EVERETT — Two weeks after Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said he was running for re-election, he surprised the city with an about-face.
“While I had considered running once again for this post, upon reflection and conversations with my family I have decided to step down at the end of my term,” Stephanson said in a press release Wednesday. “I don’t make this decision lightly, but it is the right decision.”
When he leaves office at the end of the year, he’ll go out as the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. He’ll leave behind both a list of accomplishments as well as unfinished business.
“I love serving as Mayor of Everett, my hometown and a community that has been so gracious to myself and my family,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a lot together over the past 14 years, from revitalization of our local economy to investing in our neighborhoods and serving the vulnerable with compassion.”
He was not available for further comment Wednesday, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.
Most people in and around the city’s political landscape, including the city council members, only got wind of Stephanson’s withdrawal Tuesday.
“After attending the State of the City address, it felt like the mayor was full speed ahead on another four years,” Councilman Jeff Moore said.
Stephanson also used the address to announce the city would sue Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, for its alleged negligence in creating an epidemic of opioid addiction.
That is just one of many issues that Stephanson’s successor will inherit.
In the past two years, Stephanson has led the city in a number of initiatives, including a housing project for chronically homeless people and programs designed to reduce the impact of homelessness, addiction and mental illness on the city’s streets.
Stephanson helped usher Sound Transit’s ST3 package onto the ballot last November, and pushed to ensure the future light rail alignment would serve Boeing and Paine Field.
“I’ve supported Ray because he has been a great supporter of ST3 and also has been very supportive with the housing and community issues we and everyone else in the state is dealing with,” said Paul Roberts, who has served on the Everett City Council for 10 years as well as the Sound Transit board of directors.
Under Stephanson’s direction, the city established the Washington State University North Puget Sound University Center at Everett and supported expanded higher educational opportunities and workforce development at WSU and Everett Community College.
He was a cheerleader in Olympia for WSU’s new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, which plans to offer courses at its branch campuses, including Everett.
“WSU would not have a campus in Everett or a medical school without Mayor Stephanson’s tireless leadership and steadfast support,” WSU-NPS Chancellor Paul Pitre said in a statement. “He is an incredible champion for the people of Everett and this region, and he will be dearly missed at City Hall.”
Democratic state Rep. Mike Sells, of Everett, lauded Stephanson for his tireless efforts to bring Washington State University to the city.
“The stick-to-it-ness that he had really helped push that through,” Sells said. “He didn’t fade.”
Stephanson avoided cuts in service and mass layoffs among the city staff during the recession even as Kimberly-Clark shut down its waterfront mill and Boeing began reducing its presence in Washington state.
He also pushed for an aerospace and advanced manufacturing center in southwest Everett, ensuring that Boeing would continue to make major investments in the region, and advocated for commercial air service at Paine Field.
“Mayor Stephanson stood tall in the face of enormous pressure to ensure the 777X will be built in Everett (and that) created jobs and opportunities for thousands of families for many years to come,” Ray Conner, the Boeing Co. vice chairman, said in a written statement.
Even Naval Station Everett, the county’s second-largest employer, hasn’t always been a sure thing. Shortly after Stephanson first took office in 2003 he had to work to ensure the base wouldn’t fall victim to the last round of base closures across the nation.
“The mayor has provided strong leadership for the city for the past 14 years, including navigating the city through the worst economy since the depression,” city Councilman Scott Murphy said. “I understand his desire to spend more time with his family and enjoy his retirement.”
The city’s list of unfinished business includes managing residential and commercial development in the downtown core, on the waterfront and the riverfront.
The proposed homeless housing project, being developed in tandem with Catholic Housing Services, is only now in the permitting phase, and many people in nearby neighborhoods have been vocally opposed.
No one yet has publicly said they are running for mayor except Sullivan, who has clashed with Stephanson on several issues over the years, most notably commercial air service. The official filing period for the election is in May.
“This is a big decision that needs to be made, and it’s important because we need to make sure we have a candidate that will capitalize on all the good things that are going on, because they will set the tone for the next 50 years,” said Greg Tisdel, an Everett businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Sullivan’s county council seat two years ago.
Former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, who now works for WSU, said that whoever becomes mayor next will have to understand the city’s role in the regional economy and be active on many fronts, just like Stephanson.
“He always has something moving, he’s always looking toward the future,” he said.
“Because of the environment and foundation that Ray has left, I think you’re going to see someone exciting, new, charged for the future, perhaps younger come forward,” Drewel said.
Herald Writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.