Is one-party control Snohomish County’s destiny?

BOTHELL — John Lovick had to share the stage last week when he told a roomful of Democrats here how excited he is to run for re-election as Snohomish County executive.

Sitting a few feet away from the sharp-dressed former sheriff was Dave Somers, the county councilman and fellow Democrat challenging him for the executive’s job. As they took turns answering policy questions, Somers, a fish-biologist-turned-politician, made the pitch that he’s better qualified.

The scene was cordial, but awkward. The Democratic Party endorsed Lovick months earlier — and that wasn’t about to change.

“If you endorsed John, I’ll respect that,” Somers said. “But as individuals, I’ll ask for your support.”

As Democrats debate over established candidates, Republicans have been unable to field an opponent with any experience in office. One GOP hopeful, Norm Nunnally of Marysville, has sown confusion by issuing conflicting statements about whether he intends to endorse the other Republican in the race, Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls. Last week, Nunnally said he was all in.

Rounding out the five-person field is James Robert Deal, an independent candidate with a quixotic political platform. He’s probably best known in the community for opposing fluoride in drinking water.

The two candidates who get the most votes, regardless of party, will advance from the Aug. 4 primary to the Nov. 3 general election.

If political trends continue, Snohomish County may be settling into single-party dominance.

Communities in western Washington, like other urban areas in the U.S., are now trending Democratic, said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University.

“That’s not just in Snohomish County — it’s all around the country,” he said.

Democrats have won all 10 elections for Snohomish County executive since the office was created 35 years ago.

In the past two elections for executive, in 2014 and 2011, the Democratic candidate took more than 55 percent of the vote. In 2007, Republicans only took a third of the votes cast when their candidate was political novice Jack Turk, a former Microsoft manager who performed as a children’s magician under the stage name Turk the Magic Genie.

The last time a Republican came close was in 2003, when then-Edmonds City Councilman Dave Earling lost to Democrat Aaron Reardon by 4,635 votes. Earling is now mayor of Edmonds.

Similar dynamics are at work in metropolitan areas throughout the country, said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. Population shifts away from cities in the 1960s and 1970s brought more Republicans to the suburbs, but now it’s mostly Democratic voters leaving cities. That’s tipped the voting balance in outlying communities near liberal metropolises such as Seattle.

“It’s going to be more challenging for Republicans to hold those locations,” Gimpel said.

Political scientists, it’s worth noting, don’t regard a lack of political competition as a positive development. Gimpel said Republicans need to adapt to the circumstances, “And that might not come for a while.”

Dem’s competition controversial

Despite their success in countywide races, some Snohomish County Democrats are upset about the intra-party competition for votes and campaign dollars.

“I’m really disappointed that Dave (Somers) has decided to run,” said state Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace. “We should stay with the current executive. He’s doing a good job.”

Others welcome the choice.

“We’re a big-tent party and we’re not afraid to hear what people say,” said Dan Willner, chairman of the 1st Legislative District Democrats, who hosted the two candidates on Monday. “It’s great to have these two candidates on our side.”

Lovick, 64, was the county’s sheriff for six years before being appointed executive in mid-2013. He won a special election last year to fill out the last year of Reardon’s unexpired term. A retired state trooper, Lovick’s experience extends to multiple terms in the state House of Representatives and the Mill Creek City Council.

“I pledge to work hard for you and to continue to work hard for you,” Lovick told south county Democrats last week.

Somers, 62, of Monroe, has made a name for himself as a land-use wonk and environmental advocate. He’s in his fourth county council term and the council’s current chairman. Before seeking public office, he worked 18 years for the Tulalip Tribes on fisheries and treaty issues.

The relationship between Lovick and Somers has been strained. Over the past year, Somers and two other councilmen have repeatedly raised questions about Lovick’s stewardship, particularly his giving raises to some of the county’s highest-paid managers.

GOP offers no endorsement yet

The Snohomish County GOP, meanwhile, has not endorsed either of the Republicans who filed last month to run for executive.

Some experienced and popular Republicans who were approached about running for executive declined to run. They include John Koster, the former county councilman who left office because of term limits. He’s now considering a return to the state House. Former Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson, who until recently worked as a top manager under Lovick and Reardon, said he was flattered to have been asked to run but is “quite happy in retirement.”

In many communities that match Snohomish County’s profile, Republicans are struggling to recruit candidates for local office, said Daniel Hopkins, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The best candidates, Hopkins said, often “end up focusing more energy on the national level.”

‘Outsider ‘ status seen as a plus

Robert Sutherland, 55, is a retired biochemist and U.S. Air Force veteran. He said he got involved in politics in 2009, following retirement. He’s probably best known for running against Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene last year in the 1st Congressional District.

Sutherland lost in the congressional primary but came close to upsetting the Republican Party’s preferred candidate, Pedro Celis, who lost to DelBene in November.

Not only has Sutherland never been elected to public office, he readily admits that he’s never attended a single county meeting. He sees his outsider status as an asset.

“I am not a politician, I have never been elected to public office,” he said. “But I see that as a benefit. I view myself as a citizen politician, if you will, who has never been elected.”

While he says he’s a conservative Republican through and through, Sutherland also said, “I feel free to criticize the party when they’re doing things wrong or doing things ineffectively. Within the Republican Party, they don’t like any criticism of anything they do.”

Norm Nunnally, 68, is retired from a nursing career in the U.S. Army. He manages a Marysville-area farm focused on sustainable agriculture, forestry and wildlife conservation. He’s been active in local Republican politics and has served on civic advisory boards. He’s never held elected office.

Nunnally says he’s concerned about the county’s fiscal health and its effect on taxpayers. He accuses Lovick and the County Council of mismanagement.

“The issues at hand in this race will prove to be far from what Mr. Lovick and Mr. Somers have chosen as their favorite stomping ground,” Nunnally wrote in an email. “They will be running on stale and quasi emotional issues while I will be running with them as the illustration of disconnected government in the hands of misplaced politicians.”

After filing to run for executive last month, Nunnally told Sutherland he would consider endorsing him for executive. Then he changed his mind — but not before Sutherland’s campaign had issued a press release saying Nunnally was bowing out.

Both of their names will appear on the ballot.

Nunnally said his initial hesitation owed to health concerns that have since been cleared up. He accused Sutherland of abrogating a deal they had reached.

“In his case actions speak louder than words and it appears his words and actions cannot be relied on as character values for anyone seeking the office of County Executive,” Nunnally wrote in an email. “We just got rid of one of those characters and now Robert appears to be the Republican version.”

Sutherland said he’s confused by Nunnally’s actions.

“He’s free to do whatever he wants to do, but I was acting on what he was telling me,” Sutherland said. “Norm is acting, in my opinion, irrationally.”

Lynnwood attorney James Robert Deal, 67, has dispensed with party labels altogether. He is running for executive as an independent, with a platform that includes branding Snohomish County as “the organic county”; opposing the use of fluoride in drinking water (which is not controlled by county government); and building the new county courthouse at Everett Station. Deal ran as a Democrat against Lovick in last year’s special election but failed to make it out of the primary.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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