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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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Aaron Reardon’s swift rise comes to an abrupt end

Aaron Reardon’s political career began with great promise, but apparently ends after he became the subject of scandal after scandal.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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To Aaron Reardon’s political allies and advisers, the apparent end of his political career was both premature and inevitable.

Just two years ago, the Snohomish County executive was considered a possible gubernatorial candidate. Now he’s the subject of so many investigations and scandals that any conversation about higher office is irrelevant, said one political consultant.

Since he entered politics in his late 20s, Reardon’s youth has been a handicap and the thing that made him remarkable. He was elected to the state House at 27 and became the state’s youngest county executive ever at 33. He made his
mistakes in public, and they ultimately caught up to him. Thursday, he calmly delivered the news of his resignation, effective May 31, reading the words from prepared remarks.

He left without further comment.

Reardon was born in Everett and raised in a mobile home. His mother left his father when he was 2. He tells the story of his first political act in the fifth grade, writing his congressman to protest when then-President Reagan categorized ketchup as a vegetable on school menus.

He studied political science and public administration at Central Washington University. That’s where he met Terry Thompson, a consultant who would become one of Reardon’s closest political advisers.

“He clearly stood out from the bunch,” said Thompson, who met Reardon in about 1990, when he was speaking to students about campaign work. “He was just very earnest and energetic. Something about him, when I saw him stand up and talk, I thought, ‘Well, who’s that guy? That guy’s pretty good.’ ”

Reardon married his college girlfriend, Kate, and moved back to Everett to start his political career. He was elected to the state House in 1998, where he served two terms before joining the state Senate in 2003.

His ambition grew at least in part from the high hopes people had for him.

“Aaron was good looking. He had a good-looking wife. He had a great family. He was not quite a conservative Democrat, but you know, right at center, and so he had ... a strong appeal to moderates and business people and such,” said Paul Berendt, former chairman of the state Democrats.

“He could have run for governor, and so in politics this is a tragedy. When something like this happens, it’s a tragedy.”

Not that everyone liked Reardon.

In interviews, people described him as arrogant and brash. Former Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said Reardon was “immature” in the Senate and seemed not as serious as he should have been.

“He was really someone that was there on the climb,” she said. “He wasn’t interested in what was going on at the time.”

In 2003, he and other senators left the chambers to avoid a fight on an unemployment-insurance bill, only to be caught by a Seattle Times photographer. The photo shows him running down the sidewalk, holding out his hand to block the lens.

As county executive, Reardon was a sharp contrast to his predecessor, the affable Bob Drewel. Reardon wore pressed shirts and ties, asked his employees to dress formally, and barred them from speaking to the media or members of the County Council.

He was in a hurry. When people rambled, he cut them off to ask: “What’s your point?”

By March of his first year, he was in a tangle with the Republican-controlled council. Then-county Sheriff Rick Bart called him “an arrogant son-of-a-bitch” in the paper.

But Reardon was effective, too.

In the first year, he cut 80 jobs to balance the budget. He worked well with business, revamping the county’s Workforce Development Center to train laid-off aerospace employees for new jobs.

He became the chairman of Sound Transit and traveled all over the world with the governor and other officials on trade missions.

“He is committed to the economic vitality of Snohomish County,” said Sue Ambler, CEO of the Workforce Development Center.

Reardon said he was committed to transparency, and set up a website to follow the performance of county
departments, giving the public access to response times, overtime costs, clerical errors and other statistics.

At the end of his first term, he was so popular that his GOP opponent was a little-known former Microsoft employee who went by “Turk the Magic Genie” and performed magic tricks at children’s birthday parties. Reardon won by 30 percentage points.

In 2009, the county planning director drunkenly exposed himself to a lobbyist during a golf fundraiser. Reardon fired him, but faced criticism.

Five months later, an outside investigator discovered that Reardon’s Equal Opportunity Officer had only been pretending to investigate employee complaints.

The two incidents made Reardon more vulnerable in his bid for a third term when he faced Republican Mike Hope, a state representative from Lake Stevens.

The race was close even before October 2011, when a county employee went public with allegations that she and Reardon had a six-year affair, some of it on county time and trips.

The Washington State Patrol agreed to investigate and spent six months combing Reardon’s emails, travel and phone records. It found that Reardon had not spent public money improperly within the statute of limitations.

But the investigation revealed that Reardon had a lot of enemies and called into question other aspects of his personal life and work, including whether he had campaigned on public time.

Last February, the Democratic-controlled Snohomish County Council said Reardon’s problems were a distraction and called for him to take a leave of absence. He refused on a YouTube video rather than appearing publicly, and hired a prominent Seattle defense attorney.

County Council members said they have rarely seen Reardon during the past two years. They dealt instead with his staff members.

Even after the State Patrol ended its investigation, more secrets leaked from the executive’s office. During the last several weeks, The Herald reported that mysterious requests for public records were tied to two staffers in Reardon’s office.

The requests and some attack websites were targeted at Reardon’s political enemies, including people who cooperated with the State Patrol investigation.

The County Council and prosecutor began to pursue an investigation into the staff members’ activities. On Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to take the Department of Information Services out of Reardon’s control.

Behind the scenes, his supporters said they started to question whether he should be recalled.

“This whole set of things is kind of like, oh my God, it’s just drip, drip, drip,” said Berendt, the former state Democratic Party leader.

When he announced his upcoming resignation last week, Reardon was defensive. He called for an independent investigation and said attacks against him were “false and scurrilous.”

“It’s really sad,” said Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, a Democrat. “I guess you could say it’s like a bottle of wine that you think is going to be really great, and it turns to vinegar on you.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included

in this report.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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