Election Spotlight: Pierce County Executive

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tacoma Daily Index, Exit 133, and KXOT-FM 91.7 have collaborated on a project to interview each of the four candidates currently running for Pierce County Executive. The interviews will appear on the Web site and in the print edition of the Index, on the Web at http://www.exit133.com , and on KXOT.

The series begins today with Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan. Later installments will include Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, and Pierce County Councilmembers Shawn Bunney and Calvin Goings.

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It’s election year again, a time when traffic medians, front lawns, and billboards throughout Pierce County boast the names and party affiliations of dozens of local candidates running for office. Some tout Republican party candidates. Others boast Democratic candidates. Independents are included, too.

If you aren’t familiar with the Executive Excellence party, however, you aren’t alone.

It was created this year by Pierce County Executive candidate and Tacoma City Councilmember Mike Lonergan, who has been billing himself as a populist candidate with executive experience.

“I said when I first ran for City Council, and I’ve been in office for almost seven years now, ‘There are plenty of people who have the direct phone line to the city manager in Tacoma,'” explains Lonergan. “I would say there are plenty who have the direct phone line to the county executive, too. Who will be the candidate who will actually represent the average person in Tacoma? That’s Mike Lonergan.”

Lonergan is one of four people running for the position, which will be vacated by term-limited county executive John W. Ladenburg.

Whomever is elected in November, he or she will face a list of challenges: a projected $7 million revenue shortfall that has left the county government to consider a 1.5 per cent department-wide budget cut this year, and a three per cent cut next year; a criminal justice system that is overworked and overloaded; and a number of regional transportation challenges that touch the county: Will light rail ever extend from Sea-Tac to Tacoma? Are there enough incentives for Pierce County in the $17.9 billion Sound Transit proposal?

Many voters are familiar with Lonergan’s work at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, where he served as executive director for 12 years. He’s also in his second term as an at-large member on Tacoma City Council. He’s chairman of the Growth Management Policy Board, the Pierce County Regional Council, and Tacoma’s Government Performance and Finance Committee. He also serves on the boards of Pierce Transit Board, Pierce County Employment and Training, and the City’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee.

Lonergan recently discussed his candidacy, as well as his perspectives on a variety of issues this election year.

I thought it crystallized the reason I entered this race. Of the four candidates, there is one who has been a chief executive of a number of organizations over the years, who would bring the instincts you develop over time for the dozens of decisions that a chief executive faces every day that are different than a department head or legislator. It’s a different type of skill set that I have developed over a lifetime, and I offer that to Pierce County. People mostly are familiar with me as executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission for over 12 years. But I was in an executive capacity at other organizations in between, as well. The Tacoma Rescue Mission is a great example [of an] organization that was experiencing financial and internal organizational difficulties, image issues — some of the things government deals with today — and I was able to turn the organization around, leave it much better than I found it. That’s a unique set of circumstances because all of the other county executive candidates combined do not have the executive experience that I’ve been blessed to have.

I initially expressed interest in running as an independent. The reason is that I have been elected twice by increasing margins here in Tacoma to the City Council. I’m one of three at-large members, which means I don’t have a [single] district, I have the entire city as my district. In the most recent election, I received seven out of 10 votes citywide with serious opposition. Both times, I’ve had people campaigning against me. My thought was I would like those same people to support me. That would be my base of support for county executive. When you put an “R” or “D” after your name, then you make it more challenging for those people to vote for you who have supported you in the past. So I began running as an independent. What happened is I got calls from a number of people in the Republican party indicating they were not happy with the candidate they had. It was just a number of people in different outlying parts of the county saying, ‘You know, they don’t know you well enough out here to understand you are a fiscally responsible individual and share a lot of the values of the people out in Graham, Gig Harbor, or wherever the Republican [party] might be very strong. So you should run as a Republican.’ So I made that effort. I actually went this last spring to the Republican county convention, and there was a concerted effort at that point by the individual who wanted to be the only Republican [for county executive candidate] on the ballot to keep it that way. To make a long story short, there were a lot of politics involved. A lot of pressure and arm-twisting involved. When the dust cleared, I was one vote short of the required 40 per cent of those voting. You had to vote for one or the other. I got 39.9 percent. I went home. I always share this with people — the basis of my life is spiritual. I’m running for county executive as a calling. So I prayed about this. What I believe is that whole process of four out of 10 of the core of the Republican [voters] indicating they would prefer to support me over the other candidate actually strengthened rather than weakened me, and I received a lot of calls of support: ‘Don’t waiver. Don’t give up.’ That’s where the Executive Excellence party came out of.

About two years ago, it became clear to me that, obviously, John Ladenburg is term-limited. His time is up. Much of my involvement in Tacoma City Council has been representing Tacoma on a countywide and regional level. I chair the Pierce County Regional Council, which is made up of the mayors and councilmembers of all 21 cities and towns around the county. I’m also our representative to the executive board of the Puget Sound Regional Council — the four-county planning and transportation body — and they made me chair of the growth management policy board. I was in charge of developing the document that will guide the Central Puget Sound area until the year 2040, as far as where will people live and work, how will they get around. That’s called Vision 2040. It’s just a natural progression. I’m Vice Chair of the Pierce Transit board, for example. I’m on the employment and training board for the whole Pierce County region. So it’s just a natural progression. I am the right one to step into that position.

I spoke recently to a group of about 50 very knowledgeable business people at a breakfast. At the end of my remarks, I gave them a one-minute explanation of Ranked Choice Voting: Do you know that our names will not be on the Primary Ballot, but will only be on the Nov. 4 ballot? Do you know that you will choose your first, second, and third choice for county executive and other county seats? I asked how many knew that. Out of the 50 people, four hands went up. I think right now, most of the public knows they voted for something a couple years ago that was touted as a ‘no-pick-a-party’ Primary. They know they voted against the much-hated ‘pick-a-primary,’ but they didn’t realize what they voted for, and that it only involved Pierce County. It’s a very confusing issue. I’ve been getting so many calls from people saying, ‘Why isn’t your name on the Primary ballot?’ I think we have a lot of education to do about Ranked Choice Voting. They do say one of the strong reasons for promoting Ranked Choice Voting is it gives minor party and independent candidates a statistically better chance of winning the election.

County government is very dependent upon sales tax, real estate excise tax, property tax, and the economy. Thus, taxation — particularly sales tax — is cyclical. If you don’t grasp that simple concept, you are pretty much dead in the water in trying to budget for a government. Here in Tacoma, it wasn’t easy but those of us who came on the council seven years ago pushed hard for introducing fiscal discipline to the point that now we hired a city manager who speaks that language. We instituted budgets that built up our reserves. We’ve increased our credit rating by doing that. Also, we kept contingency funds for the council in the event of emergencies, which do arise — the unforeseen in each biennial budget period. And then we have fund balances. In other words, it isn’t a game to see if every department can spend everything they are allocated. Directors are rewarded and complimented for not spending every penny. These are kind of radical concepts to a lot of people in government. We see it at the state level. As soon as the economy even hiccuped, there began to be shortfalls where they had travel freezes and hiring freezes and so forth. The county is in the very same position. If you spend one-time money to make long-term commitments, you’re not going to be able to meet those long-term commitments when the one-time money dries up. That’s the situation county government finds itself in. You could almost say, ‘Why would anyone want to be county executive and step into that role?’ Again, I would say I’m the only person who several times in my life, in private businesses and non-profit organizations, has stepped into that role and applied disciplines and brought about financial stability, which is going to be the greatest need in county government here in the next couple years.

I would say that is not the right strategy. You could always say there’s one or two percent that can be withheld from a budget, or at least delayed. But there is no line item in any department’s budget that says ‘waste’ or ‘frivolous items.’ They are all there for a reason. I think the answer is prioritizing. What are the main purposes of county government? What is it there for? [Those things] you do not cut. You may even increase, as I’ve done in city government. Yet you learn to say no to some other things, which are simply the deep-pocket type of issues where people come to you because in good times you have the money. You have to be able to apply discipline. I don’t think what people call the peanut butter approach or meat ax approach — which was the old way of balancing the budget in Tacoma — I don’t think that should be applied to county government.

A very basic area where the county government has fallen short, and where a huge amount of the money is spent now but definitely could be better spent, is in the area of public safety. The whole court, sheriff, and jail system that eats up about three-fourths of the discretionary spending of county government is not producing very good results. The jail we built years ago has never been fully occupied for lack of staffing to actually fill all the new wing. As a result, we’ve heard about the catch-and-release system that is very discouraging to our city and county police officers. Take somebody who originally deserved to be placed in the jail, but only take their picture and fingerprints, and then turn them loose or actually give them a ride somewhere. That’s not sending the right message to make our county a safer county. We have to really dig deep in that. The county council did a performance audit, but I don’t think they’ve been quick at all to implement the findings of that audit. We have — as two of my three opponents are people who have been in the position for years — to address inexcusable inefficiencies in county government. We need somebody new to take a fresh look at that and actually take action. You need a strong executive who makes this a priority as opposed to some of the other things that are peripheral that have been made a priority in the last eight years. I believe the court is the biggest road block in this whole system. We keep adding superior court judges and commissioners. When you add them, you talk about adding a whole staff of bailiffs, court reporters, and so forth. But we’re not getting the results. Yes, there is a level of independence for the judiciary system as our governmental system works at all levels. But I think the county executive has to be the one who speaks for the system and says this is not good enough. We cannot have delays and backlogs where we are holding people in the jail taking up the space where we need the officers to be able to bring in and incarcerate somebody who needs to be taken off the streets. It’s just an inexcusable system that has been allowed to develop this way. Someone needs to light a fire under the system — both the courts and corrections — to make it work better. If the executive is not really seeing the urgency of that and representing the public whose paying for it, then who is? That is the job of the county executive, and that’s what I would do.

I can’t support the measure. There’s a great effort to get every elected official in lock-step in support of Sound Transit. I gave my strong feedback to Joni Earl, the director of Sound Transit, that they should not go to the ballot this year. They were misreading the results of the last election. Fifty-eight per cent of the people in Pierce County turned thumbs-down to the RTID effort. In this county, it was largely turned down, I believe, because people were not seeing the benefit to them for transit if they lived in many parts of the county which would not be close to the proposed light rail line from Tacoma to the airport. These billions of dollars can only be collected and spent once, really. I think there’s a limited appetite for transportation solutions in Pierce County. I’m not for adding a half a cent to our sales tax — taking our sales tax up way over nine cents on the dollar in order to work on primarily light rail that may by and by come to Pierce County, but at this point would not. Some people say, ‘Well, it’s bound to if you just support this.’ I don’t think it’s bound to. Once the King County interests have their needs met, they don’t necessarily have to vote for a future issue that would primarily benefit Pierce County or Snohomish County. Our current county executive said it looks like there’s enough here for Pierce County voters. That’s kind of damning it with faint praise, to use an old expression. We should be saying we fought for and got the things that Pierce County voters are demanding to the point they will clearly see they shouldn’t vote 58 percent against it. This time they should vote 58 percent or more in favor of it. I just do not think we are anywhere close to that. I don’t see the answer is hitching our transportation wagon to Sound Transit.

As county executive, I would take the lead in developing our own Regional Transportation Benefit District. We have been authorized by the Legislature to do that, but there has been a paralysis at the county level to go ahead and solve our problems, connect our centers. How do people get from Puyallup to Tacoma, from Lakewood to South Hill or wherever they want to get? How does our freight move, which is our life blood? Let’s get that Highway 167 and Cross Base Highway built. We don’t have to negotiate into a much larger package that primarily benefits our neighboring county. It’s time for us to stand on our own two feet. Every day I see this as vice chair of Pierce Transit. We have 200 requests for additional bus service per year in Pierce County. Some make sense, some don’t. I think the public would get behind it and support [a Regional Transportation Benefit District]. I wouldn’t try to sell something to people or paint it in a positive light. I would make sure it had enough real benefit in it for each and every voter to say, ‘Yeah, this is something I can vote for.’

When I was sworn into City Council, I actually felt there was a value to disclosure. Once I raised my right hand and the judge swore me in, I said, ‘I have a life verse.’ In other words, verses from the Bible that I base my life on. Proverbs 3: 5 and 6 — ‘Trust the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.’ I said when you see me making decisions here, it will be on the basis that I am trying to apply that. I am trying to do the right thing. It doesn’t have to do with I will favor people who believe like I believe, or I will somehow make everyone perform or behave in a certain way. That’s not what it’s about at all. But trust in government is of course extremely low at all levels of government. There’s a reason for that. Whether it has to do with someone lying about having an affair — that was just in the national news. Or a mayor has to be put in jail, which was also recently in the national news. Or somebody is taking very large sums of money in connection with votes they were taking, which was recently in the news. Just recently, across the county line, somebody entrusted to operate their own fire district, who apparently — allegedly — pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the organization. I mean, is there any wonder why people don’t trust government? I believe the one thing I can offer to people is that I’m not motivated by those things. I’m motivated in a different way. I’m motivated in what’s called ‘servant leadership.’ It’s a very effective form of leadership I’ve used all my life. I don’t mean I’ve arrived at some nirvana. I’m still learning and applying it. But you’re not there to exert your authority or benefit from your power. You’re there to serve the people who put you there and act in their behalf every day. That’s what I would wake up doing. What is it the people in Pierce County most need me to make happen today?

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This feature also appears on Exit 133. For an online discussion of this story, and a link to an audio interview with Lonergan, visit http://www.exit133.com/4611/an-interview-with-candidate-mike-lonergan .