Susanna Johnson speaks to the media and community at 230 Ave B. in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Susanna Johnson speaks to the media and community at 230 Ave B. in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Johnson ‘cautiously optimistic’ with lead for Snohomish County sheriff

Incumbent Adam Fortney trailed challenger Susanna Johnson in initial tallies Tuesday. The gap slightly narrowed Wednesday.

EVERETT — Longtime Snohomish County cop Susanna Johnson maintained an Election Day lead over incumbent Sheriff Adam Fortney, in a tight and contentious race for the county’s top law enforcement position.

Johnson, the deputy police chief in Bothell, led 52.25% to 47.64%, in the initial ballot drop Tuesday. The gap of 4,995 votes narrowed by over 400 votes on Wednesday evening, with Johnson holding 51.7% of the vote. Fortney had 48.2%.

After Wednesday, 52,000 ballots still needed to be counted.

“We knew from the onset that challenging an incumbent is difficult, just because of that name recognition.” Johnson said Tuesday night. “We knew we had an uphill battle.”

She added: “I’m feeling very excited for sure, cautiously optimistic, I think is the words I should probably use.”

Johnson said the mood in her camp was “high energy” Tuesday night at her election party in Snohomish. (During the campaign, Fortney had said: “I don’t think she has the passion and energy for the job.”) Johnson touted the more than 175 volunteers aiding her bid. She said they had knocked on over 25,000 doors.

Johnson held almost every rank in the sheriff’s office during a three-decade career: patrol deputy, detective, K-9 handler, SWAT squad leader, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and bureau chief. All five living former Snohomish County sheriffs endorsed her.

Johnson campaigned on restoring what was, in her view, a loss of public trust in county law enforcement under the incumbent.

And the election turned into a referendum on Fortney, who had doubled down on a series of controversial decisions, such as rehiring deputies fired by the previous sheriff, publicly criticizing Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home mandate at the height of the pandemic and campaigning alongside outspoken conservative Sheriff Mark Lamb.

Conservative voices in local media — political commentator Brandi Kruse, radio host Jason Rantz and Lynnwood Times owner Mario Lotmore, who ran for state Senate as a Republican — rallied around Fortney in the days leading up to the election.

In a persistent campaign on social media, Fortney often shared multiple videos and posts each day. He pointed to reforms that could be supported across the political spectrum: the office’s aggressive efforts to hire more deputies, a youth program known as “LEAD the Way” and the end of a predecessor’s policy he called “catch and release.” Fortney also touted stronger partnerships with local business owners south of Everett.

During his term, Fortney weathered two failed recall efforts. On Tuesday night, a call to Fortney went to a voice mailbox that was full. He did not respond to an email request for comment. His campaign’s Facebook page shared an image of the sheriff sitting alone in a circle of chairs, “Taking a second before the crazy:)” around 5:30 p.m. The page hadn’t been updated as of Wednesday evening.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney waves signs with supporters along Highway 9 on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney waves signs with supporters along Highway 9 on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Fortney is a former patrol sergeant in the K-9 unit and ex-president of the deputy sheriff’s union. He won on a tough-on-crime message in 2019, pledging to “take the handcuffs off police officers and put them on the criminals where they belong.” He received over 55% of the vote and unseated Ty Trenary.

This time around, Fortney ran on his record and the motto “accountability with compassion.” He boasted endorsements from law enforcement unions across the county, with the exception of the county jail’s union.

The next sheriff will have to deal with safety issues at the jail in light of recent deaths. Assaults and car thefts have also been on the rise, according to the sheriff’s office crime dashboard, which Fortney instituted rather than magazine-style annual reports.

Fentanyl overdoses also pose a major challenge for the sheriff and other county leaders. Over 210 people died from opioid overdoses last year — with the vast majority of those being from fentanyl — up from 100 in 2017, when heroin was the most fatal opioid.

In recent weeks, gun control activist groups rallied around Johnson, pumping in $40,000 for the challenger, including cash from Everytown for Gun Safety. The nonprofit, founded by former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, dropped over $30,000 into the race.

Fortney, too, received a last-minute boost of $40,000 from the Responsible Economic Growth in Our Neighborhood, a political action committee.

The campaign has been one of the most expensive in state history for a county sheriff. The two campaigns raised over $430,000: Fortney about $214,000 and Johnson about $223,000.

Late last month, Fortney took in $15,000 from the Washington State Republican Party.

Susanna Johnson speaks to the media and community at 230 Ave B. in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Susanna Johnson speaks to the media and community at 230 Ave B. in Snohomish, Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Johnson’s biggest single donor was the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, with $4,000. She also received $1,000 from the Snohomish County Democratic Central Committee.

Days before the election, Fortney agreed to pay a $450 fine after acknowledging he broke state law by accepted contributions over state limits and filing inaccurate financial reports. Johnson faced a campaign finance complaint early in her campaign after failing to submit her personal financial affairs statement to the state Public Disclosure Commission within the first two weeks of her candidacy.

According to campaign finance filings, Fortney received 95 donations from Snohomish mailing addresses, 70 from Everett, 66 from Lake Stevens, 64 from Arlington, 42 from Sultan and two from Seattle.

Johnson received 194 contributions from Everett addresses, 86 from Lynnwood, 72 from Seattle and 55 from Bothell.

Her message to voters in Snohomish County was centered on rebuilding trust.

“I would be looking forward to coming back to the sheriff’s office and doing everything I can to improve public trust in the community and use my experience and proven strategies to address public safety,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I know people feel less safe.”

She believes crime data can be better used to predict crimes and deploy deputies in response.

“I would also restore some of the key elements of community oriented policing models, which involves the community on a higher level when it comes to consideration on how we deliver services,” Johnson wrote via email in October. “Some components of that would require us to get closer to normal staffing levels. Successful models we have done in the past included apartment manager meetings as well as with area businesses for affective crime prevention and awareness programs.”

She said Tuesday she would spend time developing staff already working for the sheriff’s office. Johnson said she has the skills to retain staff, a major issue for the department. The sheriff’s office and jail have, combined, over 100 open positions.

“I’m looking forward to doing everything I can to bring them relief,” Johnson said.

Johnson would not continue Fortney’s LEAD the Way program, she wrote in late October.

“I would not continue with the existing program as it is designed today,” she wrote. “I would look to spend our limited resources focusing on public safety programs that keep our community safer and help us improve the skills and resources for employees to make better use of public funds. I would continue to encourage staff to be involved as mentors in youth programs, just as I have done as a coach for over 30 years.”

The county sheriff is elected for a four-year term and paid $179,725.91 annually.

The next ballot drop was set for 5 p.m. Thursday. The results are expected to be certified Nov. 28.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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