Ferrell alters Federal Way politics again | Bob Roegner

Jim Ferrell, a Federal Way City Councilman, helped lead the 2009 effort to change Federal Way
Jim Ferrell, a Federal Way City Councilman, helped lead the 2009 effort to change Federal Way's form of government to include a strong elected mayor.
— image credit: File photo

Jim Ferrell has been one of the most visible and intriguing public officials in Federal Way for over a decade.

Like most people, he has many sides that contain different and sometimes competing thoughts and goals. It was that inner conflict over public policy, and his own future, that likely led Ferrell to officially switch to the Democrat Party this month.

It is a switch that could dramatically alter local politics.

Ferrell brings the intelligence and preparation to the public debate that you would expect from a prosecuting attorney. His skill was particularly evident in leading the questioning of Sound Transit staff on light rail. Ferrell can also be occasionally confounding to his peers — and those that lean toward the comfort of predictable stability — with his Huey Long populist streak that has sought to remake city government and suggests an ambition beyond his membership on the Federal Way City Council. This is most recently evident in his Quixote tilting of the windmills over term limits.

The former University of Washington football player can be bold and assertive as he was in leading the effort to change the form of city government from a city manager system to one led by a strong mayor.

He can also be surprisingly cautious, as he was when he ran for mayor against Skip Priest. Even though Ferrell felt the city needed a more active leadership model than Priest’s status quo style, he never really drew the hard stark lines of difference that are part of today’s political climate. This might have made the difference in the race. Ferrell and Priest came from the same party, had many of the same friends and supporters, and those relationships appear to have weighed heavily on the strategy Ferrell chose.

Even in his new role as deputy mayor with a ready-made pulpit, his policy disagreements with the Priest administration — and there are several — have been low key, understated and even hesitant.

Ferrell started his political career at a young age by serving as a White House intern. He earned his political stripes as a local precinct officer and as a county party vice-chairman. He was a candidate for appointment to a vacant state Senate seat, and later ran for the state Legislature. He attended national conventions and considered running for Congress. He did this all as a Republican.

But last week, it all changed as Ferrell acted on an emotional pull some had seen unfolding for more than a year. He resigned from the Republican Party and became a Democrat. Switching parties isn’t as uncommon as it once was and might have been treated with a shoulder shrug if it involved most other members of local non-partisan city councils. But Ferrell isn’t just another office holder. He has been elected to the city council three times, and is the second highest ranking official in one of the largest cities in King County. Jim Ferrell is perceived by many to have ambitions that far exceed the Federal Way city limits.

In switching parties, Ferrell was moving to resolve the inner conflicts he felt in how Republicans and Democrats approached our nation’s needs in energy, the environment, global climate change and women’s rights.

In Republican politics, the moderate view has been drowned out by trite conservative slogans, leaving little ground for compromise and unity Ferrell felt necessary.

When Ferrell was young, his father died, and government support made a difference in his family’s ability to manage. Programs that Republicans now want to end or alter had benefited his family, and him, and he felt he could help others as well. This put a strain on his relationship with the party. Ferrell feels like his party has left him, more than he left the party. He has found himself more in line with Democratic viewpoints.

The reaction from local Republicans was mixed. Anger, betrayal, shock, disbelief and disappointment were common terms of comment. But others were more circumspect and felt Ferrell had made a decision based on principle. Still, others were suspicious. One high ranking Republican, who noted he personally likes and respects Ferrell, said he “was disappointed, but it had all the markings” of a decision that would benefit Ferrell politically. Some Democrats were pleased, others wary.

There appears to be an element of truth in the view that this move was to some degree considered in the bigger picture of Ferrell’s political career, even though it is not linked to any immediate goal.

His political metamorphosis now complete and behind him, Ferrell can choose a path based on a new reality that provides different future options. By making the decision now, Ferrell somewhat reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the “political motivation” charge in any future run for office.

Though rarely coy, Ferrell wouldn’t confirm any specific game plan, but others have openly speculated about his options:

• Another run for mayor? This time he wouldn’t have to split Republican voters with Priest and could pick up Democratic voters.

• A run for Congress in the new strongly Democratic district if Democratic incumbent Adam Smith were to retire or join President Obama’s cabinet in a second term.

• Or what if State Sen. Tracey Eide decides not to run in two years? That could be a possibility.

All three, of course, have notable hurdles to surmount. Or Ferrell could be thinking of something else.

No matter what direction Ferrell chooses, he has altered local politics. Whether that is good, or whether it hurts or helps him, only time will tell.

At the beginning of the year, Jim Ferrell was predicted to be one of Federal Way’s 2012 key newsmakers. What happens next may be even more newsworthy.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.


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