People call me up and say they want to beat me to a pulp.  I am, they tell me, a lowlife muckraker, and obviously a racist to boot.  Some of my closest friends express doubts about my sanity.  An apparently well-subscribed website appears to be devoted to my downfall and calls for my books to be banned, so that I can no longer make a “fat living” (sic) by peddling my odious political views in such works as Imran Khan: The Cricketer, the Celebrity, the Politician and Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

What have I done?  I have tried to find out more about Ron Sims, the deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development and previously the long-running chief executive of King County, Washington, where I live.  Sims (an African-American) stirs strong emotions in these parts.  Experts will be chewing, and gnashing, over his legacy for years to come.  Was he a sort of cross between Mother Teresa and Robin Hood, as his supporters claim, or just another facile rabble-rouser whose personal wealth largely insulated him from the consequences of his own social-engineering schemes?  Opinionated, vain, shameless, intellectually agile, personable and articulate, duplicitous and shrewd, by at least some measures brilliant, Sims may be the nation’s most polarizing politician after Barack Obama.

Born in 1948 in Spokane, Washington, Sims attended Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where he earned a B.A. in psychology.  By the time he ran for public office in the early 1980’s, he could boast vast experience of politics at municipal and state levels.  Eschewing the private sector, Sims had worked successively for the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, and the juvenile offenders’ program of the city of Seattle, among other publicly funded sinecures.  Shortly after his election to the King County Council in 1985, Sims made news by proposing to rename the county after Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than Vice President William King, who had enjoyed the honor for the previous 133 years.  As every schoolchild used to know, King County’s original eponym was an advocate both of the constitutional protection of the institution of slavery and of a “strong and indivisible Union,” in which accelerated industrialization would mean that “the poor and despondent [would] become less numerous in proportion, and the tendency to conflict between the States will diminish” (even if later stigmatized in the King County press release as a “slave-owning bigot”).  No public hearings or votes were held on the change.  On February 24, 1986, the King County Council passed Sims’ resolution by five votes to four, although for various procedural reasons the rededication wasn’t formally ratified until April 2005.  In 2007, the council changed the county’s logo from a royal crown to an unrecognizably grim photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., looking as if it had been taken at the Battle of Stalin­grad.  This image went on to grace a variety of civic buildings, advertising material, and utility bills, not to mention the sides of 1,443 metro buses and a fleet of “official-purpose” vehicles.  No one in authority could immediately say how much the makeover might ultimately cost the taxpayers of King County, which, according to its website, “continues to make painful but unavoidable reductions in its [public] services.”

Sims became the county’s chief executive in 1996 and quickly established himself as what he called an “ahead-of-the-curve” and “genuinely progressive” administrator.  In practice, this meant that he was broadly pro-environment, and a champion both of the homeless and of gay rights.  (Sims would encourage same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, an offer many of them pursued through protracted, publicly funded court hearings.)  He also appears to have believed that the ruthless tendency of the county’s rural, and Republican-leaning, voters to do what they liked with their own land might best be tempered by a liberal and benevolent hand from city hall.  In October 2004, Sims and his council passed the impeccably Stalinist Critical Area Ordinance, which included the requirement that rural property owners keep 50 to 65 percent of their undeveloped land in its “natural state.”  Three initiatives to repeal the ordinance drew some 57,000 signatures, though, in a display of the listening government Sims had promised the electorate, a lawsuit filed by the county prevented the matter from being put to a vote.  The Washington Supreme Court went on to rule that the compelling need to “protect environmentally sensitive areas prohibit[s] public initiatives designed to overturn critical area ordinances.”  The leisurely appeals process continues.

When Sims made his emotional appearance in December 2008 in King County headquarters to announce his resignation to serve in Washington, D.C., he was hailed by the local media as a conquering hero.  His accomplishments scrolled across the state’s television screens on the evening news:

Operated annual budget of $4.9 billion . . .

Managed 13,500 employees . . .

Gained national recognition for his focus on climate change . . .

Brokered deal with BNSF Railway to open 42-mile trail-and-rail corridor . . .

Paid off “significant percentage” of the county debt.

Certain other statistics, which may have indicated that, under Sims, the average King County taxpayer did not thrive, were not mentioned.

As chief executive, Sims authorized lavishly expensive capital projects, including the building of the cross-county Brightwater Treatment Plant system.  The smell from the sewage facility is likely to linger in taxpayers’ nostrils for years, in more ways than one.  Initially budgeted at an impressive-enough $1.46 billion, it’s currently expected to cost around $1.75 billion, an “unfortunate hike,” as it was described to the public, of some 19 percent, or roughly the equivalent of $300 for every man, woman, and child in King County.  According to an October 2006 report by the county auditor’s office, a significant part of the overrun to date was the result of “poorly written contracts” and a “lack of proper oversight when authorizing changes” to the project’s design.  The auditor also noted that consultants were authorized to do additional work on Brightwater before contract amendments were negotiated and approved, and that files supposedly documenting these changes “were empty or incomplete.”  Sims remained unfazed by the ensuing public furor.  The county’s project managers had “responded appropriately and prudently to rising cost pressures,” he announced in a written statement, while acknowledging that “overall contract management needs to be improved to ensure full compliance with policies and procedures.”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties went on to give Sims an award for his negotiation of the Brightwater project, citing his “champion[ing] of the construction industry and the economy.”

Sims also engaged in a long-running series of disputes with King County landowners, prominent among them Armen Yousoufian.  In May 1997, Mr. Yousoufian, the owner of the University Plaza Hotel in downtown Seattle, requested documents from King County concerning the building and financing of Qwest Field, currently the home of the Seattle Seahawks NFL franchise.  It took Sims’ office nearly four years to comply.  In the meantime, You­soufian sued King County for the delay and, in 2005, was awarded $253,000 in attorneys’ fees and a further $123,000 compensation for what Judge Michael Hayden called the county’s “flout[ing] of a legitimate public-records request.”  Although the judge characterized King County’s overall performance in the matter as “gross negligence,” Sims was apparently unperturbed.  “We note that there was never a finding of bad faith on our part,” he announced through a spokesman.  Speaking to a Washington, D.C., television reporter at the time of his HUD confirmation hearings in April 2009, Sims added, “I was not fined [in the You­soufian case] . . . There is nothing in the record at all involving me personally.  I was never involved in that at all.  There’s nothing—nothing regarding my conduct.”  But, as Kevin Mooney reported in the Washington Examiner, court records would seem to contradict this statement: “‘The Office of Ron Sims, King County Executive’ was listed as the respondent.”  (Nearly a year after Sims assumed office as HUD deputy secretary, the Washington Supreme Court increased the fine on King County to $371,340, plus legal fees.)

Sims championed and then dropped two air-travel initiatives likely to prove ruinously expensive in the long term.  In July 2005, Sims opened discussions first with Southwest and then with Alaska Airlines to move their operations from Sea-Tac International Airport to the county-owned Boeing Field.  Three months later, Sims axed both proposals after discovering that they would have involved “traffic and noise threshold issues” not previously considered.  According to Sims’ chief of staff, Kurt Triplett, the county had spent “about $100,000” to evaluate the move.  Expressing disappointment at the outcome, the chief executive of Southwest noted that his airline would “reluctantly search for alternative airports [or] institute flight cuts” if running costs at Sea-Tac continued to escalate.  In a separate development, officials of the Boeing Company, having complained for years about the long building-permit delays and high property taxes involved in doing business in King County, announced in 2000 that they were moving their corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago.  In contrast to what was characterized as King County’s “extortionate” demands on the company, Cook County and the state of Illinois welcomed Boeing with $45 million in tax breaks, an additional $24 million in county property-tax relief, and a one-off $2 million relocation gift.  Sims responded with another sanguine announcement, remarking that the departure of the administrative arm (to be followed, many felt, by its manufacturing plants) of the 15th-highest-ranked company on the Fortune 500 list was “not a crisis” for the King County economy.

In November 1994, Sims, acknowledging that the elections held midway through President Bill Clinton’s first term in office were “a tough time to run,” decided to challenge the Republican incumbent Slade Gorton for the U.S. Senate.  This bold expedient failed to unseat Senator Gorton, but it significantly raised Sims’ national profile.  “I didn’t run away from Bill Clinton as president, and it served me well when I [was appointed] County Executive,” he noted.  (The outgoing executive who nominated Sims was Gary Locke, currently the U.S. Commerce Secretary).  Ten years later, Sims sought the Democratic nomination for governor.  After announcing his intention to introduce a graduated state income tax, he lost the primary to then-State Attorney General “Chris” Gregoire.  Sims later blamed his loss on racism.  Mrs. Gregoire went on to win the race for governor narrowly, overcoming her Republican opponent after King County election supervisors announced that they had erroneously rejected 573 ballots because “officials [had] previously failed to locate their signatures” on registration cards held at County Hall.  The same officials, who have been criticized for mistakes in this and previous elections, then said that they had found an additional 150 ballots that had not been counted at all.  Sims and his election board went to court to have those ballots included in the tally during a hand recount, and ultimately won their case in the state Supreme Court: Mrs. Gregoire was said to have won the race for governor by 129 votes out of some three million cast.

For 25 years, Ron Sims has proved to be an erudite, persuasive, and ideologically dogged political operator whose undoubted gifts have twice caught the eye of a chief executive: first in 1996, when the governor of Washington appointed him King County executive, and more recently when the Obama transition team tapped him for his current job at HUD, where he oversees 8,500 employees and an annual operating budget of $39 billion.  That makes Sims one of the chief custodians of a welfare state so expensive that it can no longer be supported out of normal taxation, but must apparently rely on asset sales and heavy long-term borrowing to meet its bills.  I await his future career with interest.