When Dow Constantine visited a Seattle brain research center in 2014, he experienced a revelation. Over the course of nearly two decades in public office, the 55-year-old Constantine had worked to address problems with violent crime, drug addiction and the correctional system. Now, as King County executive, he saw a way to use the latest science to prevent social pathologies from developing in the first place. “It all crystallized for me,” he says. “These were fundamental investments that we needed to make in order that we might avoid the later problems and later costs that I had been dealing with all these years.”
The result has been Best Starts for Kids, a comprehensive countywide initiative aimed at assisting parents and their children starting in the earliest months of life. Efforts encompass a wide variety of interventions, from developmental health screenings to home visits. To fund the programs, Constantine lobbied voters to approve a tax levy providing $400 million in revenue over six years. Most notably, the county’s localities agreed to let scientific research and regular reevaluation drive expenditures, rather than taking the usual approach of basing allocations on political boundary lines.
Best Starts is the latest in a long list of ambitious initiatives Constantine has pursued as county executive. A reduced-fare public transit program known as ORCA Lift provides discounts for low-income residents, one of the few such large-scale programs in the country. Less than two years after its launch, more than 35,000 riders had signed up. Following passage of the Affordable Care Act, the county formed a network of nonprofits, businesses and public agencies that helped cut its adult uninsured rate by more than half.
Managing King County is no small task. It’s one of the nation’s most populous counties, with 39 cities, including Seattle, and a diverse set of demographics. Constantine has often relied on partnerships to help implement his initiatives, as was the case with health insurance enrollment and ORCA Lift. “He’s been very effective in building constituencies and coalitions,” says Peter May, a University of Washington political science professor. “He really understands the nexus between policy, politics and implementation.”
Constantine, who lives in the same West Seattle neighborhood where he grew up, has been involved in local politics since joining a preservation effort as a law school student in the 1980s.
Shortly after he took office in 2009, Constantine tapped one of his election opponents to help push Lean management, a set of practices borrowed from the private sector emphasizing continuous improvements to enhance efficiency and quality of services. By strengthening collaboration between jail detention staff and health services personnel, for instance, the county reduced the number of inmates on round-the-clock suicide watch by 90 percent. Reforms to the county’s animal services division led to similarly drastic reductions in euthanasia rates.
King County faces a complex array of challenges. The region’s rapid growth has driven up housing costs, pushed less affluent families farther away from job opportunities and hindered mobility. On that front, Constantine scored a major victory last month with the passage of a ballot measure providing an estimated $54 billion in funding to greatly extend light rail and bus transportation to unserved areas of the region. It’s one more effort pushed by Constantine that will fundamentally reshape King County in the years to come.
-- By Mike Maciag
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