‘Curmudgeon with a heart’: GOP stalwart Jim Donner dies at 79

He was a sharp-tongued insider of Republican politics in the county and state for half a century.

Jim Donner

Jim Donner

A phone call from Jim Donner could be a challenging experience.

A man of vigor, bravado and unvarnished opinion, he relished a good sparring on politics, powered by his deep belief in the Grand Old Party and unbridled passion for his native Snohomish County.

You had to have thick and absorbent skin because Donner often delivered verbal punches absent the couth and correctness considered requisite in society today.

Donner, the sharp-tongued insider of Republican Party politics in the county and state for half a century, suffered a stroke on Good Friday. He died Tuesday at age 79.

“He was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold,” said Olga Farnam, a family friend and GOP colleague. “Grumpy? Yeah, that was Jim. That was his personality. He’s always been old school.”

Donner, a proud Warm Beach resident, was largely unknown outside the political arena, but his extensive network, financial resources and strategic insight abetted candidates since the mid-’60s, when he was part of the Snohomish Jaycees.

For scores of political figures, he was a trusted and loyal ally, a man counted on for raising money and offering advice — sometimes unsolicited.

Developer Hank Robinett, himself a larger-than-life figure in Snohomish County Republican Party politics, met Donner on a fishing trip in Alaska last century. Ever since, he’s helped bankroll GOP candidates who were recruited and advised by Donner.

“He could keep your pockets empty if you let him,” Robinett joked. “He was very astute. He gave out a lot of good advice and those who took it well were usually successful.”

Sam Low met Donner in early 2016. Low, then a Lake Stevens City Councilman, was planning to run against Hans Dunshee, the Democrat county councilman and former state lawmaker whom Donner very much wanted to beat.

Low recalled Donner’s warmth and intensity.

“We became very close in a short time. During the campaign he said he wanted to be around long enough to see Hans lose,” Low said. “I’ll never forget the smile on his face when we won that election.”

Donner was born and raised in Snohomish. A Snohomish High School graduate, he attended Everett Community College and the University of Washington but got drafted before finishing.

He served two years in the U.S. Army and four more years in the National Guard, according to information from his family.

One of Donner’s first jobs after the service was selling insurance. He then switched to selling cars before making a bigger leap and buying a Seattle restaurant. He later sold it and bought a pizza eatery named Bill’s Off Broadway.

He also invested in other restaurants in the city.

Beginning in the late 1970s, he started acquiring race horses and owned more than 40 during a 25-year span, according to his family and friends. He later became a principal adviser with his son’s development company, Westcott Homes.

His involvement in politics began in the early 1960s, when he joined the Snohomish Jaycees and found himself making contributions to and knocking on doors for other Jaycees running for local office.

It intensified in the past three decades as he became more active in the workings of the Republican Party, including stints representing the county on the executive board of the state organization.

In 2005, the Snohomish County party named him Republican of the Year. A decade later, Donner received its lifetime achievement award.

He served on Snohomish County’s redistricting committee in 2011 and was elected to the Charter Review Commission in 2015. Only a few weeks ago, Donner was named to the Evergreen Fair Advisory Board, a position he had long desired.

In 2007, after years of prodding, Donner got the County Council to agree to put his name on a bridge. It went up on a then-narrow wooden bridge on Ash Way over Swamp Creek, and a small ceremony was held.

Donner is survived by his wife, Geri; two sons, Rick and Mark; five grandchildren; and a black Labrador.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

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

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