Ron Sims spent more than 20 years in King County government, first as a member of the King County Council elected in 1985 and then as King County Executive since 1996. Sims guided the county government's transition from a mission of primarily serving residents of unincorporated areas to that of a regional authority for growth management, mass transit, environmental stewardship, and water quality. For 10 years Sims held the highest and most powerful post yet attained by an African American in Washington. In February 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Ron Sims to serve as deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). On May 8, 2009, he was sworn in and began his new job.
Ronald Cordell Sims was one of twin sons born on July 5, 1948, to James McCormick Sims and Lydia T. Ramsey Sims. His parents, both natives of New Jersey, had moved to Spokane during World War II, when his father, a member of the Army Air Force, was assigned to Geiger Air Field. The family was among the relatively few African Americans in what was then a nearly all-white city.
After leaving the military, Sims's father -- a highly accomplished man with a degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania -- applied for a job with the state Office of Community Development. He was denied a position, despite being rated number one on the civil service exam for several years in a row. With the help of famed Spokane civil rights attorney Carl Maxey, he sued the state, prevailed, and was hired as a social worker. He later became a union activist for state employees. Sims's mother worked as a desk clerk at the Young Women’s Christian Association. She was eventually appointed human resources director for the city of Spokane -- the first African American department head in the city’s history.
Sims and his siblings (his twin, Donald Cornell Sims, and their older brother, James McCormick Sims Jr.) grew up in a home in which religion and the quest for social justice were equally strong influences. Their father was a pianist and lay minister at the Calvary Baptist Church. He taught a Sunday school class, lacing it with black history. Both parents served as presidents of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), alternating the position for 17 years.
Sims often marched in civil rights demonstrations with them. "One time I got spit on," he says. "I hit the guy, and my father got mad at me. He told me to never be as small as the person that hated me. I’ll never forget that." (Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken from Cassandra Tate's interview of Mr. Sims.)
The family lived in the Garden Springs housing project in west Spokane until it was torn down in 1954. "Garden Springs was where all the war families came from, all the outsiders," Sims says. When his parents bought their first house, in 1960, discriminatory housing practices "redlined" them into the South End, into a mixed-race neighborhood. “If you were Jewish, African American, Japanese, or Chinese, you lived in that neighborhood,” Sims recalls, and it taught him how to get along with people of diverse backgrounds.
Sims entered Central Washington State College (now University) in 1966, after graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane. He soon became involved in campus politics. He wrote a satirical column called “The Emancipator” for the campus newspaper and made a name for himself as someone who was willing to question authority. In one case, he challenged sociology professors who routinely graded black students less rigorously than they did whites. "I said that was a disservice to black students, that black students need to be held to a high standard, not the lowest standard possible," says Sims. He was elected vice president of the student body in his junior year, and student body president in his senior year.
Sims graduated from Central in 1971 with a degree in psychology. He gave serious thought to entering a seminary to study for the ministry, but instead moved to Seattle. He worked as an investigator in the consumer-protection division of State Attorney General Slade Gorton (b. 1928) and later held a similar position with the Federal Trade Commission. He says his training in psychology proved useful in his work as a fraud investigator. "I had a knack for it," he says. "I could know how people cheat."
In 1973, Sims married Joyce Finney, whom he met while working briefly for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington, D.C. They had two sons, Douglas McCormick Sims (born in 1978) and Daniel Cordell Sims (born in 1980) before divorcing in 1986. They continued to share custody of the boys.
Sims later married Carol Ann “Cayan” Topacio, a Filipina American who was an assistant director in Seattle’s economic development program. She worked later as an energy specialist with the Bonneville Power Administration and in local theater. Their son, Aaron James Topacio Sims, was born in 1988.
Sims left the FTC to become manager of youth services for the City of Seattle’s Department of Human Resources in 1979. He later headed South East Effective Development (SEED), a neighborhood organization focused on economic development and social equity in southeast Seattle.
Sims made his first bid for elected office in 1981, when he challenged the incumbent King County Council Member Ruby Chow (1920-2008), a powerful political and business leader in Seattle's Chinese community. He was soundly defeated in the primary. He later attributed his loss in part to failing to mobilize African Americans in the district. “The black community didn’t know I was black.”
After the election, he became a staff assistant to George Fleming (b. 1937), a Seattle Democrat, Washington’s first African American State Senator, and served him for four years. “He was an incredible mentor,” Sims says of Fleming.
When Ruby Chow retired from her County Council seat in 1985, Sims was among five Democratic candidates -- including Chow's daughter Cheryl Chow (1946-2013), who later served on the Seattle City Council and Seattle School Board. He won the primary and the general election against a token Republican, becoming the first African American elected to county government in Washington.
On the Council, Sims quickly established himself as an advocate for civil rights, leading the campaign to "rename" King County in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rather than its original eponym, U.S. Senator William Rubus de Vane King, an Alabama slaveholder who died days after being sworn in as Vice President in 1853. Sims also championed more substantive issues such computerizing the police fingerprint identification system, construction of the transit tunnel through downtown Seattle, and greater intergovernmental cooperation.
Sims and his frequent ally on the council -- Republican Bruce C. Laing (b. 1932) -- were among the first politicians in the Northwest to call for governmental responses to the problems created by global climate change. He says he was galvanized by a television documentary about “the greenhouse effect” in the late 1980s. "I said, 'Bruce, I think we need to worry about it, I think it's real,' " he recalled. "The glaciers were going to melt, the seas were going to get higher, the place was going to get warmer. What does it all mean to us in King County?" (The Seattle Times, 2006).
In 1988, the two co-sponsored a measure to establish a King County Office of Science and Technology to study the effects of global warming on the local economy and environment. “I don't think anyone disputes the reality of the greenhouse effect,” Sims said at the time. "It is incumbent upon government to develop solutions before we have a crisis" (The Seattle Times, 1988).
The reaction ranged from derisive to indifferent. The Seattle Times mocked the proposal as "political hot air," accusing Sims and Laing of using "the sky-is-falling, icecaps-are-melting, oceans-are-rising rhetoric." By the early 2000s, the laughter had died down. Sims is now an acknowledged leader on global warming policy and established a climate-response planning team, charged with activities very similar to those he and Laing envisioned nearly 20 years ago.
Dreams of Higher Office
Sims easily won election to a second term on the county council in 1989 and ran unopposed for a third term in 1993. The next year, he won the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Slade Gorton (his former employer) for the U.S. Senate. Gorton held onto the seat with 55 percent of the vote to Sims's 44 percent. He attributes his loss partly to timing. Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, mid-way through President Bill Clinton’s first term in office. “It was actually the wrong year to run. But I didn’t run away from Bill Clinton as president, and it served me very well when I became County Executive.”
Sims was appointed King County Executive in November 1996, after then-Executive Gary Locke (b. 1950) was elected governor. He stood for election the following November, defeating Republican Suzette Cooke, and was re-elected by wide margins in 2001 and 2005.
In 2004, he made his second try for statewide office by seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. He ran an issue-oriented campaign, driving hard on such matters as tax reform and environmental protection. He committed what many pundits regarded as an act of political suicide by calling for a graduated state income tax. Sims says his own polling indicated it wasn’t taxes but the issue of an urban African American's “electability” that doomed his campaign. He lost the nomination to then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), who went on to a razor-thin (and highly contested) victory over Republican Dino Rossi (b. 1959).
Still Shaking Up the Status Quo
As County Executive, Ron Sims was arguably the state’s second most important elected official, after the governor. His $170,000-a-year job involves running a county that, with a population of 1.8 million, is home to 30 percent of all the people living in the state and provides 40 percent of all its jobs. During his years of office, Sims presided over a metropolitan community in flux.
Municipal incorporations and annexations dramatically shrunk the area and population directly served by county government and also the revenues paid directly to it. Combined with the dot-com bust, this contraction caused the County to sell or lease several major parks and to reduce other services. Spending cuts angered some county employees, notably corrections officers. Sims had has failures, too, including multi-million-dollar cost overruns, delays in establishing a new county computer system, and an expensive and embarrassing meltdown of the King County Elections Office in tabulating the 2004 election results.
At the same time, King County expanded its role as a regional authority under Sims's watch. It successfully assimilated the previously independent water quality and transit duties of Metro, strengthened growth-management controls, and led a multi-county response to the 1999 listings of Puget Sound salmon stocks under the federal Endangered Species Act. Sims was in the vanguard of spearheading the resurrection of Sound Transit from a nearly fatal administrative and fiscal crisis in 2000, dispersing county facilities and services, particularly for criminal justice, and advancing controversial plans in 2005 to develop Boeing Field as a regional passenger airport, and in 2006 to trade to the Port of Seattle for rail-trail corridors east of Lake Washington.
A lay Baptist minister (later "ordained" by the Rev. Sam McKinney), Sims is committed personally and politically to social justice issues. King County has been a leader in AIDS prevention and education, among other public health issues, and in addressing homelessness. He is a regular participant in "Night Watch" ministries to transients and street people.
Sims's firmness in protecting farmlands, forests, and other rural areas from suburban sprawl has earned him opposition from property-rights groups, real-estate developers, and home builders. At the same time, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties gave him an award for his work in negotiating construction of the $1.48 billion Brightwater sewage treatment project at Maltby in Snohomish County. It called him “a champion for the economy and the environment” (The Seattle Times, 2006).
Ron Sims gives his parents credit for his political acumen, moral compass, and creative energy. “They refused to accept the status quo,” he says. “They dreamed of a place where you’d be able to send a kid to whatever school you wanted, you’d be able to buy a house wherever you could afford -- which people were telling them was impossible and yet within their lifetimes, occurred.” Their example “gave me the ability to think very comfortably about doing new things."