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From school house to State House and beyond | Fred Jarrett began political career on MI

State Sen. Fred Jarrett talks to riders during the opening of the Light Rail on July 18 in Seattle. - Bellevue Reporter
State Sen. Fred Jarrett talks to riders during the opening of the Light Rail on July 18 in Seattle.
— image credit: Bellevue Reporter

Every once and a while, Mercer Island produces a name that everyone remembers. State Sen. Fred Jarrett is one of those names.

A top contender for King County Executive, Jarrett began his political career on Mercer Island, representing the City Council and School Board.

He first joined the City Council in 1979. After serving for five years, the Island resident ran for city mayor in 1984. He won. Then he was re-elected for a second term, serving until 1987. It was these years, Jarrett said, that proved seminal to his political career later on, as a state representative for Mercer Island in Olympia. And it was his local experience serving here, he said, that has given him confidence in his current bid to become King County’s next executive.

“Mercer Island has always been a great place to be an elected official. We’ve had the good fortune of having elected officials becoming successful as regional figures — Judy Clibborn, Elliot Newman, Alan Merkle,” Jarrett said. “I have city experience that nobody else [in the King County executive race] does. I have this because of my experience on the Mercer Island City Council.”

This week, Island residents will send in their Aug. 18 primary ballots for King County executive. The race is a close one. Jarrett’s top contenders are former KIRO news anchor Susan Hutchison, State Sen. Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, King County Councilmembers Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips. Also running are disbarred attorney and physicist Stan Lippmann, former municipal public-works director Alan Lobdell, and local investor Goodspaceguy.

Jarrett, 59, has spent nearly his entire life on Mercer Island. He graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1967 and currently lives on the North end with his wife, Susan. He cares deeply about the community, which has helped shape the public figure who he is today, Jarrett said. And he looks back at his years as Island mayor with warm nostalgia.

“Judy [Clibborn] and I have always said, the [Mercer Island] City Council of the late ’80s and early ’90s was Camelot,” Jarrett said, referring to the years that he and Clibborn worked together on the Council. “The thing I’m absolutely most proud of is the work I did as mayor to heal the Council. In the beginning, we had a very divided Council. Councilmembers wouldn’t talk over the four-three split. By my last term as mayor, we were working together. We delivered more in those six years than in the previous 25. That was an incredible success.”

Alan Merkle, a former Councilmember and Island mayor who has worked with Jarrett “in a number of capacities,” agreed.

“I’ve observed Fred on the School Board when I was mayor. I’ve worked with and around him as a state representative and state senator, and I’ve found him to be very thoughtful and analytical in approaching complex issues,” Merkle said.

The former Island mayor acknowledged the fact that Jarrett has been criticized in the press for being excessively wordy or erudite when speaking in the Legislature. However, Merkle defends this characteristic.

“There’s been lots written about Fred being a little wordy. What I’m convinced of is that he is often the most thoughtful person in the room. He doesn’t just give the easy, obvious answer like a lot of electives do. He really goes deep.”

Indeed, Jarrett is no small-town politician. With four terms in the state House, the former Island mayor knows what it is like to be a little fish in a big pond. And he is coming to realize that he may prefer the alternative. This is one reason, Jarrett said, that he is running for King County executive.

“It’s the difference between one and 147. In the Legislature, you’re one of 147. When you’re King County executive, your one of one, and so I have a lot more influence,” he explained.

Of course, it’s not only about the numbers. Jarrett had continually expressed — to the press, throughout his campaign, in public debate — his adamant determination to “make government work,” wherever he is.

“My interest has always been in making government work —- making it relevant to communities and improving people’s lives,” said the legislator, who switched from representing the Republican Party to the Democratic Party a few years ago because “it has been far more welcoming and open to a diversity of viewpoints.”

Asked about his political flip, Jarrett downplayed its significance.

“Governance is not an ideological form, but something [with which] to build better communities. How do we keep the parks clean and the buses running on time? Those are the real questions,” he said.

One of Jarrett’s highest priorities, if elected King County executive, will be to strengthen the county’s broken budget plan.

“The county’s lurched from budget crisis to budget crisis. It’s time to think through management and management practices,” he said. “Essentially, the idea is you don’t have revenue problems, but spending problems.”

Rather than increase county taxes — a mistake he said previous executives have made — Jarrett will focus on delivering county services at lower costs. He wants to slow new programs, put the passenger-only ferry system on hold, control employee health care costs and reduce excessive overhead costs.

This budgetary recipe worked at the municipal level, the former Island mayor said. And his tactics also proved effective in his business career.

Indeed, Jarrett has gleaned much from working in the private sector. A 35-year employee of Boeing, the Islander worked his way up from company cost accountant to a Boeing project manager. He believes that this experience, in tandem with his role in city governance, puts him above the competition.

“Talking what I’ve learned on both sides — public and private — and moving it back and forth, this makes me uniquely qualified to lead King County. Nobody else has this broad set of experience,” Jarrett said.

King County primary ballots are due on Aug. 18. For more information, visit: www.kingcounty.gov/elections.aspx.

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