Conciliatory isn’t a word that comes to mind when Rob McKenna’s contemporaries talk about his nine years on the Metropolitan King County Council.
Smart, tenacious and iconoclastic is how some current and former elected county officials describe him, although those who opposed his positions add ideological.
McKenna, a Republican now running for governor, was first elected to the council in 1995 promising to take on the relentless growth in county property taxes and Sound Transit’s light rail proposal.
The two issues defined his tenure there.
He spearheaded efforts to restrain tax increases, leading to fights with other council members and former Democratic King County Executive Ron Sims that culminated in 2001 when members of his own party abandoned a budget crafted by McKenna to work with Democrats.
And McKenna’s persistent criticism of light rail, and warnings of budget overruns, turned out to be prescient, but ultimately got him kicked off Sound Transit’s board.
He was a force Democrats never took lightly. Sims would even hold “Rob sessions” with his staff to strategize ways to deal with McKenna.
“I remember saying sometimes that if you don’t have an alternative to him, then his alternative (becomes) what we should do,” Sims said.
Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, a Republican who supports McKenna for governor, recalled him as “iconoclastic, very change-oriented and not from the left, but from the right. He was very impatient for change. In the end, many of the things he advocated for happened.”
Democrats have a different take.
“The council gave him one significant leadership opportunity; that was the budget chair, and he was an unmitigated disaster compared to almost anybody else,” said longtime Councilman Larry Phillips, a Democrat and a Jay Inslee supporter.
McKenna was already creating a buzz in the Republican Party when first elected to the council at age 33.
He was an attorney at the Perkins Coie law firm in Bellevue and active in local politics, chairing the 41st District Republicans and working to elect local GOP candidates to office.
He ran as a more conservative replacement to retiring Republican Councilman Bruce Laing and campaigned against the county routinely raising property tax collections the maximum allowed under state law at the time.
“King County had been taking the full 6 percent (increase) without question year after year. It wasn’t even a debate on the council,” said former Republican Councilman Chris Vance, who later became the state GOP chairman.
“Rob McKenna came in and said, ‘No, we don’t need to be doing this.’ He changed the whole culture of the County Council and caused a huge fight,” Vance said. “I considered myself a fiscal conservative. Even I was like, ‘I don’t know, Rob, can we really do this?’”
Vance ended up following McKenna’s lead.
The debate heated up after voters statewide approved Referendum 47 in 1997, a measure McKenna supported that required a supermajority vote by a legislative body and “substantial need” to increase taxes more than inflation.
The following year, Sims proposed a bigger tax increase than allowed under R-47, and Vance and McKenna went on talk radio to attack the proposal. They also were instrumental in forming the Association of Taxpayers, which ran radio ads against the proposed tax hike.
The council ended up passing a compromise budget that raised taxes more than McKenna and Vance wanted but less than what Sims proposed. Vance and McKenna both voted no.
The battles continued in the following years, peaking in November 2001 when McKenna was in his second year as chairman of the council’s budget committee.
Newspaper reports at the time said the fight was largely over spending priorities. McKenna sought to protect funding for the courts and the Sheriff’s Office, while other council members also wanted dollars for such things as arts and environmental programs.
Republicans held a majority of seats, but Democrats were set to take control in January due to the fall elections. That’s when several Republicans decided to abandon McKenna to work with the Democrats.
The rift created an uproar on the council. “It’s like Afghanistan,” a lobbyist said at the time.
Sims recalls being approached by several Republican council members to sidestep McKenna on the budget negotiations.
“I told them you’re putting me in a very awkward spot. I said, ‘Do you want me to tell him?’ and they said, ‘No, you deal with us,’” Sims said. “I did.”
Phillips went with Republican Councilwoman Jane Hague to tell McKenna that he’d lost control of the budget. “He was ashen,” Phillips said.
Hague, who’s endorsed McKenna’s bid for governor, remembers things differently.McKenna was not sidelined, she argues.
“We took a lot of the principles that he had talked about and put it into a budget and got it written. He may not have agreed with all of it, but I think he generally was agreeable to it with a couple of exceptions,” Hague said.
That view is not supported by the recollections of other council members, newspaper articles or news releases.
Part of the budget fight, for example, was over a so-called “lollipop fund” that traditionally provided each council member with money to spread among social service, cultural and community organizations.
The three Republicans and five Democrats who voted for the alternate budget each got $90,000 to spend. The five council members who voted against the budget, including McKenna, got nothing. “Retribution, pure and simple,” McKenna said at the time. “It got personal.”
In a recent interview, McKenna said the budget fight was a case where he needed to stick to core values.
“In legislative process you have to be willing to compromise to get things done, but at some point you have to decide if a better option is to walk away because the compromise would violate your principles,” he said.
McKenna also says he stuck by his principles in the fight over light rail.
Long interested in transportation issues, he served on the Sound Transit board and was a constant irritant to the agency and light rail supporters.
He warned of cost overruns, worked with other opponents, and helped organize events to highlight problems. McKenna argued that an expanded Metro bus system and new services such as Bus Rapid Transit – which provides faster, more frequent service than traditional buses – is more cost-effective than light rail.
“I think Rob McKenna was on the side of the angels,” said Emory Bundy, another light rail opponent. “Because he was an elected official and active with Sound Transit, he had more of a prominent role than others of us did. We didn’t have that standing.”
Bundy said McKenna and other light rail critics were eventually proved right. In December 2000, Sound Transit officials acknowledged the agency was more than $1 billion over budget for its original plan to build light rail from the city of SeaTac to Seattle’s University District.
McKenna also claims credit for getting the U.S. inspector general to question the financial feasibility of Sound Transit’s plan in early 2001, which he contends forced the agency to come up with the more affordable system now being built.
Sound Transit did eventually revamp its light rail proposal, and in 2008 voters approved light rail expansions to reach both Lynnwood and Federal Way by 2023, and an east line to Bellevue and Overlake by 2021.
McKenna lost his seat on the agency’s board in December 2001.
Sims, who made the decision not to reappoint McKenna to the board, said he felt McKenna was trying to undermine the agency.
“I’ve never seen a person belong to an institution and want it not to exist,” Sims said in an interview. “Normally you just resign.”
Said McKenna, “It was a culture of everyone to be in the choir, and I just wouldn’t go along with that.”
Council members’ views on what McKenna’s years serving the county say about him as a leader break down along party lines.
“The one thing you have to understand about Rob, that I came to appreciate and did not at the time, is he stood his ground,” said von Reichbauer.
For his part, McKenna said he’s proud of his work on the King County Council.
As for his critics, he said, “You’ve got some extremely partisan individuals there who will make whatever argument they need to make to score political points.”Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.