Top: Robert Sutherland (left) and Claus Joens. Bottom: Karl de Jong (left) and Sam Low.

Top: Robert Sutherland (left) and Claus Joens. Bottom: Karl de Jong (left) and Sam Low.

Dynamic duel: Republicans Sutherland and Low square off in primary

The incumbent lawmaker and county councilman are a contrast of styles, with many parallels in actual policy.

LAKE STEVENS — Democrats want Republican Rep. Robert Sutherland out of the state House. They’ve tried the past two elections to unseat him, and failed.

Now, plenty of folks in the Grand Old Party want him out too.

They’re pinning their hopes on Sam Low, a Republican Snohomish County Council member, who has steadily gained prominence since his 2016 toppling of the incumbent, Hans Dunshee, a Democrat who served in the House.

The intraparty duel is one of the most intriguing storylines in the Aug. 2 primary. Democrats Claus Joens of Marblemount, who battled Sutherland in 2020, and Karl de Jong of Sedro-Woolley are also vying for the seat. The top two vote getters will advance to the November general election with the winner securing a two-year term in a job paying $57,876 a year.

This contest is in the 39th Legislative District, a GOP stronghold which underwent serious reshaping through redistricting.

Though still reliably Republican, thousands of voters from rural conservative enclaves around Monroe, Gold Bar and Arlington — a cornerstone of Sutherland’s base — are gone. In their place are ones in Lake Stevens — where Low lives and once served on the City Council — with a more moderate suburban mindset.

Low readily acknowledges when redistricting opened the door, he walked through it.

“The new 39th District is an area I know really well,” Low said when he entered the race in January. “We have a top-two primary system, and so having two Republicans to choose from in a traditionally Republican 39th District seems like a great choice for the voters.”

Sutherland contends Low is an opportunistic and well-funded opponent who must overcome his “extensive name recognition” and “strong voting record” in Olympia.

“Voters want to know why the councilman is challenging a strong Republican and his statements about planning to hold both positions at the same time are laughable. He instantly loses all credibility,” Sutherland wrote in a recent email interview. “The voters are not stupid, and the councilman will pay a heavy political price for this obvious blunder.”

Thus far, Low enjoys the edge in money and endorsements.

He reported nearly $104,749 in contributions of which roughly $40,000 were unspent funds transferred from his last council race. Low had reported roughly $80,000 in spending, as of Friday.

He has also garnered backing and contributions from Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey, Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney. Former Snohomish County Republican Party chairs James Kellett and Billye Brooks Sebastiani and former secretary of state Sam Reed are donors too.

Sutherland had collected $37,261 in contributions, per online reportings. That exceeds the total amount he raised in either of his previous two campaigns. He had spent about half, as of Friday.

He is endorsed by the Snohomish County Republican Party, which gave him $1,000. He’s also backed by the Skagit County Republican Party, according to his website.

Meanwhile, Mainstream Republicans of Washington, a statewide group of moderate GOP elected officials and activists, is taking sides.

The group has contributed $2,000 and, on its own, sent postcards backing Low to 30,000 GOP and independent voters. Its political action committee — whose donors include Amazon, Delta Dental and Republican Party heavyweights like cell phone pioneer Bruce McCaw — spent $15,000 on the mailing.

“The Cascade PAC supports the election of common-sense conservatives to public office,” said Nate Nehring, who is co-chair of the political committee. He also serves with Low on the Snohomish County Council.

State Representative Robert Sutherland, who is seeking re-election in the 39th District this year, gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on Friday, in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

State Representative Robert Sutherland, who is seeking re-election in the 39th District this year, gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on Friday, in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘I speak my mind’

Sutherland and Low offer Republican voters a clear contrast in styles.

Sutherland, 62, of Granite Falls, is a staunch conservative who seems to revel in attention stirred by his verbal jabs at liberalism and Democrats, and sometimes those in his party.

He entered politics after a career in biopharmaceutical research. He suffered a series of electoral setbacks losing races for Congress in 2014, Snohomish County executive in 2015, Congress again in 2016, and Snohomish County Council in 2017.

The streak ended in 2018 when he captured an open seat in the state House created by the retirement of Dan Kristiansen, a Republican and former House Minority Leader. He serves on three committees: transportation, community and economic development, and college and workforce development.

In this past term, Sutherland emerged in the center of two ongoing partisan conflicts — vaccine mandates and the 2020 election.

On the former, he and five other Republican lawmakers sued to block House rules requiring members be vaccinated in order to get into their offices or be on the House floor. He lost the suit.

On the latter, he remains convinced President Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump wasn’t responsible for inciting the Jan. 6 siege on the nation’s Capitol by a mob of his supporters. Sutherland’s spread baseless allegations of voter fraud in Washington in 2020.

Sutherland isn’t afraid to say things as he sees things.

“I speak my mind,” he said in an interview last year. “If my speech offends you, I’m sorry. I try to be as honest as I can.”

It can get him in trouble.

Sutherland received a written reprimand in March for violating legislative conduct rules when he berated and swore at the House chief of security on the Capitol grounds in Olympia. While he disagreed with the outcome, he is completing a “refresher course” on respectful workplace expectations and attending “constructive conflict coaching” as the reprimand requires.

Low, 52, positions himself as a moderate Republican — he calls himself “balanced” — who values communication and compromise in the legislating process. He boasts of befriending Democrats and Republicans alike.

“I have always been known to be fair, hard-working and bipartisan,” he said.

The former owner of a painting business was elected to the Lake Stevens City Council in 2013.

His 2016 council victory secured a partial term. He won his first full council term a year later, and in November, he won a second term by beating Democrat Brandy Donaghy. Weeks later he voted to appoint Donaghy to fill a vacant state House seat in the 44th Legislative District where she lives.

Low doesn’t publicly criticize Sutherland’s demeanor or actions.

“We need an effective leader in the position that can work with constituents and take the votes in Olympia,” he said. “You have to be able to work across the aisle to get things done.”

If successful, Low intends to keep his council seat while serving in the Legislature. It is legal for legislators to hold two elected posts at the same time.

A County Council member earns $126,571 a year. Meetings are mostly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and rarely last all day.

Low gives the impression it’s not a full-time job, pointing out council members commit to work a minimum of 90 hours a month. That’s less than 25 hours a week.

The Legislature is in session 105 days in odd years, 60 days in even years — more days if there is a special session. Lawmakers’ schedules 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 could be in Olympia and join a county meeting virtually, or vice versa.

Low said he has “an idea of how it’s going to work,” but called it a speculative conversation until after the primary.

“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.”

He didn’t say which one.

Sam Low, a candidate for state representative, talks with seniors on Wednesday morning in Lake Stevens. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sam Low, a candidate for state representative, talks with seniors on Wednesday morning in Lake Stevens. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘A lot of speculation’

Ask Sam Low to name one significant policy bill on which he would have voted differently than Robert Sutherland, and he can’t.

Low said his voting record would more closely mirror that of Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, the other 39th District House member to whom Low has contributed $930 for her re-election. He couldn’t cite a significant policy difference between the two of them.

On issues, for example, Sutherland and Low each vow to support law enforcement. Each wants to revisit policing reforms pushed through by Democrats the past two session and reinstate penalties for simple drug possession, which the state Supreme Court erased with its Blake decision.

On taxes, both said Democrats should have used some of the state’s large surplus to provide tax relief. Sutherland wants to pause collection of the state’s 49-cent gas tax. Low does, too, but only if general fund dollars are used to backfill the lost revenue for transportation.

Guns and abortion are examples of where the two may differ, by degrees.

Both men oppose the new ban on sales of high capacity ammunition magazines, for example.

Low said he couldn’t remember how he voted on Initiative 1639, the voter-approved initiative that increased the age for buying assault weapons, established safe storage rules and made other changes in state law. Sutherland, a gun owner who has openly carried at public events, opposed it.

Low declined to comment on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end constitutional protected access to abortion. Nor would he say if he would support legislation to change any existing state laws concerning abortion access, including repealing of expanded protections passed in recent years.

“I think it’s a lot of speculation,” he said. “I haven’t heard any Republican saying it’s coming to a vote. I don’t see any changes unless it comes from the voters.”

Sutherland, meanwhile, is unequivocal in his opposition to abortion, posting on Facebook: “All Lives Matter and are precious. Even the unborn.”

‘It is great to have choices’

Democrats Claus Joens and Karl de Jong are attracting less focus and fewer dollars as they pursue a spot in the general election.

Joens, 59, teaches business education at Concrete High School. Before that, he worked for the Ford Motor Co. in accounting and strategic planning. He lost to Sutherland in 2020, and to Republican Sen. Keith Wagoner of Sedro Woolley in 2018.

Undaunted by those setbacks, Joens said the reconfigured district reshapes the electoral conversation.

“I think we have a chance to beat (Sutherland),” he said, including Low in his calculation.

“I am looking to provide a platform where kindness matters,” he said, committing to listen to divergent perspectives on legislation. “You need expertise from all sides, not just the red team or the blue team.”

On issues, Joens said he is “running to protect women’s rights” and to improve students’ academic performance through better use of education dollars. Fighting climate change, expanding access to health care for all, and increasing affordable housing are on his to-do list.

He wants to reform property taxes too. He envisions limiting annual increases as Proposition 13 has done in California for nearly 45 years.

de Jong, 56, served one-term on the Sedro-Woolley City Council and lost re-election in November. Like the other challengers, de Jong said the district’s new look coupled with Sutherland’s record created a potential path to a legislative change.

“I think it is great to have choices. There is a definite contrast in the leadership styles of the four candidates,” he said. “We need someone who is going to be responsive to the district and take responsible votes.”

de Jong vowed to be an active listener to constituents concerned by what’s happening in their lives and communities, not the messaging of partisans. He would seek to address rising food and gas prices, and other “meat and potato” issues, he said.

“To me the 39th isn’t defined by a party or ideology. It’s about the neighborhoods, the people living in the foothills and river basins,” he said. “We can’t see the Space Needle from here.”

He said he’ll focus on ensuring seniors can retire in dignity and in place. One way will be making sure seniors are aware of property tax exemptions and utility assistance programs that can reduce living costs.

Ballots are due Aug. 2. They can be deposited in a designated drop box or returned by mail postage-free.

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

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