Renton relaxes under leadership of new mayor
By DEAN RADFORD
Renton Reporter Editor
June 27, 2008 · Updated 7:36 PM
Denis Law is certainly not a reluctant mayor.
But he gave deep thought to whether he would leave behind his decades-long career as a successful newspaper publisher to run for mayor of this city of about 80,000 people.
He found that tensions among various stakeholders in the city and on the City Council were preventing the important business of the city from getting done. A change in leadership was needed at the top, he reasoned.
The citizens of Renton agreed and the results are apparent, six months into Law’s first term as mayor.
Today, a certain serenity seems to have fallen over the city, a counterpoint to what was perhaps the most contentious mayoral race in recent memory last fall.
Maybe it’s also that political honeymoon most new mayors get to enjoy. Or maybe it’s just a matter of the personal style of the man who presides from the seventh floor of City Hall.
For sure, the man has no ego, something that’s rare for politicians. He readily admits he doesn’t like the pomp and circumstance of the Mayor’s Office, something that feeds the ego of other politicians.
“I am not that way,” he said.
Occasionally, however, he needs a little coaxing.
“Sometimes, we have to literally push him out the door,” said Jay Covington, the city’s chief administrative officer, who for nearly 20 years has worked for four mayors, starting with Earl Clymer.
Law still does the ceremonial parts of his job with seeming ease. But there are things higher on his priority list. Of course, he’s the CEO of a roughly $250 million service provider – the City of Renton.
One priority was to re-establish those connective tissues – the strong partnerships – that make Renton work. He has seen the “tone” in the city change.
“That was one of my priorities,” Law said. Relationships are important to him.
Law has an open door and many are walking through it. He’s getting out of the office to see his employees in their natural environment, their workplace. He’s reaching out to those who were turned off by the mayor’s race.
And, he’s watching out for the well-being of his constituents. He’s naturally a law-and-order mayor and making the community, including the Metro Transit Center, feel safe is one of his top priorities.
Not surprisingly, Law’s campaign got a financial jump-start with hefty donations from the labor groups that represent the city’s police and firefighters.
The community is tired of hearing that the city is committed to fighting crime and the perception of crime in downtown Renton, but then nothing gets done, he said.
“I can’t talk about it for four more years. The time for talking is over,” he said.
The police are noticing.
Michael Weisz, a patrol officer and president of the Renton Police Officers Guild, has patrolled the Metro Transit Center downtown. Law has been there, too, watching what was going on, he said.
“To me, that’s great, to see a mayor that involved in what’s going on in the community,” Weisz said.
Weisz said he can phone up Law to set up a coffee break to talk about issues. Next month, they’ll sit across from each other at the negotiating table when the city negotiates a new contract with guild members.
Weisz expects there could be some “sticking points,” which is typical in labor negotiations. He understands that Law is accountable to the citizens of Renton, but guild members have their “wants,” too.
Sometimes, they’ll just have to agree to disagree, which he said is possible with Law.
Right now, Weisz said there’s no area, such as staffing, budget or policy, where the city and Law are falling short. He said the city did a “tremendous job” hiring the police staff
annexed Benson Hill area.
The guild has about 150 members, both commissioned and non-commissioned employees, the largest number ever, according to Weisz, mostly because of the Benson Hill annexation.
There are other relationships that Law needs to tend, too.
How would the chairman of the Renton Chamber of Commerce board of directors describe Law’s relationship with the business community?
In one word, “excellent.”
“I think Denis is really in tune with the business community,” said the board chairman, Jay Leviton. That visibility also extends to Law’s staff, he said.
This is no facade, Leviton said. “This is just his management style,” he said.
Leviton is also a top Renton school official – the director of the Career and Life Skills Education program – who also sees Law’s collegiate style extend to the Renton School District.
Law, of course, isn’t new to the business community. He was the founding publisher of the Renton Reporter and Renton Magazine.
“I love that business,” he said.
He recently sold his company, Puget Sound Publishing, to Diana Kramer, his associate publisher, and her husband James Bavendam, who is the company’s vice president and general manager.
Law said it wasn’t fair to the couple to build “a successful publishing venture” for someone else.
Law’s election came on the heels of a tumultuous time on the City Council, and, perhaps, because of those times.
Law, 59, comes to the Mayor’s Office after serving one term on the City Council. He didn’t have unanimous support from council members.
Council member Terri Briere supported Mayor Kathy Keolker in her re-election bid.
“Kathy had done a good job,” Briere said. “I didn’t see a reason for change.”
The election campaign was a tough few months for the council after Law decided to run, she said. “It wasn’t very fun, because people were taking sides,” she said.
Relations now on the council are “fine,” Briere said, but she also thought those relationships were fine before Law decided to run.
After just six months, it’s too early to see the changes that Law will make, Briere said. “It has been pretty quiet and low key,” she said.
There have been changes in department heads, including the departure of Mike Bailey, the city’s finance director, she said. But she said Bailey didn’t leave because a new mayor came on board.
Is she seeing any “red flags” in the Mayor’s Office, at least in her view, that may cause concerns?
“No, not really,” she said.
Covington, the city’s top administrator, has watched – and guided – four mayors as they’ve made the transition to the city’s top elective office. After Earl Clymer, there was Jesse Tanner, Kathy Keolker and now Denis Law. It was easy to develop a working relationship with most, but with one, that effort took about a term, he said. He wouldn’t name anyone.
He called Law a “quick study,” able to assimilate information quickly.
If anything, Law can be a bit hands-on.
“He knows he needs to stay at the 30,000-foot level,” Covington said, of the over-arching policy level. Still, there are times when Law catches himself below that high altitude and “he goes back up,” Covington said.
There’s something that Covington finds “refreshing” about Law. “He really is devoid of an ego,” Covington said.
If, perhaps, Law was a bit reluctant about running for mayor, it doesn’t show now, said Covington.
“Now that he’s here, it’s about getting the work done,” Covington said.
He’s “more than willing” to collaborate with the City Council and does a “great job” complimenting and thanking the city’s staff, Covington said – and building and rebuilding the partnerships in Renton.
“It costs you nothing to thank someone for doing a good job,” said Law.
In setting that tone, Law has accomplished what he set out to do in his first six months.
Still, he expects controversy and angry e-mails and letters to the editor.
“We are going to hear that,” he said. “And that’s as it should be.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the city is declining revenue, coupled with costs that “are going up tremendously,” Law said.
But there is plenty on the upside, too.
“We have lots of opportunities. We have lots of challenges,” Law said.
Residents of the newly annexed Benson Hill area appreciate the increased police presence, he said. The owner of the Cascade Shopping Center is “highly motivated to redevelop that as a classy neighborhood shopping center,” he said. The city will help and support those efforts, he said.
Obviously, it’s too soon to say whether Law will run again.
But, it’s not about age, he said. He’ll be 63 when his first term ends. It’s about what he is accomplishing as mayor.
“After my four years, I want the public to feel like I have made a contribution to their quality of life,” he said.
Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.Contact Renton Reporter Editor Dean Radford at email@example.com or 1-425-255-3484 (ext 5050).