Dow Constantine has served as executive of King County, WA, since 2009. During his tenure, Executive Constantine championed Best Starts for Kids, a voter-approved initiative to ensure every baby born or child raised in King County reaches adulthood happy, healthy, safe, and thriving. Since its inception in 2015, Best Starts for Kids has supported more than 500,000 children, youth, and families; partnered with more than 500 organizations; and launched more than 570 community-led programs to support the well-being and health of the county’s children. In 2021, King County voters renewed the levy that funds Best Starts for Kids with more than 62% of voters approving the effort for another six years.

We spoke with Executive Constantine about his work to support King County’s children, youth, and families and the most recent funding renewal for Best Starts for Kids. You can watch the full video interview and read an edited version of our conversation below.



Children’s Funding Project: I’d like to begin by asking about the political landscape at the time you championed the voter-approved initiative and its most recent renewal. How much support did the effort have and did you face any opposition? Also, how has your community typically viewed ballot initiatives or levies?

Executive Constantine: Best Starts for Kids was really born in 2014. My public health and human services staff conspired to take me to a place called the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, where they’ve been studying early brain development and the effect of both nurturing and adverse childhood experiences on that brain development. And as I sat there, it occurred to me how much of the work we do is responding to the results of early neglect, of our failure to invest in helping people get a good start in life. At that moment I stood up and announced to these folks that we’re going to take this on, we’re going to try to find a way to create the resources to move upstream, and to focus on not just prevention, but really well-being for our youngest residents.

So I proposed Best Starts for Kids for the 2015 ballot. It was something that I found interesting because our constituents, even coming out of the Great Recession, still responded very well. They intuitively understand that young people need more support, more nurturing, and that the failure to provide that is a cause of many of the challenges that we have to try to cope with every day.

I shared with them the data about how much return you get on an early investment in a young person. I shared with them the fact that most of their tax dollars that go to our general fund are actually paying for a criminal legal system that has very little positive impact in terms of helping people resolve underlying challenges. And so, ultimately, even though we heavily rely on property taxes, people were willing to step up and vote for another property tax levy to support that early investment for our youngest residents, and in doing so support a community where, hopefully, every person will have a better opportunity to thrive in this life.

Children’s Funding Project: My training is as a clinical social worker, and I specifically worked with families, and I’m a trauma-informed practitioner. So anytime I hear elected officials speak trauma language, it warms my heart, because once you are introduced to that field of study, it just becomes a no-brainer that the preventative efforts are where we need to land.

Executive Constantine: Yeah, and it was interesting to me, it’s not that my experts in public health or human services would understand this, or that even I, as a mere generalist elected official, could be made to understand it. But the fact that the voters broadly got it right away, and they’re just waiting for the leadership. They’re waiting for someone to buy them a vehicle to make this happen. And so Best Starts for Kids became a popular cause countywide and when it was renewed, it received an even higher vote total: 62% of people approving an increased levy. So, I’m grateful that my staff talked me into going over and seeing all this research and data, because I think they knew exactly where they were trying to lead me, and they succeeded.

Children’s Funding Project: What lessons did you learn from this process and what were your main takeaways?

Executive Constantine: Turning to the the program itself and the implementation, we really sought to do business differently here to not have this be a top-down hierarchical approach, but to start with centering, listening, and learning, and we moved to a very sort of flat organizational structure, where we partnered with many community-based organizations, scientists, community leaders, as well as elected leaders. That flattened hierarchy offered us an opportunity to leverage more value, and to engage people who had genuine connections with those we are seeking to help throughout the community and the media understood that as well and responded to it.

This is not a novel approach. It’s the same approach we attempted to take with Obamacare. We reached out through dozens of community-based organizations to get people to sign up for health care. And what ultimately we did with COVID and the vaccine program, seeking not to have this be a top-down effort, but have dozens of trusted voices, community partners, be the leaders who reach out to people.

Children’s Funding Project: What advice do you have for other elected officials who are thinking about or pursuing something similar?

Executive Constantine: Well, there are a whole bunch of learnings. I’ve mentioned a couple of them. One is, you know, people not just care about, but sort of intuitively understand the need. The unmet need that many of us have for nurturing and the importance of the avoidance of adverse childhood experiences, trauma. Those experiences resonate down through life. And so, we can invest early and make sure that parents have what they need to be able to do best by their kids, and the community is surrounding them to support, we will all be better off in the long run.

And we need to make this something that’s owned by all of us. I think you know one of the challenges we have, and it’s a continuing challenge, is to build the capacity of authentic community-based organizations to provide the technical assistance they need to help them be able to provide the level of accountability that will then instill confidence in the public and the press, so that we can continue to do this work. We did, in fact, set aside some of this money for that very capacity building to make sure it wasn’t just a government department that was carrying out this program but that community-based organizations had what they needed to be able to be effective and successful.

Children’s Funding Project: I appreciate your comment about a flattened hierarchy leveraging more value. I think that’s really important in terms of increasing the sense of collaboration and ownership. Folks having the opportunity to have a real impact. I think it is special. The concept of a flattened hierarchy has been around, but for it to actually be implemented on something as large as the scale of the levy is really commendable. I appreciate you sharing that.

Executive Constantine: Thank you. It was along those lines, you know, our ongoing community engagement during the first six-year levy led us to one conclusion, which is that we needed to have a stronger emphasis on child care investments and so that became a central pillar of the renewal of the levy, and that came from [the] community. We now are helping more than 1,700 kids with child care subsidies and, really importantly, working to build and retain the qualified workforce that is needed in child care.

We worked with the City of Seattle to provide wage boosts to some 12,000 child care workers, and we’re launching a pilot wage study to really understand the impacts of wages and increased wages for the child care sector. We know, as with many other services, that it takes people to provide service to people, and if folks can’t afford to come into the profession we’re never gonna be successful.

Children’s Funding Project: Thank you Executive Constantine for joining me today in this conversation.

To watch additional interviews with elected leaders in our series, check out our conversations with former Sacramento, CA, City Council Member Jay Schenirer, Franklin County, OH, Commissioner Erica Crawley, Philadelphia, PA, Mayor Jim Kenney and U.S. Congressman Greg Landsman, a former member of the Cincinnati, OH, City Council.

Reginald Harris is a senior manager for sourcing additional funding at Children’s Funding Project.