Arlington’s Koster stepping down to lead small state agency

Rep. John Koster (R-Arlington)

Rep. John Koster (R-Arlington)

OLYMPIA — One of Snohomish County’s best-known Republicans is getting out of elected politics less than a year after getting back in.

State Rep. John Koster, of Arlington, is quitting the Legislature next month to lead a small state agency responsible for distributing gas tax dollars for road projects in Washington’s 39 counties.

Koster, 65, will be the next executive director of the County Roads Administration Board. He submitted his resignation letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday. His last day in office will be Aug. 31.

“It is kind of bittersweet leaving the Legislature,” Koster said Friday. “I enjoyed it. I have a lot of respect for the institution. This was the right thing for my wife and I.”

His announcement comes one day after lawmakers concluded a session that lasted 193 calendar days, the longest continuous session in state history. He said it’s a coincidence that he got the job offer this week.

“Some will look for a hidden reason. There’s none. This wasn’t even on my radar screen three or four weeks ago,” he said. “I’ve had a career of almost 20 years in elected office and it was time to step aside and let some new blood in.”

Koster was elected in November to a two-year term representing the 39th Legislative District. This marked his second stint in the Legislature as he held the same seat for six years in the state House of Representatives in the 1990s. He also served 12 years on the Snohomish County Council.

An appointment process will now be undertaken to fill his seat. Republican precinct committee officers in the legislative district will nominate three people for the position.

Because the 39th District encompasses portions of three counties — Snohomish, Skagit and King — the council members and commissioners in those communities will collectively choose one of the nominees to serve in the seat through the November 2018 election.

Leaders of the Snohomish County Republican Party will meet next week to begin the process, said Debra Blodgett, chairwoman of the county party. One of the first steps is to identify and recruit “good candidates” to apply, she said.

There’s also a question of whether the votes of each of the three county councils will carry the same weight. Snohomish County has the majority of the district’s population while King County only has a sliver of land and no precinct committee officers, Blodgett said.

It wouldn’t be fair for the votes of the two counties to be equal, she said, noting it is an issue she’ll discuss with leaders of the state Republican Party.

On Friday, several GOP activists suggested Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick might seek the appointment.

Former state representative Elizabeth Scott of Monroe might be interested too, said Russell Wiita, chairman of the 39th Legislative District Republicans.

Koster ran when Scott didn’t seek re-election in 2016 in order to run for Congress. She wound up withdrawing from that race because of health issues. Wiita said he thinks she might be ready to re-enter politics.

Wiita, a Sultan City Councilman, said he’s not interested. He’s happy with the work of the city council and his day job as legislative aide for Republican Snohomish County Councilman Nate Nehring.

Whoever is appointed will be an early favorite to retain the seat in 2018 because the 39th is one of the most solid Republican districts west of the Cascades. Scott won with nearly 63 percent of the vote in 2014 and Koster captured 61 percent in his victory.

Mario Brown, chairman of the Snohomish County Democratic Party, said Friday this will be an interesting one to watch.

“There is an opportunity for us to have a real debate on the issues,” she said. “We will put forward a high quality Democratic candidate in that district.”

Koster will be taking the reins of an agency known best by its acronym, CRAB. It operates with a $5 million biennial budget and a staff of about 15 people. He will succeed Jay Weber who will retire Sept. 5 after 19 years as executive director.

Agency staff work with a nine-member board composed of six county commissioners or council members and three county engineers. This board is responsible for deciding which road projects will get funded through the County Arterial Preservation Program and Rural Arterial Program. Money comes from the counties’ portion of the state’s gas tax.

Koster became familiar with the agency when he served on the board as a Snohomish County Councilman.

“I was very impressed. They do a good job,” he said. “Four years ago I told some folks there that if Jay (Weber) ever retired, I’d be interested in the job.”

A few weeks ago he learned of the opening, applied, interviewed a week ago and received the job offer this week.

Koster said he will earn about $125,000 a year. He said he plans to live in Olympia during the week and return home on weekends.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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