound region at no cost to taxpayers.
Hope also was a leader of last year’s successful drive to change the state Constitution to give judges more leeway to deny bail to someone charged with a violent felony. That came in the aftermath of the November 2009 fatal shooting of four Lakewood police officers by a man out on bail on charges that included child rape.
Hope faults Reardon for his approach to urban development, which he said has allowed too much home building and not enough commercial development for jobs. Reardon said problems with sprawl owe to land-use decisions made in 2005 by a pro-development County Council with a Republican majority.
Hope said the current executive should have made a greater effort to diversify Snohomish County’s economy, making it less “Boeing-centric.” Coordination with local cities and their leaders also is lacking, in his opinion.
“Where he’s missing the boat is with relationship building — it’s not about Aaron Reardon, it’s about our community,” Hope said.
Hope says Reardon shares the blame for the county’s high unemployment rate, which was 9.2 percent in May.
“I don’t know what jobs (Reardon’s) talking about that he’s brought to Snohomish County,” he said. “That’s not acceptable.”
Reardon scoffed at Hope’s arguments about jobs. He said Snohomish County suffered for the same reasons most parts of the country have since 2008.
“People are smarter than that, nobody’s going to buy that,” he said. “Every citizen knows that we’re in the great recession and this country has been slow to get out of the great recession.”
State Public Disclosure Commission records showed Reardon with a big fundraising edge, his $174,000 topping Hope’s war chest by more than $100,000. Many big contributors to Reardon’s campaign came from King County or out of state. Hope received few donations from outside the county.
History suggests Hope’s campaign will have an uphill climb; no Republican has been elected Snohomish County executive since the office was created in 1980.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The candidates at a glance
Aaron Reardon (incumbent)
Occupation: Snohomish County executive, Sound Transit board chairman; former state representative and senator for the 38th Legislative District.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration with a minor in economics from Central Washington University.
In his words: “We’re the only large government in the state that has a balanced budget and a surplus and hasn’t raised taxes.”
Priorities: Landing the super site for the next generation Boeing 737, helping small businesses grow, maintaining Snohomish County’s fiscal responsibility.
Occupation: Seattle police officer, state representative for the 44th Legislative District, former gym owner.
Residence: Lake Stevens
Education: John Carroll University (in Ohio), bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology; master’s degree in policy studies from the University of Washington, Bothell.
In his words: “The most important thing is to create more jobs and to entice businesses to come here. We have a lot of opportunity in Snohomish County … I think we have to make some fundamental changes at the county level to make that happen.”
Priorities: Creating jobs; allowing more commercial development to balance out the county’s residential development; repairing relationships with city governments that Hope says have been damaged by Reardon’s administration.