The man in the shadows

No one pinned Ron Dotzauer in three years of wrestling for Everett’s Cascade High School.

Few have defeated the Snohomish consultant in 33 years of grappling in Washington’s political arena.

At 61, Dotzauer is one of the state’s best-known tacticians, a fierce competitor whose strategic brawn and personal bravado can make the difference in a close fight, especially for underdogs.

That’s why Marysville last year hired the man who wears cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat to bring a proposed university to town. And why Mukilteo this month signed him and his firm, Strategies 360, to lead them into battle to keep passenger flights out of Paine Field.

“His reputation is that of a tough guy in a very tough business,” consultant Cathy Allen said. “No one wants to wake up and find out Ron Dotzauer is the opposing consultant.”

Critics privately point to Dotzauer’s aggressiveness for preventing a temporary college from opening somewhere in Snohomish County this year while differences on a permanent site are resolved.

Some of them are spreading alerts that he’ll use the same plan to squash commercial jet service in the county.

Wednesday brought the first jab from Dotzauer in the form of an e-mail attacking the trustworthiness of Allegiant Air, the company seeking to offer flights from the county-owned Paine Field to Las Vegas. The company said Friday the claims were overstated.

The strongly worded missive zeroed in on where the company started and abruptly ended service. Headlines of newspaper stories from around the country were included to bolster the case.

“Don’t let Allegiant Airlines exploit Everett and South Snohomish County the way they do other communities!” screamed the e-mail circulated to hundreds of elected officials, civic leaders, business owners and residents.

It is vintage Dotzauer.

“What people like about Ron is the same thing some people don’t like about him. He’s not unwilling to throw punches for his client,” Democratic consultant Terry Thompson said.

You’ll get no apology from the man.

“We do our homework,” Dotzauer said. “If you stay fact-based, you don’t have to apologize.”

* * *

Sitting in his 10th-floor office with an expansive view of Seattle’s Lake Union, Ron Dotzauer is doing what he does best: talking.

Ask him a question and he answers with a colorful story punctuated by his signature laugh.

“His cackle you can hear from three time zones away,” said former Associated Press reporter David Ammons, who called Dotzauer the “happy warrior” of Washington politics in a 2000 profile.

Born in South Dakota in 1946, Dotzauer is the oldest of seven children. He was 5 when a caravan of cars carrying his family and relatives drove to Everett to reunite with aunts and uncles living near Legion Park.

He grew up in Everett and attended public schools. In high school, he wrestled at 103 pounds on a team that included Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson. He also ran cross-country and continued competing in those two sports as a freshman at Central Washington University.

After that first year, he dropped out of college to work, only to realize he’d made himself vulnerable to the draft. He enlisted before getting called up and joining the Navy, becoming a medic assigned to the Marines.

Dotzauer often tells of the humorous exchange between his mom and one of her friends at a gathering several years after the Vietnam War ended.

The friend asked about Dotzauer’s war experience.

His mom said that when Dotzauer left he was interested in medicine. When he came back, he became a politician.

He was hurt that badly? the friend joked.

Vietnam “was a life-altering experience,” he said, uncharacteristically somber.

In one of his first operations in country, 55 soldiers went out and 15 came back alive, he said.

“I am proud of the fact that if I got to somebody and they were alive when I got to them, they were alive when we got to the helicopter,” he said.

One month into his 11-month tour, the platoon headed out into the mountains. An order came in for everyone to remove their flak jackets and helmets and put them in the back of a truck — making them essentially defenseless against injury from mortar attacks. No one ever quite understood who gave the order or why, he said.

“That night, sitting on a hill, I had what you might call an epiphany” that it was not the fault of his commanders, he said.

“It was those damn politicians making decisions about my life,” he said “I made a contract with myself that if I make it back, that is where I am going to go: into politics.”

An incident a couple months later hardened his resolve. He was in camp and received a packet of mail that included an Everett Daily Herald with a story reporting President Nixon’s insistence that the U.S. had not gone into Laos. He knew otherwise as his platoon had just returned from there.

He returned to Everett in 1969 after 11 months in Vietnam and re-enrolled in Central Washington University. While there, he hosted a television show about politics on a Yakima station. He befriended many people in office and those who helped get them elected. Several encouraged him to move to Vancouver and helped launch his career to be that better political leader.

In 1974, at 27, he was elected Clark County auditor as a Democrat. He won a second term and midway through in 1980 he ran for secretary of state but lost to Republican Ralph Munro.

He caught the eye of U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who convinced Dotzauer to resign as auditor, move back to Everett and sign on to manage his 1982 Senate campaign. Dotzauer did.

“You just didn’t tell the senator ‘no,’ ” Dotzauer said.

Dotzauer added to his campaign management credentials in 1984 when he guided Booth Gardner into the governor’s mansion.

Six years later he would further cement his position as a political power broker by directing Democrat Maria Cantwell’s upset of incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dotzauer honed his craft by watching Jackson and listening to the senator’s longtime chief of staff, Sterling Munro.

From them came his understanding of the power of public opinion and the importance of preparing a message well before delivering it.

He cites Munro for restoring his faith in politicians and turning his instincts into something greater.

Since 1984, Dotzauer shifted his professional focus from trying to help elect those who govern to assisting those who are governed — primarily clients with sizable wallets — win parochial battles.

Yet he freely gives advice, and many seek it at that price.

In 2003, he aided Democrat Kevin Quigley in his race against fellow Democrat Aaron Reardon. Quigley lost partly because of a hit piece that made false claims about Reardon. Dotzauer got the blame. He fiercely insists he had nothing to do with it and told Quigley to apologize for putting it out.

He’s worked for Waste Management, Puget Sound Energy and Barnum &Bailey Circus when some in Seattle wanted the circus out of town.

His current clients include the Tulalip Tribes and Dave Barnett, the developer pushing to build a fully contained community near Lake Roesiger.

He said he’s signing on to do two different wind farm projects, one bankrolled by rock band Pearl Jam and one as a subcontractor of large project funded by oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

* * *

Last summer, Marysville came knocking at Dotzauer’s door when city leaders awoke to the reality that a proposed University of Washington branch campus could end up in the city.

Until then, Everett enjoyed most-favored-city status for the proposed four-year university. Mayor Stephanson and his city-hired lobbyists quietly had a hand in writing legislation and designing the site selection process.

Dotzauer’s arrival transformed the dialogue and stole the momentum and spotlight from Everett.

“He turned it into a political campaign,” recalled state Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett.

While the city paid for lobbying, money from owners of the proposed Marysville site and local businesses enabled Strategies 360 to launch a “Real Huskies Go North” campaign complete with T-shirts, fliers and a Web site.

Things started getting downright nasty after a state-financed study ranked Everett’s proposed site at the city transit center ahead of the property in Marysville.

Dotzauer’s firm immediately ripped the report as flawed, spent the next four months detailing its shortcomings to lawmakers and sought without success to get revisions made.

What he said didn’t enrage folks as much as how he and his team said it. The intensity of their lobbying against the Everett site and for a new review process further complicated the pursuit of the university.

Lawmakers from outside the county, already reluctant to act because of division in the Snohomish County delegation, now had another reason to be turned off.

When the dust settled after the session ended, several people intimately involved in the process continued to hold Dotzauer responsible for spoiling the waters.

“You can thank Strategies 360 for the situation we’re in. They were stalling it,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, a backer of the Everett site.

That’s not how County Councilman Brian Sullivan saw it.

“Ron may have been the icing on the cake, but not the devil that wrecked the deal,” said Sullivan, a former state lawmaker who wants the college in Everett.

Most observers consider the lack of unity among county legislators more pivotal than Dotzauer’s aggressiveness. The high cost of a new college repelled some decision-makers.

“We could have made more progress if we legislators had had more meetings among ourselves without the outside influence of lobbyists,” Berkey said.

Dotzauer slapped aside any notion he wrecked things.

“I understand when you think you’ve won and you end up losing, you blame the people you lost to, you don’t look to what you did right or wrong,” Dotzauer said.

“Everything we did was fact-based and fact-checked. They dug their heels in so deep on a bad site they couldn’t develop an extraction strategy,” he said.

Everett leaders kept private any lingering peeve they feel.

“Why point the finger at them? It was a competitive process,” government relations director Pat McClain said. “We created a competitive process and we really were looking for consensus.”

Stephanson dismissed Dotzauer’s role completely.

“I don’t think their efforts were very effective. I think it was largely irrelevant as it will be irrelevant on the airport too,” he said.

* * *

Historically, the community’s conversation on Paine Field centered on how allowing commercial jet service would affect neighborhood life, property values and the economy.

This week Dotzauer turned up the heat with a Wednesday e-mail blasting Allegiant Air. The attack on the airline’s credibility had abrasiveness reminiscent of its criticisms of the proposed university site in Everett.

Allegiant Air officials said there are inaccuracies in the e-mail and sent out its own statement Friday.

For now, those desiring Allegiant Air’s arrival are concerned by the shifting tone.

“Our challenge from the get-go is to bring out factual data on whether this makes sense or not. I would hope that’s their intention, too,” said Greg Tisdel, owner of Tiz’s Doors in Everett, one of the most visible proponents of expansion.

He said consultants had approached the Private Enterprise Coalition, to which he belongs, about mounting a campaign. Thus far, they’ve said no.

Dotzauer insisted he’ll deal in facts, but beyond that?

“Do you want me to tell you our strategy? No,” Dotzauer said.

It’s only coincidence Everett is again opposite Dotzauer.

Stephanson figures to all but ignore the consultant’s activities and focus on getting his City Council’s support of commercial jet service.

It’s going to boost the economy and cause minimal amounts of neighborhood hardship, Stephanson said.

“That’s the story that needs to be told,” he said.

Marysville adds a bit of spice in the airport fight because it is aligned with Everett and against its valued consultant, who is still getting paid.

“It’s a different situation. He’s got to sell his product like he had to sell our product,” said Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall. “I think he had a more saleable product than he has now.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or

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