EVERETT — John Lovick will tell you he’s worked hard to increase trust in Snohomish County government during the two years since taking office.
Yet as Lovick seeks his first full term as county executive, the former sheriff has weathered growing criticism over his management, particularly of the county’s finances.
His opponents in the Aug. 4 primary are generally united in assailing Lovick on that score.
County Council Chairman Dave Somers has clashed with Lovick’s administration for more than a year. He entered the race in May, to the disappointment of many local Democrats, who were loathe to see an intra-party struggle for the county’s highest elected office.
Republicans Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, and Norm Nunnally, of Marysville, cite their separation from the county’s current cast of elected leaders as an asset. Lynnwood attorney James Robert Deal has run a nonpartisan campaign promising unconventional approaches to mass transit, the environment and other issues.
They’re competing for a four-year term in office. The top two vote-getters will compete in the Nov. 3 general election. Primary ballots were mailed Thursday.
John Lovick points to the county’s robust jobs climate and packed parks as signs he’s been leading the county in the right direction. Statewide, Snohomish County’s 4 percent unemployment rate trails only King County’s.
“Why is it that our jobless rate is lower than other areas?” Lovick asked rhetorically last week.
“I would say the number-one issue facing the county is quality of life, maintaining the quality of life that citizens want,” Lovick added.
The incumbent identifies safe schools and transportation as other key issues. On the latter front, he points to the county’s success in securing $670 million in state funds during the recently ended legislative session for road, transit and ferry projects over the next 16 years.
Lovick was appointed executive in June 2013 after the resignation of his scandal-plagued predecessor, Aaron Reardon, who remains the subject of an active state campaign-ethics investigation. Lovick won more than 55 percent of the vote in last year’s special election to fill the final year of Reardon’s unexpired term, beating Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick.
Lovick, 64, is a retired state trooper who was twice elected sheriff before becoming executive. He also has served multiple terms in the state House of Representatives and on the Mill Creek City Council.
Despite his reputation for being gracious, Lovick’s tenure has been marked by some of the worst political infighting in memory — even when compared to Reardon. Strident clashes over spending have characterized his administration’s relationship with a majority of the County Council — and in December almost led to a government shutdown. Elected officials past and present have criticized Lovick’s apparent unwillingness to rein in his top administrator, Deputy Executive Mark Ericks, who talked about shooting a council member “if it wasn’t for jail time,” among other heated remarks.
The challenger who appears to have the most momentum heading into the primary is Dave Somers.
The four-term councilman from Monroe declared his candidacy only in May, but by this week had raised almost $42,000. By comparison, Lovick raised about $31,000 since the beginning of the year. The other three candidates combined have reported raising only a fraction of that money.
A former fisheries biologist for the Tulalip Tribes, Somers, 62, was first elected to the County Council in 1997. He lost his seat four years later but won it back in 2005.
For him, the most urgent issues involve the county’s finances. Under Lovick, cash reserves have fallen to only about half of what they should be, he said.
“It’s come about over a number of years but John’s been a big part of this, making decisions that are fiscally irresponsible,” Somers said.
Somers also faults Lovick’s oversight of the county’s $162 million courthouse project and for being too free in awarding employee raises.
“It’s been one thing after another,” he said.
Lovick said last week that “tax collections are not what we want them to be.” In early budget preparations, departments are being told to brace for possible cuts next year, with some layoffs possible.
Somers was part of a council majority that succeeded in overturning 10 percent raises that Lovick awarded last year to some top managers. Lovick this spring also reinstated a raise of more than 20 percent for an attorney who manages parts of the county’s public defense system, over the objections of Somers and two other council members.
Given the tight budget, Somers worries the raises set a bad precedent, especially with contract negotiations now underway for union employees.
“We could be in a situation where we could be giving people pretty generous raises, then have to lay a bunch of people off,” he said.
Somers highlights his land-use experience, with the county’s population projected to grow by more than 25 percent over the next two decades.
“That’s the kind of work that I’ve done ever since I started to work on the council,” Somers said. “I don’t know that he (Lovick) has any experience on land-use or planning issues at all.”
Somers has received endorsements from both the Washington Conservation Voters and the Affordable Housing Council, which is the political action committee for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Lovick has the Democratic Party’s backing and has strong support from organized labor.
Robert Sutherland, 55, said the county budget tops his priorities list.
Like Somers, Sutherland worries about budget reserves.
“I certainly wouldn’t be calling for huge pay raises for top-level management in the county at a time when the budget is hurting so bad,” he said.
Another goal for Sutherland is preserving single-family housing, rather than encouraging more townhouses, apartments and condos. At the same time, he said he wants to prevent farmland from being developed or converted to parks.
Sutherland said he retired from a career in biochemistry in 2009. After volunteering for Republican campaigns, he decided to run for office. He challenged U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene last year and narrowly missed making it out of the primary, losing out to Pedro Celis, the GOP’s preferred candidate.
As of early July, Sutherland said he had never attended a single county meeting.
“I have not attended any council meetings, but it’s something I should start doing,” he said.
Norm Nunnally, 68, a Republican from Marysville, also starts by talking about Lovick’s financial policies. In one email, he referred to “a deafening vacuum of leadership and management emanating from the upper levels of government in this county.”
Nunnally says people have lost trust in their elected leaders. He’s worried that the county’s bond rating will suffer and taxes will go up.
“There is an undercurrent of displeasure with the way the county’s running,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking to people in Stanwood or to people in Everett.”
After filing paperwork to run for office, Nunnally at first suggested he would support Sutherland, then said he was in the race for real. The mixed messages were because of health concerns that have since been put to rest, he said.
Nunnally runs a Marysville-area farm that focuses on sustainable agriculture and forestry — goals he sees as in sync with his conservative politics.
“I’ve always called myself a functional conservationist,” he said.
Nunnally served in the U.S. Army for more than 39 years, retiring with the rank of master sergeant. He’s worked as a medic, nurse and as a business manager. He has served on civic advisory boards in Snohomish and Douglas counties.
James Robert Deal takes pride in running an unconventional campaign as a political independent. He criticizes Democrats and Republicans for trying to prevent each other from winning, then acting the same once in office.
“I will be a more scholarly, more broadly educated, more creative and more willing to fire people when they’re not doing a good job,” he said.
As executive, Deal said he would push for a flex-van mass-transit system based on the Uber ride-share model. While the executive does not directly oversee transit agencies, the office comes with a spot on the Sound Transit board.
Deal’s absolute opposition to regular passenger flights at county-run Paine Field sets him apart from the other candidates. He criticizes Lovick and Somers for supporting a lease agreement with a New York company trying to establish a passenger terminal there.
Deal wants to brand Snohomish County as an organic county by taking steps such as banning the herbicide commonly sold under the name Roundup. For years he’s pushed local governments to end the practice of adding fluoride to drinking water, which he contends is dangerous to human health and salmon.
The 68-year-old works as a real estate attorney and broker defending people from foreclosure. He ran unsuccessfully for county executive last year and for lieutenant governor in 2012, both times failing to make it past the primary.
“It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been elected to public office,” he said. “These other guys have been in public office, but they have experience at being conventional.”
At a glance
What’s at stake: a four-year term as Snohomish County executive. The executive oversees the county’s finance, public works and planning departments as well as Paine Field. The job pays $161,114 per year.
James Robert Deal
Experience: real estate attorney and broker, specializing in helping homeowners avoid foreclosure.
John Lovick (incumbent)
Residence: Mill Creek
Experience: county executive (since June 2013); county sheriff, 2008 to 2013; state House, nine years; Mill Creek City Council, five years; retired Washington state trooper; U.S. Coast Guard.
Experience: manages a farm near Marysville; retired after 39 years in the U.S. Army; emergency medic; Republican Party activist; served in government advisory positions in Snohomish and Douglas counties.
Experience: Snohomish County Council, 2006 to present and 1998 to 2001; worked for 18 years as a Tulalip Tribes fisheries biologist; consultant for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; president of the Pacific Watershed Institute, 1990 to 1997.
Residence: Granite Falls
Experience: retired biochemist who worked on cancer therapies; U.S. Air Force veteran; ran in 2014 against Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene in Washington’s 1st Congressional District, but did not make it past the primary.
Get to know candidates for Snohomish County executive, county council and Lynnwood City Council at a public forum set for 6:30 to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday at 19200 44th Ave. W.