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Wednesday, December 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:07 A.M.
Riding into the sunset
By Emily Heffter
Outgoing Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel moves through a room in a social whirlwind of backslaps and handshakes. The catalyst for the Puget Sound area's regionalist movement, the guy King County Executive Ron Sims compared last week to Moses greets people not as a political force but as a buddy.
A part-time cowboy from Arlington, Drewel, 57, is as comfortable playing auctioneer in a tuxedo at the Providence Everett Medical Center's Festival of Trees as he is opening the annual Evergreen State Fair rodeo in cowboy boots and jeans.
Described by supporters as approachable, affable and genuine, Drewel won three terms, serving 12 years as Snohomish County's leader. He's stepping down this month because of term limits.
During his time in office, Drewel amassed a staff of executive directors and spread his philosophy of teamwork throughout the Puget Sound area. Drewel's colleagues and supporters credit him with ensuring Snohomish County had a seat at the regional table.
"You don't have a discussion anymore and not talk about Snohomish County," Sims said.
Sims said regionalism couldn't have occurred in the Puget Sound area without other people, but he said Drewel was the "bandleader."
"You've still got to have your Moses," he said, referring to Drewel's leadership.
Former Drewel lobbyist Jim Hammond agreed that by insisting on a regional approach to issues, Drewel made sure Snohomish County had a voice.
While he worked to lift the county from obscurity, the county did the same for him. When Drewel sought the executive's office in 1991, he had been the president of Everett Community College and was known in Democratic Party circles and by locals in Everett. At that time, Drewel said, only 3 or 4 percent of people countywide recognized his name.
"He rose in those 12 years from an obscure politician who's taking over ... a relatively obscure county in Washington state" to the executive director of a regional authority, Hammond said.
Last week, Drewel accepted a $160,000-a-year job as director of the Puget Sound Regional Council.
But Drewel won't accept credit for the regional mindset that has governed transportation, business and growth planning in the Puget Sound area over the past decade. Drewel attributes his success to the way he empowered his staff: "Get out of the way and let them do their job."
A county in flux
Critics and supporters agree Drewel has directed Snohomish County through a period of dramatic change. He took over just as the first ships were tying up at the new Naval Station Everett, and he saw the county through major growth and the Legislature's controversial attempt to control it by passing the Growth Management Act. Drewel said he is most proud he was able to maintain human services and a good bond rating during hard economic times.
In the past several years, Drewel has been at the forefront of Washington's effort to retain a major Boeing presence in the county.
"He just really jumped on it, and together we went to ... King and Pierce counties," said Deborah Knutson, the executive director of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.
Knutson said Drewel also recognized that Snohomish County would have to be less dependent on Boeing in the future. He started learning about the biotech industry and other growth opportunities for the county, she said.
"I think he's been more than anything else just a great salesperson for Snohomish County," she said.
Drewel's style has drawn criticism. County Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish, called Drewel an "absentee executive" who doled out decision-making responsibilities to his appointed assistants, especially in his last term.
"Personally, I think he stayed in office four years too long," Sax said.
Drewel circumvented the council and made decisions with other governments based on handshakes instead of signed government-to-government agreements, Sax continued, citing the Brightwater sewage-treatment plant that King County plans to build in Sax's district.
"In some cases, he's just assumed the council would go along with some of his ideas," Sax said.
Despite Drewel's successes, County Council Chairman Gary Nelson, R-Edmonds, said he will remember Drewel's mistakes, among them an attempt several years ago to move some county offices to South Everett near Paine Field. Nelson opposed many of Drewel's budget and growth-management plans.
"I suspect that the one thing he'll be remembered for is his courageous approach to do things that perhaps were not that popular," Nelson said.
The two political foes met every Monday morning to discuss difficult issues, and Nelson said he appreciated that when there was disagreement, Drewel didn't hold a grudge.
Drewel is proud of the county's relationship with the Tulalip Tribes. Tribal spokesman John McCoy, a Democratic state representative, said last week that Drewel had played an important role in improving it.
Drewel didn't come into office with a full understanding of the government-to-government relationship that tribal leaders hoped for, McCoy said, but he listened with respect and eventually proved his integrity.
"We have a great respect for one another," McCoy said. "When we ask each other the tough questions, we know that there is no hidden agenda."
Drewel's classmates at Ingraham High School in Seattle voted him the graduate with the "best sense of humor."
Drewel's wife, Cheryl, said his optimism was what attracted her to him nearly 40 years ago.
"There's a lot of smart people in this world ... but what makes a person is how they can relate to other people," she said.
And yet Drewel will say little about himself.
"He has zero ego. ... There's no ego there at all. It's never been a Bob thing," his wife said.
Drewel learned to ride horses in the Tri-Cities, where he lived off and on with a family that grew alfalfa and grapes, he said.
Nearly every year of his administration, he and country singer and car dealer Gerry Andal have opened the Evergreen State Fair rodeo on horseback.
"I don't golf or have any other avocations," he said, and joked, "If people want to find me in a recreational mode, they have to walk through some stuff to get there."
Last weekend, Drewel rode his horse at the Bullriders Challenge rodeo at the Everett Events Center. Part of the proceeds benefited the EquiFriends horseback program for the disabled.
Drewel is known for his charity work. Last week alone, besides his rodeo appearance, he helped auction trees to help Providence Everett Medical Center and attended a Red Cross Heroes Breakfast.
In 2001 and 2002, he co-chaired the county's United Way campaigns, and he is involved in YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Snohomish County.
Drewel's 28-year-old daughter, Amy Drewel, said he taught her to care about people.
"For me, it's to always look at the good in a person ... and that everybody has a chance in life," she said. "Just giving one person a smile. I mean, that can make somebody's day."
Amy Drewel said her father lets elderly people go ahead of him in the grocery store, pumps gas for others, opens doors for people "that's what was instilled in us."
A graduate of the University of Washington, Drewel was president of Everett Community College for about seven years. He enjoyed the politics on campus board members are elected and began to consider running for office.
Since then, his wife and colleagues said, Snohomish County has been his life, and he has worked long hours to try to make the county better.
"He has a great deal of enthusiasm," said Gary Weikel, the deputy county executive. "He likes a quick answer. He doesn't like to listen to a lot of dialogue. ... He's a very quick study. He's great to work for."
Drewel paid a price for his demanding schedule in 1998, when he collapsed from exhaustion in his office. He was chairing both the Sound Transit board and the Puget Sound Regional Council. After his collapse, he resigned from his Sound Transit position.
He also had surgery for prostate cancer just after he was elected to his third term in 1999.
"In 20/20 hindsight, I think all of us ... may have taken a little different tack had we known the impact it was going to have on Bob's health," said state Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, who, as Pierce County executive, worked on regional issues with Drewel during the 1990s.
Fans of Drewel say his rise to regional prominence was inevitable. He made Snohomish County work, they said, and he became a valuable commodity.
His friendly personality helped, too. But those who worked with him said there was more than that.
"He's very gregarious," Sutherland said. "I think not only do you have to be accessible, you have to be able to listen."
Nelson said Drewel's friendly persona masks a sterner side.
"He can develop a firm position on things, (and) he doesn't demonstrate that in the public," Nelson said. "I think he wishes to have a reflection on him from the outside as being warm and cordial."
Drewel's office was full of half-packed boxes last week. Every time he ran for re-election, he said, people accused him of having bigger ambitions:
"He'll be around for a year, then he'll bolt for something better," they'd predict. But Drewel said he might have sought re-election again if he could.
Now he has bought a Toyota Camry for the commute to Seattle for his new job.
His legacy? "Let's see, at the end of the day ... " he said last week, "I think we have done way, way more good than bad."
Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or email@example.com
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