Kent Pullen Pulls No Punches -- Pistol-Packin' Days Gone, But Councilman's Still Hard To Corral

Someday it may be possible to talk about the career of Kent Pullen without recalling the day he carried a loaded gun onto the floor of the state Senate.

That day hasn't yet arrived.

He's still widely known as "pistol-packin' Pullen," and it seems likely he will be remembered more for that one incident than for the dozens of state laws and county ordinances the King County councilman has shaped over the past 18 years.

It's a story that, like the exploits of Davy Crockett, has grown with the retelling. "The initial reports said I carried a gun into the Senate chamber," Pullen said with a grin. "Some later reports said I brandished it. I'm expecting any day now to read I discharged it in the Senate chamber."

Nine years after he debated gun laws with a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic jammed into his shoulder holster, Pullen still delights in recounting how he won a legislative victory. The then-Boeing engineer told his fellow legislators he had no choice but to continue carrying the handgun until the Senate passed a bill allowing gun owners to leave their firearms in their cars.

"I never saw a bill move so fast in my life," he laughed.

It was vintage Kent Pullen.

He had stood on his principles - in this case the Second Amendment right to bear arms - and had won.

The incident is both telling and misleading.

Telling, in that it accurately reflects the 9th District County Councilman's fundamental philosophy on constitutional rights.

Misleading, in that it has led some observers to dismiss Republican Pullen as a right-wing ideologue out of touch with political reality.

He is far more complex than that, and he is far from ineffective.

As a freshman council member last year, Pullen was ridiculed for pushing the idea of equipping county police with one or more helicopters. He worked the issue, and, after the dust had settled, Pullen had won an appropriation to rent a police helicopter on a trial basis.

Pullen announced last week he may propose a levy for purchase and operation of two helicopters.

With Democratic County Councilman Ron Sims, he co-chaired last fall's successful campaign for Proposition 1, a tax levy to pay for expanding the automated fingerprint identification system used by King County police.

Pullen wrote the campaign advertisements, impressing Sims with his ability as a political strategist. "I'm glad I don't have the misfortune of running against him," Sims said. "He has excellent judgment as to how people feel and how to convey that. He hasn't lost touch with the people."

In his final year in the Senate, where he chaired the Law and Justice Committee, Pullen was prime sponsor of 34 bills and two constitutional amendments that became law.

"He's absolutely brilliant," says state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, of the one-time state chess champion for whom she worked as an aide in the Senate and on the County Council.

"My antennae go up another notch when Kent is speaking," said County Councilman Paul Barden. Jerry Sheehan, an American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist, calls Pullen "a delightful fellow," but believes his effectiveness in the Senate was reduced by the perception that his views were inflexible.

Pullen, 48, occasionally hikes and climbs mountains with his wife, Fay, an enthusiastic outdoorswoman who is, like himself, a chemist with a Ph.D. The couple, who met during their freshman year at the University of New Mexico, live on five acres near Lake Youngs, where they raise chickens, horses, dogs and cats.

Their 21-year-old daughter, Katherine, and 19-year-old son, Walter, both plan to graduate this year from the University of Washington.

Pullen beams with excitement when given an opportunity to discuss politics. His philosophy is embodied in what he calls "the most fundamental amendment of all: You have the absolute right to do whatever you want to do as long as you don't hurt anyone else."

"He has a distinct philosophy of government and will take that distinct philosophy of government wherever the logic leads him," observed state Sen. Phil Talmadge, D-Seattle.

The philosophy has made it impossible to slap a simple label on him.

Usually a friend of the police and advocate of tougher criminal sentences, he cast the only dissenting vote on the County Council against an ordinance in 1990 clamping down on teenage "cruising" in then-unincorporated Federal Way.

He called the proposal by Barden, a fellow Republican, "onerous, oppressive, draconian," - and argued minorities would be singled out under the law.

"We used to see Kent as a difficult person on civil rights issues. That's not true. He has compassion on civil rights issues," said Sims, recalling Pullen's support of an ordinance that prohibits disciplinary action against workers who speak a language other than English on the job.

Pullen drew praise from Native Americans for sponsoring a state law to halt desecration of Indian burial sites. But he drew their criticism for sending Barbara Lindsay to a conference on Indian fishing rights. She was a foe of the Boldt decision, which guaranteed Indian fishing rights.

He helped win state reparations for Japanese-American state employees interned during World War II.

In the Senate, he simultaneously drew the line on gun rights and employee rights when he affirmed an employer's right to ban firearms in the workplace.

Pullen currently is raising questions about the legality of the proposed Metro/King County Council merger, saying its "federated" county-city structure may violate the equal-protection provision of the U.S. Constitution.

At a time when urban growth and transportation issues dominate the public agenda in King County, Pullen has yet to develop a strong political identity on those issues. He has argued strongly for property owners' rights, yet criticized county zoning for permitting apartments in Maple Valley.

On the Enumclaw Community Plan, he punted to voters, basing his support of the land-use plan on the basis of an informal mail poll. He promises to do the same on the Soos Creek Plan.

Pullen won his place on the County Council in 1989 by eking out a slender victory over then-Democratic State Rep. Mike Todd, who made growth management a focus of his campaign.

Todd, who took Pullen to task for "showboating" on high-profile issues in the Senate, now accuses Pullen of favoring developers and of failing to show leadership on community plans.

Citing polls that put the economy and crime at the top of voters' concerns, Pullen believes the importance of the growth issue is exaggerated. As chairman of the County Council's Law and Justice Committee, he shows no sign of dropping his emphasis on crime and justice issues.

Nor is he likely to back away from his beliefs.

There's a footnote to the story about the gun. Pullen strapped on the pistol, he recalls, only after being told by a powerful Republican colleague that the gun-rights bill would be held in committee until Pullen agreed to support a sales tax on food.

He held firm, winning on the gun issue and voting his conscience on the food tax. "I thought it was a beautiful illustration of what happens if you do stand up for principle rather than making a sleazy political deal."