At Mayor Denis Law’s retirement party, city staff created a video showing a clip from “Almost Live,” that made Renton the butt of a joke. But then city staff updated it, contrasting the images of dull buildings and undeveloped land in the “Almost Live” clip, to the new image of Renton under the mayor’s leadership.
In 12 years, Law faced economic downtown and prosperity, handling an exponential growth rate and redeveloping many parts of the city. But council and city staff who worked with Law said he kept the focus on financial stability and resident feedback.
Law and his wife, Patty Law, are moving into a home in Anacortes, but Law intends to stay connected to Renton, as recently elected Mayor Armondo Pavone takes over in 2020. He’s excited for retirement, but looks forward to coming back and staying involved.
When Law first moved to Renton, it was to start a newspaper publication, the Renton Reporter, and he owned Puget Sound Publishing Company before running for office. From there, he made relationships with local businesses and city officials. He quickly became a local leader in Renton. Councilmember Randy Corman said in the early days of the newspaper, Law’s goal was highlight more of the “good” stories in Renton, and build a sense of community.
Councilmember Ryan McIrvin moved to Renton after working on Law’s first mayoral campaign. Twelve years later, McIrvin feels Law fulfilled the promises he made on that first campaign, both in economics and public safety.
Public safety was something on Law’s mind before running for office. As a newspaper publisher and photographer, he documented the work of first responders and developed a passion for it. Staff often joke that Law is a first responder— he was always one of the first on the scene of a major crime, and listening to the police scanner in his office. His passion for the work of law enforcement made him an advocate for Renton Police Department. When he campaigned as mayor, he made public safety a top priority.
Before he was police chief, Ed VanValey said he always heard about Law supporting the department. And early on, he saw Law at different crime scenes. He realized as deputy chief how involved Law was, and how he wanted Renton to be a regional leader. The mayor led a total change in the police departmen, VanValey said.
“I think his legacy is a community that feels safe and employees that really enjoy their job,” VanValey said.
A large part of the change in Renton’s police reputation was part of the mayor and council. Law has always been there to talk during police incidents and emergencies, VanValey said.
In cases of other non-police emergencies, like sinkholes, Public Works Administrator Gregg Zimmerman said Law was also arriving on the scene, often before Zimmerman was.
“He took everything very personally, if it happened in the city of Renton, it was his responsibility,” he said.
Zimmerman said Law has always been fair-minded in negotiations and working with staff.
Like other administrator’s, Community and Economic Development (CED) Chip Vincent said Law changed the culture of his department. The city has received seven Governor’s Smart Communities Awards for the development and planning taking place in Renton, all under Law’s leadership. When the recession hit after Law was elected, he used his skills as a shrewd businessperson to navigate it, then used those skills again to keep the city fiscally conservative and selective with development projects. Vincent said Law wanted to make sure all the projects proposed for the city were evaluated by community feedback.
He also improved the workforce culture in the city. Cities don’t have the same financial incentive to provide customer service as a business, but Zimmerman said Law helped create a competitive drive to offer better services.
“(He’s) a lot of the reason Renton has progressed from a city where, 30 years ago it didn’t have a lot to recommend in services, it was chaotic,” Zimmerman said. “(Law) set an example of how when you get a priority you stick to it until you get it accomplished. Along with his ability to work with the other branch of government, the council always trusted the mayor implicitly.”
For council, the relationship with the mayor was one of little drama. Corman said Law would check on them individually to see if they felt council goals were being met. Even in heated disputes, Law gave time for Corman and other councilmembers to state their case.
Councilmember Ruth Pérez said Law always had the best interest of the council at heart. She said the leadership culture has been about serving Renton, not about personal agendas, under Law. And his sense of humor helped build the team, which is important in leadership. Being in public service is hard work, and Law was dedicated to the city. He was a real “full-time” mayor, Pérez said. Residents also felt comfortable talking to him.
Before Councilmember Ed Prince was on council, he said Law was always approachable as a mayor. Prince was able to sit down with him and talk about issues, and that openness continued as Prince joined council. He said he will miss the moments where he saw his humor, grace and class.
Vincent, who Law hired when he was first elected as mayor, said it hasn’t been easy to say goodbye.
“As a professional working in CED, I am an agent of change. But it turns out I don’t like change, especially when it comes to saying goodbye,” Vincent said. “Myself and the department are very grateful for the last 12 years.”
In an interview when Law first announced his retirement, he told Renton Reporter some of his main priorities in his last year was seniors, public safety, code enforcement and the Family First Community Center (FFCC). Those topics were address this year and in early 2020 with initiatives, new equipment for police, policy changes and imminent construction of the FFCC, as well as commitment to the Inclusion Task Force.
Governing a high population area is challenging, Law said. It will keep being hard and complex, but he feels confident Pavone and the councilmembers will remain committed to improving the quality of life for those who live and work in Renton.
Law said the years in Renton have gone by fast, and, while there’s been challenges, he has great memories.
“My experience has been great because I’ve been surrounded by top-notch administrators along with a city council that we all shared the same goals,” Law said. “Being the mayor of a city is not only an honor, but it’s something I didn’t anticipate. Having done it, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”