Aaron Reardon: A man in a hurry

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon blazes through a room like a fire.

The man's presence demands attention as he drives through numerous agendas attached to the many meetings he attends daily. If someone isn't getting to the crux quickly, Reardon stares them down and bluntly asks: "What's your point?"

In nearly three years as the county executive, Reardon has made his agenda clear, offering little room for maneuvering outside his direction, often offending those with different opinions. But while a fire is wild and out of control, Reardon is structured down to the tight knot on his tie, slipped underneath the sharp suits complete with the dark vests he wears each day.

For some, he has brought a refreshing new way of doing county business after the more relaxed administrations of Executives Bob Drewel and Willis Tucker. As for others, well, he has rankled them to no end.

Though opponents have accused Reardon of micromanaging county government and treating it like a private business, he shrugs his shoulders and says: "So what? It's working, isn't it?"

Despite a direct approach that some mistake for a cool, hard attitude toward his employees, there's an evident camaraderie among his upper staff members, most of whom he has personally groomed and hired. And the executive, while demanding the same work-'til-you-drop mentality of his employees, can be full of compliments for those who reach the high bar he says he has set for his office.

During a typical day, it's sunup to late night, brokering deals, moving policy and, of course, making the occasional ribbon-cutting speech — because people want to shake hands with the county executive.

In high gear

The first thing to notice about Aaron Reardon, 35, is his energy. He rarely slows down. He talks fast, walks fast. He'd drive fast if someone would let him.

A man like that must get his beauty sleep. Except Reardon doesn't.

"I can't sleep," Reardon said. "Never really have."

By 9 a.m. Aug. 28, he already has been up for five hours, having gone to the gym, met with elected officials for breakfast and hammered through a revenue-forecast meeting. On this particular Monday, his business day won't end until well after 8 p.m. That's not atypical.

This day, he'll start with meetings in Everett, head to the county fair outside Monroe, return to Everett for more meetings, drive to Arlington for a new school's ribbon-cutting ceremony and finish in Edmonds by meeting with a county district judge before heading home for the evening.

It's a pace few can maintain, but Reardon says he has never needed more than four hours of sleep a night. Employees say he must be up all hours, as evidenced by the e-mails awaiting them each morning.

During a 7 a.m. breakfast, he banters back and forth in a relaxed atmosphere. But his mind is on the day ahead as he occasionally scrolls through his BlackBerry to check the time, his schedule and an e-mail or two. Sitting close by, yet quiet, is his cellphone.

The monthly breakfasts are relationship-building times with topics ranging from a late-evening meeting to dunk tanks at the Evergreen State Fair.

Present this time are Treasurer Bob Dantini, Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis, County Clerk Pam Daniels and a few of Reardon's Cabinet members, including Deputy Executive Mark Soine, who grimaces at a slightly off-color comment.

As the others eat, Reardon has nothing, alluding to a protein shake that's the staple of his breakfast during the wee hours of the morning. He doesn't always eat lunch, either.

By the end of a conversation that has moved from college sports to platform shoes, tattoos and murders, it's time to get moving. The office and the business of the day await.

Meetings, more meetings

With morning pleasantries aside, it's the office where the real work begins.

From nine to noon, it's straight meetings: the Cabinet, project updates, transportation planning and Sound Transit briefings.

Prefacing morning meetings is a schedule review with Reardon's personal assistant, Nancy Peinecke.

He sits at a small round table in a spacious office that includes a black leather couch and love seat. A flat-screen TV tuned to CNN shares bookshelf space with biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Henry M. Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and others.

Sitting next to a compact-disc player are discs by Coldplay and Candlebox, both current, popular bands, but Reardon later admits also liking Def Leppard, having recently bought the group's greatest hits.

"Let's do that one, yes, that one, too, and I can make that," Reardon tells Peinecke as she rolls off invitation after invitation. "Can I make this one, though?"

Probably not, Peinecke responds.

"Let's try anyway."

As the executive, there are plenty of invitations to meet, greet or speak that must be sandwiched between meetings with elected officials, government agencies and interest groups that want a piece of county business or attention.

Peinecke's most difficult job, she says, is getting Reardon to occasionally say no.

"He wants to do them all," she says. "It's just not possible, but we try."

An Everett native

A homegrown politician, Reardon was born and raised in Everett. His mother left his father when he was 2, ending an abusive relationship, he said. Though she later remarried and he spent plenty of time with his grandfather, he never knew his biological father.

He doesn't seem to lament the loss or appear wistful when talking about it. It's just a fact of the past, and here he is today, driving in his truck with an extended bay for hunting — something he says he loves to do on weekends in the fall.

"I've been blessed living in this community," he says.

He's on his way to the Evergreen State Fair, where he's scheduled to make an appearance at a volunteer-appreciation luncheon. But longer-than-planned meetings and heavy traffic force him to miss the luncheon. With his next appointment not until 2 p.m., he takes the time to walk around the fairgrounds.

Reardon likes that he's mostly unrecognizable among the fairgoers, giving him the chance to see the action and how the county might do things better.

"Last year was the third-highest attendance in the history of the fair," Reardon says a couple times to different people, as if he's challenging them to make this year the second-best, if not top of the charts.

A driven couple

He has always been driven by ambition, and his wife, Kate, is no different, he says. The Everett city spokeswoman would be busy working this week if not on maternity leave. The couple, married 10 ½ years, have two children, 4 years old and 2 months old.

Reardon says he learned the impact a government official could have during fifth grade. He recalls being disappointed when then-President Reagan decided to categorize ketchup as a vegetable to balance menus in schools. At the urging of his mother, Reardon wrote to his congressman.

A graduate of Central Washington University, Reardon studied political science and public administration, adding that college is where he decided on a career in public service.

"But all those years with my mom drilled into me the importance of civic involvement," he says.

As a Democrat, Reardon won his first term to the state House in 1998 and a Senate seat in 2002, and most likely could have stayed comfortably in the Legislature. But if you want to see projects funded by the state get finished, you have to be at the local level, he says.

Reardon ran for county executive, his wife says, after Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson decided to stay out of the race and other candidates seemed to have no idea why they were running.

"I've known him 17 years, and he's one of the hardest workers I've ever known in my life," Kate Reardon says, adding that as a child she had watched her father work long hours to make ends meet.

"When we were done with college, he said he wanted to go back to Everett and make it a place where we'd want to raise our family. He's doing that."

Administrative successes

Reardon's camp says his achievements as executive include making up a $13.4 million shortfall and keeping a balanced budget without raising property taxes. He notes he has streamlined permitting policies without jeopardizing the environment and protected farmland in the county.

Typically GOP supporters, farmers in the county like working with the Democrat.

"Rather than shove a policy down our throats, he works with everybody," said Dale Reiner, a longtime Republican farmer. "That's seemed like a first in this county."

But County Council members, even those in his own party, have chastised Reardon for forgetting that government is not a private business, and that it deserves debate and a majority opinion.

Once, Reardon was lambasted for suggesting that nonpartisan elective positions, including the sheriff, should be under the auspices of the Executive's Office. Opponents cried "power monger."

Everett Councilman Mark Olson, who sits with Reardon on the Sound Transit board, says Reardon sometimes expresses an urgency that isn't always shared.

"It can be a shortcoming to the extent that it gets in the way of making effective relationships that you need to have with the legislative leadership and folks within county departments," Olson says. "But all of us go through that feeling of 'Why can't we get this thing going faster?' "

Olson respects Reardon, and though the two often debate issues from different corners, the city councilman says he appreciates Reardon's willingness to speak up and articulate a point.

"He comes to the table prepared, but he's not afraid to ask a question and listen to the answer," Olson says.

"Offended" leaders

Reardon acknowledges his directness has ruffled other political leaders.

"It's not a bad thing to disagree on different issues, and I have let [the County Council] know when I disagreed," he says. "Early on, I think that offended them."

The executive also seemed at odds with holdouts from the Drewel administration. They left on their own, or Reardon told them to go. Opponents quickly cried "housecleaning."

But Gary Weikel, now the director of special projects and the interim parks director in the Executive's Office, says those same people forget that Drewel, who held the executive's post for 12 years, did the same thing.

"Drewel cleaned house, and that's not uncommon," Weikel says. "I think that what Aaron wanted to do was get a good feel for how things operated before he made changes he felt were necessary. That is certainly acceptable."

Weikel says staff members now enjoy working with Reardon, and the executive often compliments employees on a job well done. Weikel, who will retire in February after 20 years of county service, says Drewel's and Reardon's management styles are drastically different.

"Bob [Drewel] was more collaborative and team-oriented," Weikel says.

"I think Aaron has his ideas about how he wants to operate, but he's the executive, so that's the way it should be done."

Reardon's future

With a year-plus left in his first term as executive, which pays an annual salary of $129,032, Reardon has made the commitment to run again, and Sheriff Rick Bart has announced he'll run, too. But don't ask Reardon to prognosticate beyond a second term.

"I'm doing this because it's what I enjoy," he says. "I get to see the impact on the community I love."

With two children, community improvement is important to him, Reardon says. He says he wants the cities within the county to be places where a father can teach a daughter how to ride a bicycle, something he has recently done with his 4-year-old.

There's talk in political circles that he'll run for governor or Congress. Earlier in the day, a Monroe farmer named Jim Werkhoven teasingly refers to Reardon as "governor."

Reardon's response: "I don't want to be governor. I just want to work for you."

Werkhoven: "Well, I want you to work for me as governor."

Reardon has turned down offers to run for Congress, says his wife. She and her husband both felt they owed more to the local community than to run off to the other Washington.

One thing is certain, Reardon says: If people don't like the job he's doing, they should vote him out in 2007.

"This is who I am, at work and at home," he says. "I'm not going to change because in the end, I'm the one accountable, the one who should be held responsible."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, left, shown meeting with his Cabinet on Monday, shrugs off charges of micromanaging by saying: "So what? It's working, isn't it?" (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Reardon carries his daughter, Madeline, 4, through an Everett park. At left is his wife, Kate, and their son, Jack, 2 months. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Differences in attire belie the comfortable working relationship Reardon has with local farmers. This meeting was near Monroe. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
No matter how busy he is, Reardon has a coffee-cup photo of his son on his desk that reminds him of home. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Reardon's schedule

For Aug. 28

7 a.m.: executive monthly breakfast (Holiday Inn, Everett)

8:15 a.m.: daily schedule review (Reardon's office)

8:30 a.m.: revenue forecast (Reardon's office)

9 a.m.: Cabinet meeting (executive boardroom)

10 a.m.: update on infrastructure development and financing (executive boardroom)

10:30 a.m.: transportation update (executive boardroom)

11 a.m.: Sound Transit briefing (executive boardroom)

12:30 p.m.: superintendent- appreciation lunch, Evergreen State Fair (Monroe area)

2 p.m.: discussion of ballfields and mitigation banking with farmer Dave Remlinger (Monroe area)

4 p.m.: economic-development update (executive boardroom)

5 p.m.: Haller Middle School dedication (Arlington)

6:45-8 p.m.: meeting with Deanna Dawson, the county's executive director for law and justice, and Judge Carolyn McCrae of Snohomish County District Court's South Division (Scott's Restaurant, Edmonds)

Source: Snohomish County Executive's Office