Sheriff won’t face recall, but his foes say they’ll battle on

They came up short on signatures. They vow to keep watch and be ready if Fortney runs in 2023.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in July 2020. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in July 2020. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

EVERETT — Terry Preshaw concluded last spring she’d made a mistake in her choice for Snohomish County sheriff and set out to “make things right.”

In May, roughly seven months after voting for Adam Fortney to be the county’s top cop, Preshaw, a Mukilteo immigration attorney, joined a fledgling undertaking to remove him from office via recall.

She found it disturbing that Fortney reinstated deputies fired by his predecessor for violating policy and alarming that he objected in the manner he did to statewide coronavirus restrictions.

“I had no idea that I was voting for someone who felt personally empowered to determine the constitutionality of any given law and did not believe in medical science,” she said in an email response to questions.

The recall pursuit, at times rough-and-tumble, consumed the better part of 10 months. It ended in failure at 5 p.m. March 9 when the Committee to Recall Sheriff Adam Fortney didn’t file petitions because it lacked enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Fortney responded on Facebook minutes after learning the recall was over.

In a short post, he thanked his family, friends and Sheriff’s Department employees for their unwavering support.

“To all of you who have just checked in with me and asked me if I was hanging in there over the course of the last year, I appreciate every one of you,” he wrote. “We can officially put this behind us and move on with the business of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. I can’t wait!”

Fortney declined to be interviewed for this story. His post left little doubt he felt emboldened by the outcome.

“When I ran in 2019 I told everyone I would keep the Seattle politics out of public safety in Snohomish County. This is a huge step in that direction,” he wrote. “I will not be deterred from my plan for public safety in Snohomish County and I simply cannot wait to press on in 2021 and beyond!”

Engineers of the recall are not dissuaded by the setback.

“This is not the victory he thinks it is,” Preshaw said. “We have demonstrated to Fortney that his words and actions have consequences and that he has our attention. Unless he has learned some important lessons from this recall experience it is likely that he will do something else that could trigger another recall. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”

Genesis of the recall

Fortney, a 25-year department veteran, unseated incumbent Sheriff Ty Trenary in November 2019, in surprisingly easy fashion.

“I’m just excited for a different path for Snohomish County,” he said in an election night interview. “I meant it when I said it on the campaign trail, I’m going take the handcuffs off police officers and put them on the criminals where they belong.”

When he arrived Jan. 1, he began delivering the change he promised.

There were little things, like allowing officers to grow beards, and larger matters, like revising the vehicle pursuit policy. And by the end of his first month on the job he had carried out signature, and controversial, decisions, chiefly the reinstatement of three deputies who had lost their jobs under his predecessor’s leadership.

Also, Fortney didn’t shy away from publicly espousing views on hot-button issues. However, he didn’t — and still doesn’t — use the traditional vehicle of official news releases. Rather, he’s made his campaign Facebook page the medium.

On April 21, he opined at length on Gov. Jay Inslee’s issuance of a stay-home order that shuttered schools, businesses and churches in a bid to blunt the spread of coronavirus. Fortney, like many in the county, questioned its legality, and, like many in law enforcement, said he didn’t plan to enforce it.

His post resonated with supporters and touched a nerve with detractors.

Two days later, Lori Shavlik of Monroe filed a recall petition asserting that Fortney “used his position as an elected official to encourage citizens to defy the law and violate the Governor’s Emergency Proclamations.” She proceeded to circulate petitions, but her one-woman effort would end unsuccessfully in December.

Not long after Shavlik acted, four attorneys — Preshaw, public defender Colin McMahon, criminal defense attorney Samantha Sommerman and civil attorney Brittany Tri — launched a separate effort with additional allegations.

“The whole recall discussion started with a Twitter hashtag,” recalled McMahon in an email. “From there, a Facebook group was created. Then a formal (political committee) was created.”

Fortney again took to Facebook to respond after a court ruled he could face recall for the April 21 post.

“Although I did not ask for this fight, I will not shrink from it,” he said.

Time and circumstance

The timing could not have been better for the recall.

The attorneys filed their petition in May as the murder of George Floyd ignited a national conversation about police practices and calls for reforming and defunding law enforcement agencies. Allegations leveled by recall proponents intersected with those issues.

But four months of legal wrangling ensued over the precise content of recall petitions — culminating with a stop at the state Supreme Court. That delayed the launch of signature gathering until Sept. 11. Recall supporters had 180 days to get 45,000 signatures of registered voters.

By then, the timing could not have been worse.

Election season was in full swing, absorbing the attention of experienced campaign strategists and politically active residents whose skills and energy could have benefited the committee.

Traction continued to elude the committee post-election due to intrigue in the presidential race and the unsettling January uprising at the U.S. Capitol.

“We wanted to move on this quickly for a number of reasons,” McMahon said. “The national political scene was quite a distraction.”

Preshaw said she was one of those “actively involved” in the election and its aftermath “which dragged on and on. We lost a lot of momentum due to this unfortunate timing.”

The pandemic added a degree of difficulty. In November, with COVID-19 infections soaring, Inslee re-imposed many restrictions. Volunteers couldn’t park themselves on sidewalks and outside supermarkets to gather signatures. They concentrated on getting individuals to sign petitions and mail or email them to the committee. That meant thousands of petitions with as few as one name.

Hiring pros wasn’t an option because firms wanted $8 a signature due to the COVID-19 precautions that would be necessary, McMahon said.

They landed on a strategy centered around “direct outreach to the voters of Snohomish County because there was no opportunity to bring the message to large group gathering places,” McMahon said. “That evolved to the flyer, phone call, and text banking campaign that we were able to utilize once we were able to secure additional funding.”

As the signature-gathering clock wound down, McMahon realized they couldn’t make it without more time. He appealed to county and state election officials, and a court, for a 90-day extension. He didn’t get it.

The money trail

Had it reached the ballot, the recall vote had the makings of an electoral battle royal.

Fortney’s opponents called the sheriff corrupt, rogue and dangerous on their campaign website. They said he was making Snohomish County less safe.

And things got nasty in the final days when an anonymous flier arrived on the doorsteps of a few Snohomish and Lake Stevens businesses with a headline, “Join Fortney’s Death Squad Today.” It contained several swipes at the sheriff.

Leaders of the recall committee denied involvement, but Fortney and supporters believed otherwise.

“Although they have crossed several lines during the recall, this one is reprehensible,” Fortney wrote on Facebook on March 6. “We can disagree politically. That comes with running for office but this is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”

And he noted he would be shopping for a better security system, implying he felt those behind the flier posed a threat to him and his family.

Money flowed to both camps.

As of March 7, the recall committee had spent roughly $72,000 of the $92,355 in cash and in-kind contributions it received. McMahon and his colleagues accounted for the largest chunk of both with their contributed legal services.

Preshaw gave $1,000, with Lake Stevens residents Earl Gray ($1,300) and Robin McGee ($1,150) writing two of the largest checks, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. McGee also loaned $11,000 to the committee.

Democratic forces fill the donor list. Tina Podlodowski of Seattle, chair of the state Democratic Party, gave $250, while the 32nd and 38th legislative district committees contributed $500 and $300, respectively. The state party provided a database of county voters, an in-kind contribution worth $4,513.

Fortney had solid financial support, too.

The Defend Sheriff Fortney political committee hauled in $42,357, almost all of it cash contributions. Susan and James Mischel of Stanwood gave $2,000, while the Everett Police Officers Association and aerospace executive Peter Zieve of Mukilteo were among a host of $1,000 donors.

In addition, in 2020, a GoFundMe account launched by supporters to cover Fortney’s legal expenses brought in $71,062. Walter Schlaepfer of Bellevue gave the most, $5,000. Those funds got shifted into a political committee — the Fortney Recall Legal Defense Fund — and were paid out to attorney Mark Lamb of Bothell.


Fortney is ready to move on. He wrote in his March 9 Facebook post that he would have “a very detailed statement” in the future.

Those on the recall committee are already looking to keep the sheriff from getting a second term.

“I’m confident that momentum will continue and people will be watching the 2023 race much more closely than they otherwise would have,” McMahon said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: | @dospueblos

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