From left: Robert Sutherland, Claus Joens, Carolyn Eslick, Ryan Johnson.

From left: Robert Sutherland, Claus Joens, Carolyn Eslick, Ryan Johnson.

Partisan divisions clear in battle for GOP-held House seats

In the 39th District, Democrats challenge incumbent Republicans in a historically red district.

SULTAN — A pair of Democratic candidates are trying to unseat incumbent GOP state lawmakers in the 39th District where voters have historically chosen Republicans to represent them in Olympia.

Claus Joens is challenging incumbent Rep. Robert Sutherland in Position 1, and Ryan Johnson is taking on Rep. Carolyn Eslick in Position 2. Each position is a two-year term.

The 39th District takes up more geographic space in Snohomish County than any other district. It covers the eastern side of the county, as well as parts of King and Skagit counties.

In each contest, strong differences emerged between the candidates on taxes, the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest that has occurred across the country and close to home.

Sutherland, of Granite Falls, was first elected in 2018. He was not available to speak with The Daily Herald for this article because of a family emergency.

Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland

Sutherland served in the U.S. Air Force after high school and later earned a degree in biochemistry from Gonzaga University. He has worked on DNA research and cancer drug development, according to his campaign website.

Some of his top issues include securing $30 car tabs, fixing traffic by adding public transit and infrastructure, and giving families the choice of where to send their children to school. He also is a gun rights advocate and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

At a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, Sutherland said he would push to lower property taxes as a means of helping people recover from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

For months the country has seen civil unrest as protesters demonstrate against racism and police brutality.

In May, he went to Snohomish, openly carrying a sidearm, and joined others, some armed, on a downtown street. They gathered after rumors spread of a planned protest by anti-fascists might lead to damaging of area businesses. That rumor proved untrue. Some who attended displayed symbols tied to a far-right organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Sutherland has referred to Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization” and a “hate group,” though neither is true. He also called the movement “anti-American” during the forum.

“I will have nothing to do with people showing the symbols of a hate group in America,” he said at the forum. “If you put down the hate signs and bring up signs that are peaceful and showing we want unity and we want to bring communities together in a peaceful manner, I’ll be there.”

Initially, Joens was going to run against Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, as he did two years ago. But the Marblemount resident changed races after Sutherland attended a rally in Olympia early on in the pandemic and publicly called on Gov. Jay Inslee to lift stay-at-home orders and encouraged people to revolt if the state tried to ban recreational fishing.

Claus Joens

Claus Joens

Joens believes Sutherland is different from other Republicans who are running even in the same district, and pointed out the appearance in Snohomish.

“I don’t have anything against Republican values, I grew up in a farming community and God, family and country was big business, everyone agreed on that whether they were Democrats or Republicans,” Joens said. “Today a lot of the Republican positions have become more violent and I don’t support the violent part of the Republican Party.”

Joens, 57, is a teacher at Concrete High School, and has worked there nine years. Previously he spent two decades working for the Ford Motor Co. in accounting, strategic planning and more.

If elected, he plans to focus on filling the state’s budget deficit without cutting jobs or programs, and hopes to find an easier way for 16- to 18-year olds to work in residential construction as they complete their final two years of high school.

That way the teenagers could earn a higher wage than they might in another job, while gaining skills as they earn a high school diploma. Plus, those jobs could lead to more affordable housing being built, he said.

“If I could get those two things done in the first year, I’d be a happy guy,” he said.

According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Sutherland has raised $22,520, where top donors include Chevron, Phillips 66, Peter Zieve and the Washington Affordable Housing Council, the political arm of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

Joens has raised $20,433, where contributors include individual donors, Skagit County Democrats, and teachers and iron workers unions.

In the race for Position 2, Eslick is going up against Johnson, a first-time candidate.

Eslick, 70, was appointed to the position three years ago and elected to her first full term in 2018. Before that she served as mayor of Sultan, where she has lived since 1979.

Carolyn Eslick

Carolyn Eslick

If re-elected, she plans to focus on bringing broadband Internet to rural populations in the district, providing human service resources through family support centers, and supporting bills for small businesses and retail stores. She does not support new taxes and hopes to roll back certain taxes that already exist, such as the business and occupation tax.

“This new $15 million the governor has given to the small businesses from the federal CARES money is going to be helpful,” she said. “But with that said, if each of them got $25,000 to improve their business, that’s only going to help 600 businesses, so it’s a drop in the bucket.”

When the state shut down, she didn’t understand why Big Box stores were allowed to operate while small businesses had to close.

“It just killed so many of them,” she said. “So anything we can do to encourage small businesses is what I’m going to be supporting.”

Johnson, 42, of Arlington, is a Navy veteran who drives delivery trucks for a living. He grew up in the Midwest and moved to Washington in 1995 when he was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson

If elected, he hopes to bolster safety at public schools with strategies such as limiting the number of entrances onto campuses. He also hopes to bring broadband Internet to rural populations in the district, especially as the pandemic has forced people to work and attend school online. He believes that may be a permanent change.

“If we want to spread people out, if we want to give people more options of places to live, if we want businesses to develop these areas, they aren’t going to do it without Internet,” he said. “That is a required utility in this day and age.”

When it comes to COVID-19, he believes the virus needs to be more under control before opening up the economy again.

“You cannot be going to events with hundreds of people unmasked all the time, and wonder why your economy won’t reopen,” he said. “It will not reopen, because you will make things worse and the worse it is, more people stay home, period, no matter what the governor’s orders are. The real recovery will not happen until we get this virus under control.”

Eslick has raised $40,693 and her top donors include Amazon, Hampton Lumber of Oregon, and the Washington Affordable Housing Council.

Johnson has raised $8,883, and his contributors include the electrical workers union, the 39th District Democratic organization and the Snohomish County Labor Council.

Ballots returned in the mail must be postmarked by Tuesday, no stamp needed. Others can be placed in drop boxes around the county by 8 p.m. that same day. A list of locations can be found online at

This story has been modified to correct the fundraising amount for the campaign of Claus Joens.

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