Jim Ferrell wants another term as mayor, but even after four years we still don’t know him very well, and he remains an enigma. He is noted for both his outgoing manner and his political calculation, as well as his stubbornness, ambition and quick temper. He is hard not to like, although he is a politician who weighs his movements and can play both sides of an issue to his advantage when it suits his needs.
In 2013, Mayor Skip Priest appeared unbeatable, but then, through a series of his own missteps, Priest suddenly became vulnerable and was upset by Ferrell. Priest lost the race more than Ferrell won it. Ferrell knows this and has spent much of his three and a half years in office positioning himself, and if a misstep occurs, repositioning himself, to reduce the possibility of joining Priest in the history books.
Formerly a Republican, he became a Democrat to avoid sharing the same base with Priest in their run for mayor, and he still tends to reflex as a conservative.
Ferrell assumed office in 2014, and though he had run against the Performing Arts and Event Center, even demanding a public vote on the project, he abandoned that position almost immediately after the election as he was outnumbered on the City Council and did not want to start his tenure with a loss. He formed a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel to mask his retreat and re-emerged as a PAEC supporter.
Then Weyerhaeuser left town for Seattle and sold its property to Industrial Realty Group. Ferrell was criticized for being asleep at the wheel, though he probably couldn’t have stopped the departure. He assigned his new chief of staff, Brian Wilson, to work with the new property owners to get some jobs onto the property before the 2017 election. Wilson, the former police chief, seemed far more comfortable in the black and white world of police work, less so in the gray areas associated with civilian management and politics. When Wilson and IRG came up with a fish-processing plant to occupy the property, Ferrell announced the news as a great gain for the city, seeming to forget the objective regulatory role he and the city held, and very much underestimating the negative political reactions from the neighbors and others that followed. The neighbors kept the political heat on, and months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering followed.
Then, in October of 2016, Ferrell’s staff released a list of criteria that the fish-processing plant would have to meet. It was a clear message that Ferrell had now switched sides and aligned himself more with the neighbors, and their voting strength, than with IRG and jobs. Though Ferrell failed in his attempt to place a moratorium on the property, he still won. While the move was both questionable management and financially risky, it was good politics for his re-election plans, and the City Council took most of the heat.
The fish-processing plant never happened. Even though the full use of the property is still an open question and the neighbors are still keeping a wary eye on City Hall, Ferrell has worked to have some of the land left as open space and some of the neighbors attended his re-election kick off.
Ferrell also showed his ability to play both sides in the homeless issue. He had impulsively agreed to support a day center for the homeless, which caused concern from some of his conservative supporters. While other cities advocated a socially conscious approach with housing, or tents along with support services, Ferrell went with the conservatives and had the camps closed and wanted the homeless run out of town. But as election year loomed he needed the liberal and moderate voters, so he followed through with his commitment to the day center, which opened recently. He followed that by appointing homeless advocate and council candidate Sharry Edwards, along with Councilwoman Susan Honda, who is also Ferrell’s mayoral opponent, to chair a Homeless Mothers and Children Initiative. He can claim a leadership role on the issue during the election, but he has put the responsibility on his opponent. And it will be several months after the election before the committee makes a report, and like other committees have found, if they want money to solve the problem Ferrell has tasked them with, there won’t be any. At the same time, Ferrell got the council to support a moratorium on apartments, which is usually the only place the homeless can find housing. That gave Ferrell two points on each side of the homeless issue.
Also, Ferrell had caused some difficulties in his new political party by giving the Key to the City to a well-connected moderate Republican candidate for the Legislature. He had also ruffled more feathers by appointing Republican Councilman Bob Celski as one of his re-election campaign chairs. His appointment of Democrat Edwards to the Homeless Mothers and Children Initiative not only helped repair some of the damage, but Edwards endorsed him, as did the district Democrats.
Ferrell never did stop running for office, and he has raised a significant amount of money. He also made a couple of strategic moves. When he became mayor he added Wilson as chief of staff and kept the incumbent communications director. In preparation for re-election, however, he wanted to bring a stronger political presence into decision making in the mayor’s office and moved his former campaign manager, Steve McNey, into the communications position.
Wilson’s style lacked the finesse that was sorely needed in some sensitive matters and caused difficulties with some of Ferrell’s allies, as well as undermined Ferrell’s claim of transparency with the public and media. The addition of McNey and the departure of Wilson were both perceived as positive political moves as election season neared.
Ferrell’s strength is not one of sophisticated management or even consistent philosophy of values and principles. But he does learn, and his style is calculated to add to his political base. His first impulse remains conservative, but with each misstep he recalibrates into a new position and seems to add more supporters than he loses.
Ferrell is the clear front-runner, but there are two sides to him, and that is his strength and weakness. Which side of Ferrell is running this year?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former Auburn mayor and retired public official. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.