LAKE STEVENS — Robert Sutherland and Sam Low share a political party and similar legislative priorities.
But the two Republicans have starkly different styles.
As they duel for a state House seat in the 39th District in the Nov. 8 election, voters are considering what kind of Republican they want representing them in Olympia.
In Sutherland, the two-term incumbent office-holder, they get a firebrand, a roiling force with his conservative speak, a man prone to bouts of irascibility when encountering resistance to his ideas.
The Granite Falls resident drew criticism in 2020 when he joined other armed vigilantes on the streets of Snohomish to defend downtown businesses from what proved to be a false rumor of incoming leftist protesters bent on destruction.
A devotee of Donald Trump, Sutherland continues to be a purveyor of stolen election theories and falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
He has gone farther than most lawmakers to fight COVID mandates imposed in the Legislature. He and five other GOP members sued to block House rules requiring members be vaccinated in order to get into their offices or be on the House floor. He lost the suit.
Then, in spring, Sutherland received a written reprimand for violating legislative conduct rules when he berated and swore at the House chief of security when the two men had a run-in on the Capitol grounds. Sutherland disputed most of the allegations but acknowledged he “used a bad word.” He’s now facing a second, separate investigation into whether his actions violated state ethics rules barring harassment of legislative employees.
Sutherland makes no apologies for his brashness. He has reveled in attention garnered from verbal lampooning of liberalism and Democrats, and sometimes those in his party. He says he’s just trying to be as honest as he can.
“I’m the tip of the arrow; I lead from the front, not afraid to challenge even my own party at times,” he said this week. “I am commonly referred to as ‘The People’s Representative’ and I wear that badge of honor proudly.”
With Low, in his sixth year on the Snohomish County Council, they get a conservative-leaning centrist, pragmatic and temperate in manner, and fueled with ambition.
The Lake Stevens resident vows to work amicably with Democrats on policies. He commits to be accessible, noting his personal cell number is on business cards he hands out to constituents.
Mayors of cities in the district are backing him. So too are unions, businesses and lobbying organizations that peddle influence in Olympia. He cites that breadth of support as a revelatory sign.
“I’ve got a good, balanced track record,” he said. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican. it’s about who is going to best represent the district.”
Low is not without ambition. If he wins the House seat, he intends to keep serving on the County Council, arguing there’s a synergy to the work, and neither is full-time.
There are topics he likes to avoid. And will if he can.
In May, he was absent when the County Council passed a resolution recognizing June as Pride Month and proclaiming “LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights.” He later declined to say how he would have voted. Low also missed the 2021 meeting when a similar resolution passed.
He has done his best to steer around the subject of the 2020 presidential election.
Low said President Joe Biden won “fair and square.” But he also said “there’s always fraud out there,” though he had not seen evidence that Trump won the election. And Low has never publicly said if he voted for Trump in either 2016 or 2020.
Meanwhile, some Republicans in the 39th district rebuked Low for running. They view him as an establishment Republican seeking to oust a conservative. Precinct officers endorsed Sutherland and reportedly wanted Low to withdraw.
Sutherland too has been critical of Low. But Low hasn’t returned fire publicly, staying on message, while leaving little doubt what he thinks of the incumbent’s tenure.
“We need more effective leadership in Olympia,” he said.
‘A great choice’
The 39th Legislative District is GOP territory. Republicans have represented it in the Legislature for most of the last 30 years. That won’t change in this election.
It is looking different than when Sutherland first got elected.
The state Redistricting Commission redrew the boundaries in a significant way. It shifted Lake Stevens out of the 44th District and into the 39th. Monroe, Gold Bar and Sultan got moved out of the 39th and into the 12th. More than two-thirds of the district’s residents live in Snohomish County and the rest are in Skagit County.
Low said he decided to take on his party’s incumbent to give voters a choice.
“We have a top-two primary system and so having two Republicans to choose from in a traditionally Republican 39th District seems like a great choice for the voters,” Low said in January.
Sutherland won the August primary with 33.2%. Low finished second with 27.1%, roughly 2,300 votes behind.
Low might not have advanced had there not been two Democrats — Claus Joens and Karl de Jong — in the race. Those two collected a combined 40% of the overall vote, splitting left-leaning voters.
Meanwhile, with Sutherland and Low expected to again split Republican votes in the Nov. 8 election, corralling support from Democrats and independents will be requisite to win.
Low said he wouldn’t adjust his strategy.
“I feel I have a message that appeals to everyone in the district. That message is effective leadership,” he said.
“With two Republicans in the race, voting Democrats will scrutinize both of us very carefully,” Sutherland said after the primary. “In the end they want someone who will speak the truth and offer real, common sense solutions to the problems that affect them.”
Sutherland, 62, got off to a rough start in politics after a career in bio-pharmaceutical research. He lost races for Congress in 2014, Snohomish County executive in 2015, Congress again in 2016, and Snohomish County Council in 2017.
The streak ended in 2018 when he won his House seat, succeeding Dan Kristiansen, a Republican and former House Minority Leader who retired. He won re-election in 2020 with 60% of the vote.
As a legislator, Sutherland does not introduce many bills. And the ones he does rarely get hearings. As a result he had no bills signed into law this past term.
Low, 52, the former owner of a painting business, won his first election in 2013 to join the Lake Stevens City Council.
In 2016, he unseated Democratic County Councilman Hans Dunshee, to secure a partial term. Low won a full term in the 2017 election and last November won a second term by beating Democrat Brandy Donaghy.
If successful, Low intends to keep his council seat. He wouldn’t be alone in doing so. Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, is holding down both jobs after he was appointed to fill a County Council vacancy last month.
It is legal for legislators to hold two elected posts at the same time.
A County Council member earns $126,571 a year. Meetings are mostly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and rarely last all day.
State lawmakers earn $57,876 a year. The Legislature is in session 105 days in odd years, 60 days in even years — more days if there is a special session. After session, lawmakers’ schedules vary widely.
Low said he has “an idea of how it’s going to work,” but added “if I can’t make them both work, I’ll be glad to give one up.”
He hasn’t said which one.
Sutherland is making Low’s quest to hold two elected jobs an issue.
“Once voters, Democrats and Republicans, learn of this, they will reject him outright as a slick politician out to benefit only himself and his family,” he said.
At a recent League of Women Voters forum, Sutherland and Low were asked to name their top three priorities.
They were the same: property taxes, transportation and public safety. For the most part, their approaches on each were too.
Both vow to pursue property tax relief.
Sutherland has authored a bill to slash the state’s property tax in each of the past two sessions. Had it passed, it would have saved taxpayers roughly $1.6 billion between July 1 and June 30, 2023.
Low, meanwhile, has opposed raising the county’s portion of property tax by the state-allowed 1 percent.
On transportation, both pledge to fight for money to widen a deadly two-lane stretch of Highway 522, replace the U.S. 2 trestle and improve safety along U.S. 2.
Sutherland said he has been fighting as a member of the House Transportation Committee, but like with tax relief, Democrats are in the majority and calling the shots. He voted against a 16-year, $17 billion transportation package in March, partly because Republicans were left out of the process of crafting it.
“One-party rule doesn’t work very well,” he said.
Low said the state “has not been a good partner” in addressing the district’s biggest transportation needs. He has said it would have been hard to vote for the package because the GOP was not involved. Low, who chairs the state Transportation Improvement Board that distributes grant funds to cities and counties, said relationships he has will help him make state a better partner.
On public safety, both said some of the policing reforms enacted in 2021 still need retooling to enable law enforcement to better do their jobs.
Both also want to make simple drug possession a felony again. Last year, the Supreme Court found a longstanding state law criminalizing possession unconstitutional. Lawmakers responded with legislation earlier this year to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Sutherland was one of 18 House members to vote against it. Low said he would have too.
And on abortion, both are anti-abortion and have been endorsed by the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute of Washington.
Sutherland, who thinks the Supreme Court got it right with the Dobbs decision, has opposed Democrat-backed bills aimed at expanding and protecting access to reproductive care.
Earlier this year, he and the rest of the Republican caucus opposed a bill to expand the list of health care providers who are legally allowed to terminate a pregnancy. It also ensures Washington abortion care providers can serve any person who comes into the state for services without fear of punishment.
Low won’t say if he agreed with the Dobbs decision. Nor did he cite any votes by Sutherland on abortion bills that he disagreed with.
“People on both sides of the issue are tired of judges and lawmakers making the decision,” he said in the forum.
He promised as a legislator to “continue to leave the decision to voters and any changes should come from voters.”
Endorsements and dollars are flowing to Low in this contest.
Former lawmakers Kristiansenand John Koster, who both served in the 39th, back the challenger. So too do the mayors of Lake Stevens, Sedro-Woolley, Arlington, Sultan, Gold Bar and Index.
On the money front, Low had raised nearly $137,000 to Sutherland’s $48,000 as of Oct. 11. Low’s donor list includes statewide firefighter, carpenter and health care worker unions; oil and energy providers; and associations for dentists, builders, restaurants and hospitals. Propeller Airports, which runs the commercial service at Paine Field, and Arlington Buzz Inn are on the list too.
“I am running to represent everyone,” Low said.
Sutherland is backed by the Snohomish County Republican Party and the 39th District Republicans. He has received cash from an oil company and the Skagit/Island counties Builders Association. Controversial aerospace executive Peter Zieve is on his list of donors too.
The incumbent dismissed Low’s advantage as evidence that he’d been “bought and paid for” by special interest groups.
“I mean no disrespect to any of the aforementioned groups, but I do not work for mayors, unions, or businesses,” he said. “I work exclusively for the hard-working taxpayers of Snohomish and Skagit counties.”
Ballots for the general election will be mailed Oct. 20.