Derek Young leaving office with legacy of wonkish-ness, bipartisanship
Derek Young’s first campaign for public office, as a 21-year-old Gig Harbor City Council candidate in 1997, came right down to the wire.
Taking what he thought was a sabbatical from his studies at the University of Washington, Young challenged incumbent councilwoman Marilyn Owel. He won by three votes.
Young’s parents, George and Cathy Young, weren’t necessarily thrilled to see their son jump into politics at age 21.
“To this day,” George said at a Dec. 8 meeting of the Pierce County Council, on which his son now serves, “Derek doesn’t know if his parents voted for him.” It’s not entirely clear if he’s joking.
Young’s first run for county council, in 2014, was about as close on a percentage basis. Young defeated Stan Fleming by 93 votes out of 41,523 votes cast, just 0.22 percentage points. Since then, his nickname in his parents’ house has been “Landslide.”
Final days in office
Yes, Young had some narrow margins in his political career. But he also never lost in six appearances on the ballot — four times running for city council and twice for Pierce County Council.
His time in public office is coming to an end — for now, at least — at the end of the month. Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor, is leaving the County-City Building in Tacoma after two terms, including the last two years as the chairman of the county council.
Term limits prevented him from seeking four more years in office this fall. “I would’ve run for one more term, maybe,” if he could, Young said. His reservations about leaving the job were allayed, he said, when Gig Harbor City Council member Robyn Denson jumped into the race to succeed him.
Voters picked Denson, also a Democrat, to replace Young in the Nov. 8 general election.
So what’s next for Young after a quarter-century in local politics? He has a few opportunities, but isn’t saying what they are.
“I literally don’t know,” Young said. He hopes to stay in the sort of policy work he’s done in his political career, but “I don’t need to be the elected guy.”
But first, maybe a little break. Between COVID-19 and his own workaholic nature, he said he hasn’t taken a vacation in eight years. “But that’s OK,” Young said. “That’s my choice.”
A lot happened in those eight vacation-less years.
Young helped lead the effort to enact a one-tenth of 1% sales tax to support behavioral health services in Pierce County. The tax raises about $14 million per year, according to The News Tribune newspaper of Tacoma. Proceeds support a Mental Health District Court and various independent providers of behavioral and mental health services.
He also initiated and chaired an Opioid Task Force to address an epidemic of addiction in Pierce County. The task force’s work helped position the county to spend the $14 million it received this fall as part of a settlement of a state lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
Today I joined community leaders at the Tacoma-Pierce County Opioid Task Force Summit, led by City of Tacoma Councilmember Conor McCarthy and Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young, as we work together to identify solutions to end opioid misuse and addiction in our communities. pic.twitter.com/qq59Oj2x7C
— Rep. Derek Kilmer (@RepDerekKilmer) February 22, 2020
With Young leading the charge, the council this fall approved stronger shoreline protections for rural areas of Pierce County, largely in his District 7 territory west of the Narrows Bridge.
“I have so much respect for him. He’s such a brilliant person,” said Denson, who takes over the job with the new year. “I count ourselves very lucky having his representation for District 7. He’s done a great job. I’m excited to pick up his legacy.”
Young also chaired the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s board during the response to COVID-19.
“It felt simultaneously like the longest nightmare and like everything was going a million miles an hour,” Young said of those days.
He was attending a conference of the National Association of Counties when the pandemic began to take hold. (Participation in groups like NACO is another hallmark of Young’s tenure and another reason he hasn’t had a vacation since the Obama administration.)
He was chair of the national organization’s Heath Steering Committee, which was meeting to discuss the looming pandemic and to urge Congress to take aggressive action. During that meeting, Young got a push notification on his phone about an outbreak at a nursing home near Kirkland. It was the first reported outbreak in a care facility and one of the first signs that things were going to be bad.
“I could see the blood run out of the faces of the (public health) professionals” in the room, Young recalled. The next couple years were a blur we all experienced together, but few were in a position to see more of it than Young.
“I’m really proud of the way both the county staff and public health staff responded,” he said. “They worked really, really hard. I don’t think people know how hard.”
It hasn’t all been a string of wins, as Young freely admits. He wishes he’d made more progress on a few issues.
He hoped to expand public transit options in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula. That’s a personal issue for Young — before the pandemic, he routinely commuted by bus from his home in Gig Harbor North to work in Tacoma.
Combatting the opioid epidemic made both the success list and the regrets list. “We need more tools in place there,” he said.
On a more hyper-local level, he regrets not having made more progress on planning for a new Fox Island bridge. Pierce County plans to commission a type, size and location study on a bridge replacement, but many details remain up in the air.
Young had also hoped to hand over a fully sketched plan to extend the Cushman Trail north, beyond Gig Harbor city limits. That’ll have to wait for Denson.
A political transformation
If those successes and regrets all sound like pretty normal Democratic Party policy priorities, we might have a surprise for you.
Derek Young started out political life as a Republican.
“We called him Alex P. Keaton as a kid,” his father George said.
Keaton was a character played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties” — a tie-wearing, free market-worshipping Reagan Republican in a family of progressive Democrats.
Political affiliation didn’t matter much when Young served on the nonpartisan Gig Harbor City Council. But it became crucial during his time on the Pierce County Council, where he spent six years in the minority before Democrats regained control for the first time in 17 years in the 2020 election.
Young supported John McCain for the 2000 Republican nomination. Now, he’s a leading voice among Democrats in Pierce County and the state of Washington.
How did that happen? According to Young, it wasn’t him as much as it was the party.
He said he considered himself part of the “Dan Evans school of the Republican Party,” referring to the politically moderate three-term Washington governor of the 1960s and ’70s. Young added, there is “not much of that school around anymore.”
Young’s views have evolved over the years, driven by learning more about policy and meeting people with different life experiences. But as someone with a passion for the environment and the natural beauty of the district he represents, “I’ve always believed that ‘conservation’ and ‘conservative’ share a root for a reason.”
The person who has known him longest agreed that Young’s politics have been largely consistent over the years.
“I think he’s stayed pretty steady in what his views are,” George Young said. “Politics in general have shifted.”
A policy wonk
Those views are heavily influenced by hours and hours of research. Young has a reputation with his council colleagues as a bit of a policy wonk.
“One thing we’re really going to miss is your depth of policy knowledge,” County Councilman Marty Campbell told Young at the Dec. 8 meeting in Gig Harbor.
“That was the nicest way I’ve ever been called a nerd,” Young responded.
Campbell and Young are both Democrats. But appreciation for Young’s expertise reaches across the proverbial aisle.
“Working with you has been a great education for me,” Republican Councilman Dave Morrell, who previously served in the Legislature, told Young at the Dec. 8 meeting. “I have learned to listen and to understand your depth. Nerd, wonk, whatever. But you have a great grasp on policy.”
The wonkish-ness and Young’s history as a Republican made him a good fit for the 7th District, Denson said. The Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula area has an earned reputation as “purple,” picking a mix of Republicans and Democrats in local and legislative elections.
“It’s not a district that works for someone who’s going to come in and be a real ideologue,” Denson said. “He focuses not on the partisanship, he focuses on the policies.”
The Pierce County Council worked all year so we have next week off. Congress procrastinated so they have to cram for a makeup exam. https://t.co/Ww5qS5rVvh
— Derek Young 🇺🇦 (@DerekMYoung) December 16, 2022
A different path
Young’s reputation as a wonk and his witty, erudite conversational style would lead one to the conclusion that he went far in his educational career. After hearing him discuss the finer points of land-use planning or public-health policy, you’d be excused if you thought he had a graduate degree in one of those fields.
Another possible surprise for you: Derek Young never finished college. He started at UW with the intent of getting an economics degree, but “life just kind of got in the way.”
That included work in the banking industry in addition to his service on the city and later county councils.
He considered returning to finish his degree at various points, but “it didn’t raise to the level of need where I needed to go back.”
But he quickly adds: “I DON’T mean that as an example. I did everything the hard way.”
While he doesn’t necessarily recommend his journey for everyone, it is an example that “there can be another path.”
Asked his opinion about his son’s decision to not finish school, George pauses for a few seconds.
“It’s all worked out,” he said. “It was a little disappointing that he didn’t finish. But he’s made up for it with on-the-job training and study. A diploma’s just a piece of paper.”
The wonkish-ness has at least some roots in Young’s experience at Gig Harbor High School.
Young was on the school’s debate team. He was successful, too, winning a state championship in the Lincoln-Douglas category as a senior.
“I was a little bit of a lost kid as a freshman,” Young said. “I got recruited (for debate) and found a place.”
He later helped coach the school’s debate team, but that became a casualty of his service on the county council. County councilman is a (more-than) full-time job, leaving little time to coach.
The experience served him well in his political career. Competitive debaters spend hour upon hour researching topics, getting to know both sides of an argument, and making their points before judges. It’s a pretty good starting point for a career in local politics.
Debate also sharpened Young’s competitive bent, which was further on display for the Gig Harbor High School Tides’ sports teams. Young swam for GHHS and competed for its water polo team.
“He would swim miles every day,” George said. “Whatever he tried, he put 110% into it.”
‘I really need to do this well’
Maybe that’s because, as Derek Young said, “I hate losing.”
He was referring to his debate career, but the sentiment also applied to his political career. As George — clearly the source of Derek’s sense of humor — puts it: “24 years undefeated, 24 years unindicted” in politics.
It’s important to note, though, that Young came excruciatingly close to losing on two occasions. A swing of a few votes in 1997, and maybe the whole thing never happens.
As a matter of fact, Young often says that he didn’t really expect to win that first council race. But when he did, he decided he had better do his best at it. Put 110% into it, as George said.
“A whole lot of people put some faith in me,” Derek said. “I decided, I really need to do this well.”
Of course, when that 1997 campaign started, it wasn’t intended to be the start of a quarter-century political career. He just wanted to talk about land use, growth, the finer points of policy and be a younger person making a difference.
“I was trying to prove a point, honestly,” Young said.