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Originally published Tuesday, June 10, 2014 at 9:36 PM

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Outspoken Dembowski’s risky, bumpy ride to avoid bus cuts

There’s a new political rogue in town, hiding in plain sight on the typically invisible Metropolitan King County Council.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Rod Dembowski seems as if he might be that most rare of politicians, one who is open to admitting an error, willing to... MORE
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"There is a view by some that we need to make voters 'feel the pain,' " he said of his own party. "They call it the... MORE


Rogue alert! In our one-party town, a renegade has popped up suddenly on the local political scene.

His name is Rod Dembowski, and this week he set off a bomb in local politics by suggesting there’s probably no need to carry out draconian cuts to the Metro Transit bus system after all. This even though countless elected officials — including him — had spent most of the year warning exactly that.

I’ll get to the reasons for his change of heart in a minute. But first, the politics. His fellow Democrats and union folks are furious with him.

They say he’s enabling the government-haters by implying, as one union leader put it, that “the government has essentially lied about the needed cuts.” King County Executive Dow Constantine, in vetoing Dembowski’s plan to cut only one-third as much bus service, mocked the effort and said it resorted to “empty managerial platitudes like ‘budget-scrubbing’ and ‘top-to-bottom’ review.”

When I asked Dembowski, a Democrat and newbie member of the Metropolitan King County Council, what he was up to, I was expecting him to soft-pedal backward. Instead he veered full-speed into political no man’s land.

“There is a view by some that we need to make voters ‘feel the pain,’ ” he said of his own party. “They call it the credibility issue — that we said there would be huge cuts if voters said no to the tax increases, and so now we better give them the huge cuts.”

Even if some of the cuts might no longer be needed?

“Nobody over here believes we’re going to end up cutting all 550,000 hours of bus service. So this is all political now,” he said.

It’s not often you hear a politician say his mates want to inflict pain on voters. How are relations in the hallways around the council these days, Rod. Collegial?

“The quote I keep hearing is: ‘Rod, this isn’t going to end well for you,’ “ he said.

Dembowski, 42, is only in his second year in office, representing North Seattle and some northern suburbs. He insists he’s a very liberal Democrat with zero chance of morphing into a local version of party defector Sen. Rodney Tom.

With sales-tax revenues growing unexpectedly fast, he says he just saw a chance to forestall some of the planned bus cuts until they’re absolutely necessary. Why wouldn’t you do that if you could?

In the meantime, there’s no reason not to continue to look at possibly raising fares again or any of the other long list of smaller ideas for saving Metro some money.

“We’re the fastest-growing city in the nation, and so I absolutely feel we should be expanding our bus system, not even talking about cutting it,” Dembowski said. “Metro is going to need new revenue for that. But it’s clear we have to convince voters first that we’re making good use of their money. We just lost an election.”

He said the Democrats and other groups are right the agency has long-term budget challenges. But they’ve taken to “fear mongering” over it.

That’s sure how the last election felt to me. I voted yes because we need more bus service here, not less. But as I wrote in April: “Nobody explained what positive changes you’d get for your money, only what you might lose. This was electioneering by threat: Vote yes or I’ll shoot this puppy.”

Dembowski believes the puppy’s death will be symbolic only. It’s for political impact, he said. The council would cancel the bus cuts later, before they go fully into effect, if sales-tax revenues rise.

“I think of all this exactly the opposite way,” he said. “The voters are watching us. If we’re making cuts now that then don’t end up happening, or we don’t take absolutely every step to look at other options to keep buses out on the roads today, that’s when we lose the public. That’s what will cost us credibility.”

Probably the next puppy endangered around here is going to be Dembowski.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086

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