Snohomish County Council choice dividing Democrats

EVERETT — A partisan appointment to the Snohomish County Council is shaping up as a clash of personalities — and once again creating divisions within the Democratic Party.

State Rep. Hans Dunshee’s two decades in the Legislature had appeared to make him an easy choice for the District 5 seat.

Fire commissioner Guy Palumbo surprised many by emerging well ahead of Dunshee when Democratic Party officers voted Feb. 6. Mark Hintz, a fire commissioner and former party chairman, is the third nominee, but said he’ll ask the council to choose the highest-ranked candidate.

That leaves the four sitting members of the County Council with a dilemma on Feb. 29.

They’ve scheduled interviews starting at 8:45 a.m. with a vote later that morning. If they can’t reach a majority decision, the appointment would be made by Gov. Jay Inslee.

At age 42, Palumbo could be starting his political ascent. At 62, Dunshee long ago established his name.

Palumbo lives in the Maltby area, where he runs a dog-boarding business called Roscoe’s Ranch. He has a background in high tech, having worked as a senior product manager for Amazon.com. His brand of intensity bespeaks his Queens, New York, origins.

Palumbo, who serves on the county planning commission, highlights his experience with land use, something he sees as a key part of a council member’s job.

“I have intimate knowledge of the policy issues and the challenges facing the county,” he said. “I’ve formed excellent relationships with the county employees. I’ve put forward specific policy proposals and solutions that have resonated with the voters.”

Leading up to the party vote, Palumbo may have changed some minds with a command of topics such as the county’s budget problems and traffic gridlock. He emerged with 17 votes from precinct committee officers, compared to 11 for Dunshee and three for Hintz.

Dan Willner, chairman of the 1st Legislative District Democrats, praised Palumbo’s enthusiasm and his help growing party membership in their district.

“He is smart and analytical,” Willner said. “He comes from the private and public sectors, so he’s conversant with both of them. He’s a small-business owner as well.”

Dunshee is a fierce competitor with an earthy appeal. He has served in the House continually since 1997 as well as an earlier two-year term. House Democrats entrusted the Snohomish lawmaker with the job of lead budget writer this session.

He underscores his experience.

“I know what people think about and what concerns them,” Dunshee said last week, during a break from working to draft the state budget. “That gives you a pretty good connection with people when you’re out knocking on doors and running into them at Safeway.”

The graduate of Ingraham High School in Seattle attended the University of Washington and earned a master’s degree in political science from Western Washington University. He formerly worked repairing boats and designing septic systems.

Dunshee has waded deep into county issues through past service on both the planning and charter review commissions.

During Dunshee’s time in office, the contours of legislative districts have changed, making him a representative for much of the territory covered by the council’s District 5. The district includes the cities of Lake Stevens, Snohomish, Monroe, Sultan, Gold Bar, Index and parts of Bothell. It also encompasses the unincorporated communities of Clearview, Machias, Maltby and areas north of Woodinville city limits.

Democratic state lawmakers who represent Snohomish County signed a letter asking the council to pick Dunshee for the appointment. The letter mentions his work to establish a Washington State University branch campus in Everett and to steer state money to build a facility there. It lauds his commitment to the environment, economic development, public safety and affordable housing.

Three Republican state lawmakers who live in other parts of the state even put in kind words for the progressive Democrat.

Rep. Norma Smith, of Whidbey Island, said she appreciated working with Dunshee for years on the capital budget and watching him grow as a leader among House lawmakers.

“While we don’t always agree, I have found him committed to sound fiscal policy,” Smith said. “He’s willing to seriously consider opposing viewpoints and find common ground. He’s a team player.”

Palumbo sees the pro-Dunshee letter as a sign that the political establishment is against him.

“I’ve watched politics long enough to understand how these deals are made,” he said. “We are seeing in many different ways this year that this top-down approach is something a lot of people are tired of. I continue to believe in grassroots democracy and am excited to continue my public service whether it’s in this role or another.”

This isn’t the first time Palumbo has found himself at odds with other members of his party. He incurred the wrath of some Democrats in 2012 when he ran unsuccessfully against state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell.

The council seat opened up after Dave Somers beat incumbent John Lovick in November to win the county executive’s job.

That contest created rifts among Democrats.

There are fissures on the council as well. Until Somers’ departure, recent history was characterized by a 3-2 split on contentious issues, even though four of the five council seats were held by Democrats.

The balance could shift with the appointment.

Democrats Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan continue to vote as a bloc. The same is true for Democrat Terry Ryan and Republican Ken Klein.

Ryan said he’s been fielding calls from supporters of both candidates.

“I don’t know about the other council members, but I haven’t received this many calls on any other subject,” he said.

While Wright’s politics may align better with Dunshee’s, the vote puts her in an interesting spot. Her husband, Richard Wright, is chairman of the Snohomish County Democrats, and he sent a letter to the council asking them to respect the party’s wishes and select Palumbo as the top vote-getter.

Klein worked alongside Palumbo on the planning commission. He describes him as collaborative and hard-working.

Sullivan considers Dunshee a friend and formerly served with him in the Legislature.

“I am looking for a strong candidate and political maturity,” Sullivan said.

Anyone who wins the post would have to run for a special one-year term in November and for a four-year term in 2017.

Republican Sam Low, a Lake Stevens city councilman, has filed fundraising paperwork to run this year. So has Palumbo.

If Dunshee gets the appointment, it would leave an open House seat in the 44th Legislative District. Lovick, who represented the district before being elected sheriff and executive, has said he wants the post.

Like many others, veteran political consultant Ron Dotzauer assumed Dunshee would get the council seat because of his standing as a popular Democrat who “has paid his dues.” Dotzauer said he’s familiar with Dunshee, but not with the other two nominees. He was impressed by Palumbo’s showing, but wouldn’t be surprised if the council goes with Dunshee.

Whatever happens, Dotzauer believes any bad feelings among local Democrats will fade in the face of new battles.

“There are better things to worry about, like who are you going to support for President during the caucus in March,” he said. “By then, this will all be in the rearview mirror.”

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report. Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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