EVERETT — When Jared Mead got appointed to the Snohomish County Council in April 2020, the Mill Creek Democrat already had a seat in the state House of Representatives.
He kept it and completed the final nine months of the legislative term, becoming one of the few in county politics to ever serve in those two elected posts simultaneously.
Now, Democrat Strom Peterson of Edmonds and Republican Sam Low of Lake Stevens are trying to accomplish the same feat. And they’d like to do so for potentially much longer periods.
Peterson, a state lawmaker, is vying for the District 3 council seat vacated last month by Stephanie Wright. Low, a County Council member, is challenging Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, in November in the 39th Legislative District.
Peterson and Low have each expressed confidence that doing both jobs won’t overwhelm them.
Mead thinks they’re right.
“As far as a practical matter, absolutely I think it can be done,” he said. “I’ve served with both of them and I think both of them can do it.”
Until Mead, Hans Dunshee might have been the only other person to ever have occupied a seat in the Legislature and on the Snohomish County Council at the same time. The Snohomish Democrat did it for roughly six weeks in 2016 before resigning from the state House to focus on the county gig.
Dunshee doesn’t think one can do both jobs effectively.
“During a legislative session, if you do that job right, you’re full-on busy,” he said. “There are times when the County Council doesn’t really take much work, but I think you’re splitting your time.”
Dunshee chaired the House capital budget committee. In his last session he drafted a spending plan then negotiated its passage through the House and Senate and to the governor for signing. His appointment to the council came in late February as the budget process reached its most critical stage.
He said he didn’t miss any council votes. Dunshee recounted that when he got his first check from the county, he donated the sum to a nonprofit because he felt he hadn’t delivered full value for those first few weeks.
‘A lot of juggling’
Holding two elected offices is legal in Washington. It is not uncommon for members of city councils and school boards to also serve in the Legislature. Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek was on the Everett School Board and Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, was on the Bothell City Council, until each resigned recently to focus on lawmaking duties.
It’s pretty rare for a lawmaker to also serve on a countywide legislating body. Those jobs generally command a lot more time and responsibility.
Retiring state Sen. Tim Sheldon of Hoodsport stands alone among those who have done it. Sheldon, a moderate Democrat who caucused with Republicans in the Senate, served 32 years in the Legislature and for 12 of those was also on the Mason County Commission.
“There was a lot of juggling balls in the air trying to do both jobs,” he said. “I would be really careful because I knew Democrats would come after me if I missed votes in either. I’m not going to apologize for doing two jobs. People kept electing me.”
He figured he had advantages over a person from Snohomish County.
The three-person commission serves a county of roughly 67,000 people. It met twice a month. Sheldon could attend meetings, then make the 25-minute drive to the state Capitol.
“I had the great advantage of geography. I think it would be very difficult to be accountable to the citizens from that far away,” he said, referring to Snohomish County.
A benefit of doing the two jobs cited by Low and Peterson is a synergy of issues handled at the county and state levels. They contend they’ll have a broader perspective of how to pass laws which can be put in place smoothly in communities.
“I did sit in the caucuses and say many times how important it was to not hand down state mandates to local government,” he said.
Duerr, who is seeking re-election, served on the City Council throughout her first term. That synergy “is a real thing,” she said. “It’s very helpful to have that real world experience and can say why a bill doesn’t make sense or why it does make sense.”
The workload is real too. There are committee hearings, council meetings, community events plus researching items on the agenda, studying bills.
Duerr carried several significant bills dealing with the environment the past two sessions, each requiring much negotiating and revising.
“I felt I could do both jobs,” she said. “It’s a lot. If you’re gonna do it right, and do it well, it takes work. You have to be meeting with people on legislation. You have to be out in the community. I found myself being frustrated a lot. I, myself, think it would be very challenging. I can’t speak for other people and their abilities.”
A County Council member earns $126,571 a year. Meetings are mostly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and rarely last all day.
The Legislature is in session 105 days in odd years, 60 days in even years — more days if there is a special session. Schedules of lawmakers, who earn $57,876 a year, vary based on which committees they serve on. There are certain periods when they are meeting all day and night to vote on bills.
In the pandemic, the council and the Legislature each started meeting virtually. It’s expected Low and Peterson could be in Olympia and join a county meeting virtually, or vice versa.
Low, whose District 5 includes Lakes Stevens, Snohomish and Monroe, has said he has “an idea of how it’s going to work.”
“I am very good at balancing priorities,” he said. “I have been upfront. I have said if I can’t make them both work, I’ll be glad to give one up.”
Sutherland has questioned his opponent’s reasons for wanting both jobs.
In late July, on Facebook, Sutherland shared an open letter to Republican voters penned by John Koster, an Arlington Republican who did stints as a lawmaker and a Snohomish County council member. Koster backs Low.
“I spoke with Sam about my concerns, specifically the ability for him or anybody else, for that matter, to fill both positions and do either job well,” he wrote. “It is my belief that (it) is just not humanly possible. I speak from the experience of having done both jobs.”
Peterson is one of six people seeking to fill the vacancy in District 3 encompassing Lynnwood, Edmonds, Woodway and some unincorporated neighborhoods.
Democratic precinct officers will nominate three of them and the County Council will appoint one. Others seeking the appointment have already made a point of how they will devote 100% of their time to the county position — an indirect critique of Peterson’s plans.
“I believe I can do both jobs well,” Peterson has said. But if it becomes too much, he said he will “make changes.”
Mike Cooper, a Democrat, ex-lawmaker and former District 3 council member, said that done right, each office is a full-time job.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” said Cooper, now living in Elma. “But I would agree with John (Koster). If you’re putting in the time that both jobs deserve and taxpayers expect, it would be hard to do them both.”
Republican Gary Nelson of Edmonds, who had lengthy tours in the Legislature and on the county council, was more blunt.
“To do two positions cheats the people who put you in office for each,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dospueblos.