Experts say WSP investigation unlikely to affect outcome of county exec race

  • Thu Nov 3rd, 2011 9:24pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield, Noah Haglund and Scott North Herald Writers

OLYMPIA — Will Thursday’s revelation that Aaron Reardon is the focus of a State Patrol investigation upset his bid for a third term as Snohomish County executive?

That’s not likely in an all-mail election with voting already under way and so few details known about the probe, experts say.

“We’ve got to figure a lot of people have already voted,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

As of Thursday morning, about a third of the anticipated votes had been cast for the Nov. 8 contest.

“It’s likely to only move the electorate by a percentage point or two, unless more facts come out,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington associate political science professor, who also oversees UW’s regular Washington Poll.

Reardon, a Democrat who won the primary, is in a tight contest with Republican challenger Mike Hope. Reardon had 52 percent of the vote in the primary and was perceived to still have the lead, despite weeks of mud-slinging by both campaigns.

Reardon blamed Hope for the State Patrol investigation and the timing of Thursday’s announcement.

But Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said the department acknowledged its investigation, when asked by reporters, in an effort to prevent the spread of “outlandish” and “harmful” rumors.

“It is going to get out there sometime. Our interest is in not having a rumor fest but having a very limited but accurate discussion of what we’re doing,” Calkins said.

The patrol began investigating Reardon’s spending on county business trips after being asked to initiate the probe by Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe.

Patrol Chief John Batiste and other command staff had met and talked about how the department would deal with Roe’s request and any inquiries about the case, Calkins said. Those inquiries came Thursday after reporters were tipped off.

The patrol decided that because it is going to be public eventually, “Why be coy about it now?” Calkins said.

Roe said he had no choice but to request an investigation, and waiting until after the election wasn’t an option.

“That would be making a decision for political reasons,” Roe said. “I’m not going to ever be party to making investigative, law enforcement decisions for political reasons.”

The prosecutor, an elected Democrat himself, said he took steps to keep his request discreet, writing to the patrol on Oct. 26 that he was asking for help in a “highly sensitive” situation that could have an impact on “county government as a whole.”

The prosecutor didn’t hide his surprise and disappointment Thursday when the investigation was revealed.

“I certainly wasn’t interested in having a bunch of public hoopla over a bunch of things that are, and continue to be, unproven allegations,” he added.

Veteran campaign consultants from each political party said the news surfaced so late in the race that it is unlikely to have a major effect.

“If voters find the issue legitimate, it obviously hurts Reardon,” said Christian Sinderman, a strategist for Democrats. “If they believe it is politically motivated, it can backlash against Hope.”

Republican adviser Alex Hays said this may push a few people to flip their support from Reardon to Hope. More likely, voters who had been planning to back Reardon might simply not vote.

He and Sinderman differed on whether Hope should press the issue in the remaining hours of the election.

“When you’re trailing, there’s no downside,” Hays said. “He will do everything he can to get this out to voters, but there is too little time to do anything useful with this.”

Sinderman said there is risk to the challenger.

“Nobody involved has tried to sensationalize it. If he does, it could backfire,” Sinderman said.

Leaders of the Snohomish County Democratic and Republican parties also agreed the investigation will cost Reardon votes, though it might not affect the outcome.

“The timing of this is too coincidental for me to believe it is anything but politics,” said Bill Phillips, chairman of the county Democratic Party. “I think people are going to look at Aaron Reardon’s record and what he’s done for Snohomish County and not some October-surprise politicking.”

GOP leader Bill Cooper said he’ll be mentioning it in emails he sends to voters over the next few days, though he doesn’t think Hope should make it a part of his campaign.

“I don’t encourage that kind of behavior,” he said. “I think the contentiousness between the two is enough.”