EVERETT — Brian Sullivan has staked his political future on experience as he seeks to become Everett’s next mayor.
That same experience has become a target for his critics.
The Snohomish County councilman has spent most of his adult life in elected office, in city, state and county roles. Now, the 59-year-old is making a play to lead the county’s largest city. While Sullivan moved from Mukilteo in early 2015, he said he grew up just outside city limits and considers Everett home.
The seasoned pol said his background sets him apart from three rivals in the Aug. 1 primary election. Hot-button campaign issues include fighting opioid abuse, homelessness and crime.
“Why am I running for mayor? Because I really think I can tackle these problems,” he said.
Also in the race are City Councilwoman Judy Tuohy, who oversees the Schack Art Center; City Councilwoman Cassie Franklin, who runs Cocoon House, a nonprofit for homeless and at-risk teens; and Shean Nasin, a substitute teacher and coach who is making his first run for public office.
Primary ballots were mailed last week. The top two finishers will advance to the Nov. 7 general election. At stake is a four-year term. The job pays about $182,000 per year.
Sullivan has a loyal following, especially among public safety unions. His detractors say his record inspires little confidence.
“I am very concerned he would bankrupt the city,” outgoing Mayor Ray Stephanson said. “I am very genuinely concerned given his financial track record that he would put this city in peril.”
The job is opening up because Stephanson, who first took office in 2003, decided not to run for re-election. He’s endorsed Franklin, but also gives Tuohy high marks.
Sullivan is known as personable and gregarious. Quick to greet people as “my old friend,” he knows an impressive number of constituents by their first names. The Democrat is unabashedly pro-union and favors a strong social safety net.
A champion collegiate wrestler, he has worked off and on in the restaurant business, currently as a co-owner of Sully’s Pizza & Calzones in Mukilteo. His resume includes a smattering of jobs in county, state and federal government.
Sullivan entered politics at the precocious age of 23, by winning a Mukilteo City Council seat. Six years later, he was elected mayor, overseeing Mukilteo at a time of breakneck annexations. The city’s fire and police departments evolved rapidly during his eight years as mayor.
Don Doran, a self-described “conservative independent,” followed Sullivan as Mukilteo’s mayor. Doran gave his predecessor good reviews.
“It was a tough time for him, because I think he was wrestling with a City Council that didn’t have the same vision that he and many of us had at the time,” Doran said. “He was dealt a difficult hand, but I think he played the one he had pretty well.”
The Mukilteo mayor who came after Doran holds Sullivan in lower esteem. Joe Marine recalled Sullivan summoning him to meetings at county council offices, then not showing up.
“More times than not, when I got there, he would not be there,” he said. “It just pissed me off. Why would you treat anybody like that?”
The criticism, Marine said, has nothing to do with losing a hard-fought state House race to Sullivan in 2001.
“I’d be very concerned if I was Everett,” he said.
Sullivan represented the 21st Legislative District until 2007, when he won his first county council term. He has headed up the council’s finance and economic development committee.
During the turbulent tenure of Aaron Reardon, the former county executive, Sullivan often showed a stiff spine in standing up to his fellow Democrat. The councilman also had his stumbles. In 2012, he was charged with drunken driving, soon pleaded guilty and apologized.
Sullivan barely won re-election in 2015. Greg Tisdel, a first-time candidate from the local business community, beat Sullivan handily in Everett. Tisdel had an advantage of more than 1,300 votes and about 54 percent of the ballots cast in the city. Sullivan kept his council seat thanks to a stronger showing in other areas.
Sullivan is term-limited from running again for the Snohomish County District 2 seat, which encompasses Everett, Mukilteo and Tulalip.
Sullivan’s current campaign has enjoyed overwhelming success with government employee unions, while many of Everett’s civic pillars have favored his opponents.
Firefighters, some local and others from distant parts of the state, have flocked to his aid.
They were a major reason that his war chest, which approached $120,000 earlier this week, doubled that of Franklin or Tuohy, his closest fundraising competitors.
Sullivan denies making commitments to earn their support, including who to hire for top fire, police and city administrative posts.
“No, no promises have been made,” he said. “I’m offended that somebody said, ‘What did I do for firefighters to get their support?’”
Sullivan said he has a 35-year track record that includes working in the Legislature to recognize certain cancers as occupational diseases for firefighters.
He points to another reason for his appeal to labor. When many elected leaders urged Boeing machinists to support contract concessions to keep future jet production in Washington, which they narrowly approved in early 2014, Sullivan took a different tack.
“I don’t tell machinists to get rid of their pensions,” he said. “I told machinists to fight for their pensions.”
Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary says Sullivan takes a balanced approach when weighing union demands against budget constraints.
“Brian is fair, but he’s not about to break the bank,” said Trenary, a former labor leader among sheriff’s deputies. “I have experienced that repeatedly since I’ve been sheriff.”
Trenary credited Sullivan with helping retool the way the county uses the jail, by adding medical staff and paring back contracts to house inmates from other jurisdictions.
“I think he’s incredibly talented in terms of solving problems,” said Trenary, who lives in north county. “He’s got a ton of experience. He knows how to navigate the local, state and federal political system, which I think is incredibly important right now.”
Sullivan has corralled support from local Democrats over Tuohy and Franklin. Nasin is an independent.
Mario Brown, chairman of the Snohomish County Democrats, said Sullivan is consistent, in public and behind closed doors.
“He’s the same Brian,” said Brown, who lives in Marysville. “He’s down-to-earth, very legitimate, very thoughtful.”
He added: “The worst thing you hear about Brian is that Mayor Stephanson is terrified that he will win.”
Stephanson is quick to list his reasons.
“Really, Brian is wrong for Everett in so many ways,” he said.
He criticizes Sullivan for “being AWOL” on efforts to keep Naval Station Everett in town. The mayor said Sullivan, in campaign mailers, has taken credit for work that other people did to bring Washington State University to Everett.
On the County Council, Sullivan has taken stances that put him at odds with most, if not all, of Everett’s other elected leaders, as Stephanson is quick to note.
Two years ago, Sullivan was on the losing end of a 3-2 vote when he opposed a lease agreement with the company building a small passenger terminal at Paine Field. Sullivan said he now accepts that passenger flights will happen and has shifted his focus to lessening any impacts, which he expects to be minor.
“It’s kind of moot,” he said. “I think I did a good job of representing my constituents for many, many years.”
Sullivan also was on the losing side in supporting the construction of a proposed new eight-story courthouse in downtown Everett. Other elected leaders voted to pull the plug on that project in 2015, over financial concerns. Sullivan voted earlier this year against a cheaper plan to remodel the courthouse that a majority of his council colleagues approved.
At full staffing, Everett employs nearly 1,200 people and has a general-fund budget of about $132 million. The city is a major regional water supplier and operates its own bus system. About 110,000 people live there, according to the latest state figures.
“The mayor’s job is chief executive officer,” Sullivan said. “This is about being a good administrator and having good qualifications.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; email@example.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
Brian Sullivan is the first of four Everett mayoral candidates to be profiled in The Daily Herald this week. Others are on the way.
Wednesday: Judy Tuohy
Thursday: Cassie Franklin
Friday: Shean Nasin