Bob Drewel, a giant in local politics, retires this month

EVERETT — Former Snohomish mayor Liz Loomis was a 25-year-old political consultant in Washington, D.C., when Bob Drewel hired her to run his campaign for a second term as Snohomish County executive.

With calluses from bare-knuckle campaigns involving not-so-shiny candidates back East, she arrived in 1995 expecting more of the same, with a Northwest flavor.

What she encountered shocked her.

“I found the most amazing, clean and wholesome political family I had ever seen and I have ever seen,” Loomis recalled. “The kids are perfect. The wife is perfect and Bob is perfect. This is the kind of person you want in office making decisions.

“He is truly motivated to be in politics for the right reason: to make people’s lives better,” she said.

Drewel, who won that race and another, then took the helm of the Puget Sound Regional Council, is retiring this month after a career of more than 30 years.

The longtime Arlington resident arguably is one of the most significant public figures to emerge from Snohomish County in the last generation.

In a career spanning parts of four decades, he’s credited with making Snohomish County a relevant player in the state and with nurturing Everett Community College into an integral part of the city. He’s also recognized for moving nonprofits off the sidelines and onto the playing field of policymaking.

His name adorns the entrance of the county administration building, the most visible sign of the respect he’s earned and the legacy he’s built.

“He has a very deep sense of community,” said Pat McClain, governmental affairs director for the city of Everett and a Drewel friend since the early ’80s. “He’s not afraid to do what’s necessary to get something done. There’s a bit of plow horse in Bob.”

He’s had a finger or two, and sometimes a whole hand, in defining events for Snohomish County and the Puget Sound region in the past 30 years.

He pushed for the creation of Sound Transit, then guided the effort that convinced voters it was worth funding.

He fended off those driving to build a regional airport in Snohomish County and steered them instead to construct a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

He withstood the insurgents behind Freedom County, though it sometimes meant donning a bulletproof vest for public appearances.

He joined governors and County Council members in crafting proposals for funding transportation and constructing a new county administration building.

And he’s sat at some very large tables with owners of big businesses, managers of small nonprofits, and elected Democrats and Republicans to map paths to economic prosperity for families, including higher education for their children.

“His fingerprints are all over this region for decades to come,” said Joni Earl, chief executive officer for Sound Transit and deputy county executive under Drewel.

He’ll be the first to declare his feats aren’t magic, his method not supernatural. To solve a problem, he figured, you gather together those affected and let them talk, and keep talking, and, just as important, listening. Eventually, a moment arrives when everyone finds what Drewel calls “mutuality” — then agreement follows.

“He believed from the outset of every issue to be inclusive so that all points of view came into play,” said Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, a Republican, who was a city councilman when Drewel was county executive. The two became friends and allies.

Former King County executive Ron Sims described Drewel as selfless, genuine and trustworthy.

“His idea was to have everybody at the table. It worked because Bob was there. He has incredible personal cachet with people,” Sims said. “You needed somebody everyone trusted and liked to be around and had brains to burn.”

Drewel is known for his innate ability to keep participants focused on finding common ground and purpose.

Those skills are getting a serious test as he leads the Washington Aerospace Partnership board, which is trying to land the Boeing Co.’s 777X program.

Bruce Kendall, the chief executive officer of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, said Drewel kept upbeat after the Machinists voted down a contract last month that would have locked up the work.

“That was an emotional vote, and he said, ‘This isn’t about the emotions. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize,’ ” Kendall said. “He was the one guy who people respected most around the table, and he was able to get us focused on the prize.”

The tougher the challenge, the harder Drewel worked, and when it was over, he gave the credit to others and took none for himself, Sims said.

“If there was a saint of the political level, he would be one,” he said.

* * *

Drewel, 67, was born in Seattle. He was raised there and on a farm in Kennewick, where he gained an affinity for cowboy boots and horseback riding.

He graduated from Ingraham High School in Seattle. He attended Columbia Basin Junior College, then Central Washington University, finally graduating in 1970 from the University of Washington.

He and his wife, Cheryl, married in 1968 and have lived in Arlington since 1986. They have two grown daughters, Amy and Lindsay.

“You just don’t do it alone,” he said, praising the trio of women for supplying the strength for him to persevere in public service. “Anything I’ve ever been engaged in I wouldn’t have done without their support.”

In 1981, Drewel was working in the human resources department at Everett Community College when he was tapped to be interim president for four months prior to the hiring of Paul Walker. Three years later, Walker departed, and Drewel filled in as interim again before the Board of Trustees decided to appoint him president in December 1984.

He liked the job and found himself interested in the political process of lobbying lawmakers on higher education and electing board members who ran the college.

In 1987, a still-unsolved arson destroyed the college library and claimed the life of firefighter Gary Parks. The fire left an indelible mark on Drewel.

He oversaw rebuilding on the campus and rejuvenating school spirit. He also saw how the tragedy had bonded the college and community forever.

“I saw the strength and resolve of the citizens of Snohomish County,” he said. “It struck me that if I was ever to consider something else in public service, it would be only to serve this great community in a different fashion.”

* * *

Drewel didn’t envision running for county executive in 1991 until others — including the departing executive Willis Tucker — convinced him he’d be good at it. Voters agreed three times.

He won by greater margins each election. With his profile growing as a result of battles such as the airport runway and Sound Transit, a few friends started imagining the moderate, business-minded Democrat as governor.

Loomis said she wanted him to run when the seat opened up in 1996. “He would have been brilliant,” she said.

Drewel brushed aside such notions that year. He considered it more seriously in 2003 after Gov. Gary Locke announced he would not seek another term. It meant no incumbent would be running in 2004.

“Bob Drewel would have been a great governor,” said Gary Nelson, a Republican and former state lawmaker who served on the Snohomish County Council through most of Drewel’s reign. “His style of leadership is attractive and has a magnetic appeal.”

Chris Gregoire, the state’s Democratic attorney general in 2003, was clearly going to run. At one point, she and Drewel met in a coffee shop in downtown Everett to chat about their respective plans.

Drewel heard a lot of people telling him that seeking the governor’s job was a good idea, but he said he never reached the same conclusion. He felt he could accomplish more as a community leader than a statewide figure.

That’s why he jumped at the chance to become executive director of the federally created Puget Sound Regional Council. The little-recognized organ of government is where people representing cities, counties, ports, transit agencies, tribes, and state government sit and work together on regional issues.

For Drewel, who preached regionalism over parochialism, it was a perfect fit.

“The position I now hold was drop-dead the right decision,” he said.

* * *

Drewel’s appreciation for regional solutions was forged in his days as Snohomish County executive. In that job, he pushed his way into meeting rooms and onto boards to ensure the county didn’t get left out of decisions affecting land use and transportation along the I-5 corridor south to Pierce County.

Take the debate on the third runway at Sea-Tac airport, for example.

Leaders of King County and several of its cities opposed it and wanted to put a regional airport in Snohomish or Pierce counties to shoulder the increasing load of commercial air traffic. They had designs on Paine Field and the Arlington Airport.

Drewel, Everett Mayor Ed Hansen, Everett Port Commissioner Ed Morrow and others fought back. Never before had the county so aggressively attempted to assert itself in a region long dominated by King County.

Eventually, they turned the tide of votes on the Puget Sound Regional Council, where the runway decision was eventually made.

Even as the fight continued, Drewel made his presence, and that of Snohomish County, felt on the board of Regional Transit Authority, better known as Sound Transit.

Created by state law, the transit authority needed voter approval of a tax hike to pay for the dream of a regional light-rail system.

Drewel joined the board in early 1996, a few months after voters had turned down a funding measure. As chairman that year, he cajoled the board into agreeing on a scaled-down 10-year plan for regional bus routes, commuter rail service from Tacoma to Everett on existing tracks, and a new light-rail line. It won handily at the polls in the fall of 1996.

Drewel didn’t act alone. But as the executive of the state’s third-most-populous county, he could assert his presence more than city leaders, and he did. Over time, it garnered greater influence for the county as a whole.

“Bob Drewel put Snohomish County on the map, and I will be eternally grateful to him for doing that,” said Connie Niva, a former Everett City Council member and current regent of Washington State University.

Sims, King County executive in those years, agreed.

“Everybody knew there was a Snohomish County, but it did not have an articulated image,” he said. “It was like Snohomish County was there, but what was Snohomish County?”

* * *

Drewel’s career isn’t without a few wayward notions and waylaid initiatives.

In 2000, he suggested moving hundreds of county employees out of offices in Everett and into buildings at Paine Field. The move would save money by avoiding the cost of building a new administration building, he contended.

The backlash forced a retreat. He wound up championing a plan for constructing the building that now bears his name, without raising taxes.

And in 1998, with the county in the midst of a growth spurt, he masterminded an ambitious attempt to build roads, buy parks and improve sewer and water systems via the ballot.

Dubbed ASCENT 21, it proposed five separate measures to collectively raise hundreds of millions of dollars through higher gas, sales and property taxes. Voters trounced each one by a nearly 3-1 margin.

He had better luck in an area often given less priority by other government leaders: nonprofits. His crowning achievement in this arena may be the Prosperity Partnership created by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2004.

Today, it is a coalition of 300 government, business, education, labor and nonprofit organizations from King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties that works on a common strategy for economic development.

“That has done more to get different people to the table, and keep them at the table, more than anything else,” he said.

It’s not just been at conference room tables where he carried the torch.

Until last year, he also did it as an auctioneer at a multitude of charity events, where he demonstrated an innate ability to separate people from their money — and make them feel really good about it.

“It was hard to say no to Uncle Bob,” joked former Herald publisher Larry Hanson of Everett. “He has so much energy about the things he’s interested in, and that’s very contagious.”

In 2005, in recognition of his efforts, the Greater Everett Community Foundation established the Human Services Endowment Fund in Honor of Bob Drewel.

Last week, foundation leaders announced the raising of $204,000 in a special campaign coinciding with Drewel’s retirement. The fund total now stands at $426,000, a portion of which will be given out next spring in grants to local nonprofits.

Though Drewel officially is retiring, he’s not riding off into the sunset.

He’s accepted a pro bono job as “director emeritus” for a regional council appendage known as the Economic Development District. It lets him remain involved with the Washington Aerospace Partnership efforts on the 777X program and just about everything else he’s had a hand in the last 30 years.

Hanson isn’t the least surprised.

“There isn’t any quit in him, that’s for sure,” he said.

Herald writer Dan Catchpole contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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