MONROE — Sam Low and Hans Dunshee largely agree when it comes to identifying the biggest problems facing eastern Snohomish County, but they disagree sharply about how to solve them.
Voters in the coming election will pick which contender wins a one-year term representing the County Council’s District 5. Diverging ideas for combating opioid abuse, relieving congested roads and paying for government services set the two candidates apart.
Dunshee was appointed to the council seat left vacant after fellow Democrat Dave Somers won election as county executive. The veteran lawmaker sees the county as a welcome departure from partisan gridlock in Olympia. He says he has the track record to make things happen.
“I want to make this place work,” Dunshee said. “I want government to work for everybody.”
Low, a Republican who serves as the president of the Lake Stevens City Council, said that after all of Dunshee’s time in office, it’s time to try something new — namely, himself.
“My opponent was first elected to office while I was in college and now I have two kids in college,” Low said. “I think it’s time for new ideas.”
Five county council members make up the legislative branch of county government. The District 5 seat covers urban and rural stretches of Washington’s third-largest county by population. The district includes more than 150,000 people, who live in the cities of Lake Stevens, Snohomish, Monroe, Sultan, Gold Bar, Index and part of Bothell, as well as in unincorporated areas such as Clearview, Machias and Maltby.
The Nov. 8 election is for the unexpired portion of the term Somers won in 2013. Another election for a four-year term is set for next year. Ballots were mailed Thursday.
In the August primary, Low finished ahead of Dunshee by more than 1,000 votes, giving him almost 52 percent of the ballots cast.
Low, 46, grew up in north Everett and graduated from Everett High School. He now runs his own company, Already Painting, after past work as a pastor, elementary school teacher and basketball coach.
First elected to the Lake Stevens City Council in 2013, he said he’s worked to support public safety agencies and improve local roads. He promises a fiscally conservative approach, insisting that voters get clear answers about what they’d receive in return for any tax increases.
“The 5th Council District has struggled with taxes,” he said. “The problem is they don’t see the results for the dollars.”
Dunshee, who turns 63 later this month, is one of the best-known elected officials in this part of the state. The Snohomish resident served in the House continually since 1997 after an earlier two-year term. He grew up in Seattle and graduated from Ingraham High School. He formerly operated a boat-repair business and a septic-design businesses.
The County Council appointed Dunshee in February, although more Democratic precinct officers supported a different candidate, fire commissioner Guy Palumbo, as their nominee. Palumbo is now running for a state senate seat.
Dunshee said his biggest disappointment at the county is the narrow failure of Proposition 1 during the August primary. The 0.2 percent sales-tax hike would have raised an estimated $25 million per year, with two-thirds of it going to the county for public safety and human services. Elected officials said the tax would have helped expand a program that teams up social workers with deputies to steer homeless drug addicts away from the streets.
Both candidates have identified the rampant opiate abuse, and the property crimes it fuels, as the top issue facing their community.
“No, I’m not going to just walk away from the heroin epidemic,” Dunshee said. “We can’t give up and limp away.”
Dunshee would like to find a way to build on the success of embedding social workers with deputies, even without the sales-tax revenue.
“That might be something I demand in the budget,” he said.
County leaders should consider bringing back the sales-tax measure in a future election cycle, Dunshee said, after more outreach to voters.
Low said he’s not convinced the sales tax was the best way to address drug abuse and crime.
“At the end of the day, we all knew what it was for: It was to plug a $7 million budget hole,” he said, referring to the shortfall in next year’s county operating budget. “I believe the voters saw through it and that’s why it failed.”
Low believes it would be more effective to invest in treatment facilities for addicts. He wants to see more money steered toward the Snohomish Health District, where he has served as a past board member representing the city of Lake Stevens, including one year as board chairman.
Some of the legislative acts that Dunshee counts among his biggest successes on the County Council are regarded with reproach by Low.
Dunshee spearheaded legislation to allow people in unincorporated areas to pass neighborhood-specific fireworks bans by petition. It passed in August.
“I don’t think a countywide ban is appropriate,” Dunshee said. “I think this is a pretty good compromise.”
Low, who said his family home was destroyed by fireworks while he was in high school, nonetheless opposes further fireworks restrictions, including the one Dunshee backed.
“My (opponent’s) ban is unenforceable and will cost the county a tremendous amount of money in trying to enforce it neighborhood-by-neighborhood,” he said. “In the end, your neighborhood may ban it, but the next neighborhood over might not and you will still have the same people upset by it with nothing solved.”
Low criticized Dunshee’s work to draft and pass a council resolution about postage for ballots returned by voters in the upcoming election. The heavier-than-usual ballots require 68 cents worth of postage, while a typical letter requires a single 47-cent stamp. A resolution drafted by Dunshee asked the county auditor to make it clear that the office will accept ballots received with inadequate postage. That was already the county’s practice, but it wasn’t widely advertised.
“To me, that’s a big deal,” Dunshee said. “It’s just the idea of it getting expensive to vote.”
Low said the move is bound to cost the county more money. The postal service would have delivered the ballots anyway. Plus, he said, postage doesn’t appear to be a top priority among the voters he’s encountered.
“Every door, especially in eastern Snohomish County, it’s all about transportation,” Low said. “It’s not about stamps. We do have plenty of free places where your ballots can go.”
Eastern Snohomish County is home to some of the region’s more aggravating traffic problems: dangerous U.S. 2, bottle-necked Highway 522 and congested Highway 9. Lake Stevens, with the proliferation of new construction, has been one of the worst-hit areas.
Both candidates say that local governments need to be more aggressive about finding solutions to improve highways, rather than waiting on the state to fix them.
Dunshee said it’s likely to be another decade before state lawmakers pass a roads package to pay for the district’s most urgent needs. The county and other local governments simply don’t have the money to pay for an estimated $1 billion or more in road projects in his council district alone.
“There’s no magic bullet, there’s no magic pot of money that hasn’t been looked at,” he said. “It’s disingenuous to tell voters that.”
Dunshee favors more mass transit as well as creative solutions, such as looking at reversible lanes for trouble spots such as the U.S. 2 trestle. Another idea is allowing people to drive on the shoulders of Highway 522.
Low wants to find ways to build more lanes on local roads, including spots where Highway 522 narrows from four lanes to two. He believes it’s possible to find solutions without a windfall from the state. He points to efforts by Lake Stevens city officials to secure $1.5 million in state money to study ways to improve trestle access. Findings from the study could help secure federal road dollars for construction.
“I have said unless local governments get involved, it will not get fixed by the state,” Low said. “I am the only one who has consistently said we need add more lanes for traffic.”
Last year, Dunshee supported Community Transit’s ballot measure to increase the sales tax by 0.3 percent. It passed, adding 3 cents to a $10 purchase in the agency’s service area starting this past spring. Low said he opposed the tax because voters in Lake Stevens received few guarantees up front about what mass-transit improvements they would get for their money.
Self-described political progressives want to keep Dunshee in office. The Seattle-based organization Fuse Washington did opposition research on Low and distributed records from a divorce in 2006, when he was the subject of a temporary civil protection order in Pierce County. Low’s then-wife requested the order after he looked into a window at their home during a custody dispute. Documents show the order was terminated a few months later at his ex-wife’s request. There were no allegations of physical abuse.
Low has been an eager campaigner. He started nearly a year ago, declaring his candidacy just weeks after the 2015 general election. He’s been busy raising money and waving signs. By late last week he had raised more than $76,000 and Dunshee more than $71,000. Low received much of his support from developers, real estate professionals and Republican Party groups. Large chunks of Dunshee’s campaign cash came from organized labor, tribal governments, Democratic Party organizations and environmentalists.
Meet the candidates
Experience: 20 years as a state House representative; formerly owned and operated a boat-repair business and a septic-design business
Website: www. hansdunshee.com
Fun facts: Dunshee is an avid cyclist. He plays multiple musical instruments, including the bagpipes, the concertina and the tin whistle.
Residence: Lake Stevens
Experience: Lake Stevens City Council president; past Lake Stevens representative to the Snohomish County Board of Health; owner of Already Painting; former pastor, elementary school teacher and basketball coach
Website: www. electsamlow.com
Fun facts: Low enjoys traveling and playing golf. He’s the current president of the Lake Stevens Rotary Club and a member of the local chamber of commerce.