Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has been thought to be coasting to an easy re-election. But every election has moments that have the potential to change the preconceived outcome. Such was the case two weeks ago when three unrelated situations created an opening for Susan Honda and may put Ferrell on the defensive in his race for re-election. First, Ferrell’s senior City Hall adviser, chief political adviser, campaign strategist and best friend Steve McNey’s personal life came into play as McNey’s girlfriend contacted Federal Way Police to file a complaint against him.
McNey says he immediately contacted Ferrell to let him know what had occurred and out of loyalty and friendship offered to resign, though he did not think the issue would go that far, nor did he believe it was a warranted resignation. McNey expected to be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of any investigation, as has occurred in several other cases in Federal Way. However, McNey said he talked with Ferrell again a couple of hours later and, during that conversation, he felt Ferrell was clear that he would fire him if he did not resign. He submitted his letter of resignation later that evening. Ferrell says McNey resigned from the beginning and that was the end of it.
McNey’s expectation of administrative leave pending an investigation is reasonable and is frequently how cases with high profile officials are handled. If the allegation were upheld McNey would likely be terminated.
However, to ensure an impartial review, it is standard policy to refer a matter of this nature to another jurisdiction. It was referred to Auburn the very next day where the prosecutor declined to file criminal charges.
The girlfriend posted comments on the Federal Way Mirror website supportive of McNey and tried to contact Ferrell, wanting him to reconsider and retain McNey. She also accused Ferrell of overreacting because it was an election year.
With political decisions likely taking priority, and absent any other reason from Ferrell, she may be right.
This is not your typical employer-employee relationship. Ferrell and McNey have been friends for 15 years, and Ferrell is godfather to one of McNey’s children.
McNey has managed some of Ferrell’s election campaigns, including the one to change the form of government so Ferrell could run for mayor. McNey’s primary job was to advance the mayor’s agenda.
Though not always possessed with a velvet glove, he was the chief problem solver and handled difficult situations for Ferrell. He served as an alter-ego confidant, and though not Ferrell’s campaign manger any longer, one could always see McNey’s hand in any election strategy. Decision making did seem to improve after McNey came aboard.
Now Ferrell is in the middle of a campaign without his best adviser on daily operations and his best political strategist.
Ferrell’s second problem was that his likely November opponent, Councilwoman Susan Honda, has raised some needed money and at the Mirror-sponsored debate performed better than some expected and challenged Ferrell on some points of disagreement in his record.
The third issue to surface was a major spat within the 30th District Democrats. What had been a below-the-radar disagreement over Democrat Ferrell’s selection of Republican Bob Celski as one of his campaign chairs, and his supporting Celski for the City Council against Democrat Jesse Johnson, suddenly exploded.
Ferrell had given a dual endorsement to Republican City Councilman Martin Moore and Democratic challenger Roger Flygare. But, apparently, he would not do the same for Johnson, which added to lingering questions about Ferrell’s party loyalty. Others believe, however, Ferrell may not want Johnson on the council as he may view Johnson as a future challenger for the mayor’s job.
Did Ferrell’s fear of the political implications of McNey’s personal life cause him to overreact to a situation that turned out to be considerably less troublesome than he first thought? If Ferrell hadn’t pushed McNey out, and with no charge by the prosecutor, the issue may have never made the newspaper and would not be the political problem for Ferrell that it has become. Many in the community liked McNey and note that even after the prosecutor determined there was no issue, Ferrell still did not reinstate McNey. Now McNey isn’t there to fix the problems, which came into play recently when Ferrell’s impulses got him engaged in a public email exchange with a commenter, something McNey had convinced Ferrell was not good for his image.
Most Democrats will likely still vote for Ferrell rather than Honda, but some of Johnson’s supporters may not be so charitable, and party activists do have long memories. Then consider, what if Johnson should beat Celski?
Ferrell is still the front runner and seems likely to win. But with two self-inflicted wounds, and without McNey, are possibly more to come?
Could these situations be the game-changer Honda needs? And if so, can Honda take advantage of them? It was the incumbent’s mistakes four years ago that propelled Ferrell to an upset win.
We will get a clue on primary night.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at email@example.com.