Newcomer faces two-term county councilman for north county seat

  • Mon Oct 12th, 2009 10:40pm
  • News

By Noah Haglund Herald Writer

SILVANA — Willow and Jim’s Country Cafe is about as close as it gets to northern Snohomish County’s geographical and spiritual center.

So it’s probably no coincidence that both candidates for Snohomish County’s 1st council district wanted to meet here for interviews. Miles from cookie-cutter retail developments along I-5, the old-fashioned restaurant on Pioneer Highway leaves little doubt about where you are: a corner of Western Washington that’s still defined largely by farming and all-American values.

The incumbent, Republican John Koster, wants to keep this northern territory Koster Country, as his campaign slogan calls it. The former dairyman has held on to the seat for two consecutive four-year terms, and is trying for a third in the Nov. 3 general election.

Standing in his way is Democrat Ellen Hiatt Watson, a political newcomer whose candidacy grew from organizing opposition to large-scale housing developments in rural Snohomish County.

The candidates accuse each other of being too narrowly focused. Ask Koster and he says Watson is a one-issue candidate whose only concern is limiting development. Ask her and she says Koster only has time for big businesses and ignores anybody without deep pockets. Both say their opponents characterize them unfairly.

Koster said voters “don’t care so much about land use if they don’t have a roof over their head.”

“If Mr. Koster believes that growth is a single issue, a single, narrow issue, it’s just more evidence that he’s out of touch,” Watson responded.

Koster said he’s heard a clear message this year while out ringing thousands of doorbells: the economy.

“For a long time, I’ve said we have to diversify our economy,” he said. “We need to attract entrepreneurs.”

Koster believes his experience as a farmer, businessman, state lawmaker and county councilman make him the best person to take on the economic challenges.

His priorities are avoiding any new tax raises, keeping Boeing happy in Snohomish County and getting the state to commit to putting a four-year university or college here.

The Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce in June named Koster the elected official of the year.

Watson uses the endorsement as a chance to zing Koster.

“I guess you have to go to a chamber (of commerce) if you’re going to find him,” she said.

Watson has never held political office. Two years ago, she formed the 7-Lakes nonprofit group to fight large developments in rural areas. That’s when she said she became politically active.

“I, like most people, was busy living my life and not paying attention to the county budget or public policy,” she said.

She was bothered that people living in rural areas were having to pay thousands of dollars of their own money to fight developments that didn’t comply with county code or state environmental laws. The homeowners also had trouble navigating a confusing maze of land-use rules.

Watson points to issues beyond development that she would like to take on: affordable housing, saving farmland, promoting sustainable agriculture and increasing economic diversity in northern parts of the county.

Koster, 58, is the third generation of his family to run a dairy farm. He graduated from Arlington High School in 1969 and later earned an associate degree from Everett Community College.

Loyalty to two aging cars says something about his character. One is a Lincoln Town Car with about 290,000 miles, another a GMC pickup with about 264,000 miles.

Watson, 44, graduated from Stanwood High School in 1983, then went to Central Washington University to earn a dual major in political science and mass communications.

She worked as a reporter and editor at the Skagit Valley Herald and the Whidbey News-Times. After almost a decade in the news business, she spent a few years in marketing and started a consulting business, Hiatt Watson Writing and Design.

Koster has raised more than four times as much money as Watson, with $147,161 on Monday compared to her $35,084, state Public Disclosure Commission records show. Big Koster donors included builders and local businesses, while prominent Watson donors included labor unions and Democratic Party organizations.

The job pays $102,779. The district includes Marysville, Stanwood, Arlington, Darrington and Granite Falls.

If she were to unseat Koster, Watson would be the first woman to serve on the County Council since 2001. All five current members of the council are men in their 50s, with Koster the only Republican.

Find out more about the candidates at and

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,