Somers vs. Lovick: Same party, drastically different plans to lead Snohomish County

EVERETT — As John Lovick and Dave Somers compete to lead Snohomish County, it’s sometimes hard to recognize that they’re describing the same place.

Voters get to choose between the two Democrats and their diverging visions in the Nov. 3 election.

Lovick, the incumbent, offers a sunny forecast that he says can continue if he’s returned to office for the next four years. He said he has strived to set the right tone and move the community past the scandal-plagued tenure of Aaron Reardon, whom he replaced in mid-2013.

“I think that people want hope over fear and I have said that from day one,” Lovick said last week.

Somers, the chairman of the County Council, claims that Lovick has ignored gathering economic storm clouds. He offers his policy savvy to steer government to a more sustainable path. The challenger contends that Lovick’s administration has further mired the county in needless squabbles, rather than moving past them.

“Snohomish County is just a beautiful place and as we grow, I’d like to keep it as nice as we can,” he said.

Somers said without an honest or realistic take on the county budget or policy, that won’t happen.

“I don’t see any accountability on John’s part,” he said.

For more than a year, Somers and Lovick have tangled over budgets and union contracts. It’s grown personal, as they’ve accused each other of politicizing day-to-day government business. The $162 million courthouse project, the county’s biggest undertaking in recent years, went sideways on their watch, as Lovick and Somers led different branches of government.

Now, voters get to weigh in.

Contrasting styles

The county executive is the county’s top elected official, responsible for leading a nearly 2,800-member workforce and managing a yearly operating budget of more than $220 million. The executive directly oversees an assortment of departments, among them public works and planning, parks and Paine Field.

Both candidates now competing for the office moved to Western Washington as young men and thrived. Both heeded the call to public service. And both have a long history in Democratic Party politics.

Beyond that, differences abound.

Lovick’s standard dress at the office is a crisp suit and tie, a habit perhaps instilled by wearing uniforms during his 31 years with the Washington State Patrol. He preaches the values of dignity and respect.

“People expect me to be out in the community — there are very few things I don’t attend,” Lovick said. “I have to be the face of the county.”

For Somers, appearance may be more of an afterthought.

A rumpled policy wonk, he’s steeped in the nuances of riparian buffers and rural cluster subdivisions. He points to his support from both developers and conservationists to show that he’s capable of striking the right balance on contentious issues.

“We’re going to grow — there’s nothing we can do to change that,” Somers said, referring to the 200,000 people expected to move the county over the next two decades.

Lovick, 64, was twice elected county sheriff before being appointed as executive in 2013. He won a special election to a one-year term last year against Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, a Republican. His political resume includes nine years as a state lawmaker, with multiple terms as House speaker pro tem, and five years on the Mill Creek City Council.

Lovick grew up in rural Louisiana and arrived in Seattle after enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard. He went on to a career as a state trooper, retiring as a sergeant.

Away from work, he loves to cook. Specialities include Cajun fried turkey, pies and cornbread. As a younger man, he boxed competitively and hoped to qualify for the Olympics. He still regularly dons boxing gloves and hits the bag at the gym to keep in shape. He loves to travel and has taken cruises with his wife, Karen, to Alaska and the Mediterranean.

Somers, 62, grew up in Napa, California, but had family ties to the Kirkland area. After high school, he studied at Lewis &Clark college in Portland, Oregon, then transferred to the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in fisheries. His expertise led to an 18-year job with the Tulalip Tribes. He left on good terms after getting elected to the County Council in 1997.

Somers lost to a Republican challenger four years later, then won back the seat in 2005. He’s now in the middle of his third consecutive term representing the district covering eastern Snohomish County.

Somers’ pastimes include wine-making and target shooting. He owns a Russian-made Ural motorcycle with a sidecar, and used to scuba dive.

He has three dogs. One of them, an adopted stray named Hewitt, accompanies him to work most days. Somers and his wife, Elaine, also keep two rescued racehorses at their Monroe property.

Somers said he agonized before deciding to challenge Lovick only on the eve of filing week in May.

“The thing that really drove me to run was the financial situation at the county,” he said. “(Lovick) keeps bringing up that we have low unemployment in the county. That’s good, but the unemployment rate and how much money we have in the (county) budget are two different things.”

Somers said he also was concerned about Lovick taking a side in fights between the Boeing Co. and aerospace machinists. That includes the executive traveling to Olympia in March in support of a “clawback” bill to reduce the aerospace giant’s tax breaks if it didn’t maintain a specific number of jobs in the state. The proposal never made it out of committee.

Lovick stands by that decision and said he’s never criticized Boeing, only fought to protect jobs.

Lovick’s administration has faced unprecedented challenges. He stepped into an office that had been demoralized by Reardon’s lack of leadership and serial scandals. The deadly Oso mudslide hit nine months later. Before 2014 was out, his office helped the community cope with a mass shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

Despite those realities, the county has continued to prosper, he said.

“I’m really sorry that people have to politicize everything and make it look like the sky is falling,” Lovick said.

If the county’s situation is dire, Lovick said, Somers needs to accept some of the blame after nearly four terms in office.

“If they are going so bad, where has my opponent been for the last 14 years?” he said. “The county is a thriving and vibrant county. Things are going extremely well.”

Many insiders disagree.

Three of the five council members who appointed Lovick in 2013 now stand against him. There’s Somers, competing for his job. Former Councilman Dave Gossett, a Democrat and one-time Lovick ally, has been critical of the executive’s financial stewardship, oversight of the courthouse project and growth policies.

Former Councilman John Koster, whom Lovick selected as the county’s first ombudsman, has become a critic since his ouster from that job last year. The Republican endorses Somers, despite their contrasting political views.

Roger Neumaier worked as Reardon’s finance director and was shown the door when Lovick took office. Neumaier said Somers’ budget concerns are legitimate and that Lovick hasn’t shown fiscal restraint.

“John Lovick has always been incredibly gracious to me,” he said. “But at this point, I’m not confident that his administration is getting the job done and that’s why I’m supporting Somers.”

The former finance director hopes the county can move past a “negative and egotistical and politically driven approach.” Neumaier said that climate flourished under Reardon and continues under the current executive. Some problems under Lovick, he said, stemmed from the uncompromising management style of former Deputy Executive Mark Ericks, who resigned in September.

“I think he may have had more confidence than understanding in how to proceed,” Neumaier said.

Ericks took a lead role in the courthouse project that Lovick’s administration inherited from Reardon.

It’s now the largest example of the county’s dysfunction, with millions spent to draw up architectural plans and buy out six businesses for a future building site that has been abandoned. One evicted lawyer last week filed a $2 million damage claim against the county and others say they plan to do the same.

Somers was one of three council members who voted to put the courthouse across the street from the main county campus. He later said that Ericks steered the council toward that site over other options expected to cost less.

Lovick blames Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and the Everett City Council for dooming the project by passing emergency parking rules last Christmas Eve. They added millions of dollars in costs and doomed the courthouse budget.

“We were going to be on budget,” Lovick said. “The emergency ordinance on Christmas Eve changed everything.”

Stephanson has said Lovick’s administration — principally Ericks — led him to believe that the county would include parking in their designs.

The mayor said he resorted to emergency parking regulations to protect downtown businesses and Xfinity Arena after it became clear that county leaders were not making parking a priority.

Somers didn’t broker a solution. Instead, he repeatedly complained about being kept in the dark.

Opposing an incumbent

For more than a year, the council has locked in 3-2 votes on controversial issues. Somers has sided with council members Terry Ryan and Ken Klein, while council members Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan have stood with Lovick’s administration.

Flash points included a deadlock over passing a 2015 budget that almost caused the first county-level government shutdown in state history. Somers, Ryan and Klein also put Ericks under a microscope by hiring a private attorney to investigate allegedly hostile comments he directed at them. He was found to have violated no policies, in part due to his exempt status.

Lovick’s supporters claim critics have played up problems for political gain.

“To oppose somebody who’s an incumbent from your own party, there needs to be some real issues,” said Todd Nichols, a trial lawyer and longtime local Democratic Party leader. “Some of the alarmist issues raised by the challenger have turned out to be not so substantive.”

Nichols said Lovick has succeeded in restoring morale and a sense of optimism since replacing Reardon.

“I don’t think anything has happened that would justify throwing him overboard or not re-electing him,” he said.

Nichols speaks as somebody with first-hand knowledge. He was there observing on Ericks’ behalf when the council’s attorney grilled the deputy executive about bad-mouthing Somers, Ryan and Klein at work.

“My conclusion from that is that this is the type of situation that adults need to work out between themselves,” he said. “I’m sorry we’ve wasted thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for something that turned out to be a big nothing.”

Final stretch

Despite Somers’ late entrance into the race, he performed well in the primary election and in raising money. He won nearly 33 percent of the vote on Aug. 4, finishing more than 1,100 votes ahead of Lovick. The Democrats advanced from the five-person field, leaving behind two Republicans and an independent candidate.

By last week, Somers’ campaign had raised more than $150,000, compared to about $80,000 for Lovick, state campaign records show.

Somers’ campaign benefited from $25,000 worth of mailers paid for by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, which has opposed him in past campaigns.

Developers and business interests are among Somers’ biggest donors, but he also received a maximum $1,900 contribution from Washington Conservation Voters. The Aerospace Futures Alliance and the Boeing Co. also maxed out their cash contributions to his campaign.

Lovick’s biggest boost came from the Washington State Council of County &City Employees, which footed the bill for $19,000 worth of mailers. The AFSCME affiliate represents more than half of the county government workforce.

Ballots for the Nov. 3 election were mailed Thursday.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

What’s at stake?

A four-year term as Snohomish County Executive. The executive is the county’s top elected official, responsible for overseeing functions such as public works and planning, finance and tech services. The job pays $161,114 per year.

JOHN LOVICK (incumbent)

  • Party: Democrat
  • Age: 64
  • Residence: Mill Creek
  • Experience: county executive (appointed 2013, elected to a special one-year term in 2014); county sheriff (2008 to 2013); state House of Representatives, 44th Legislative District (1999 through 2007, with five years as speaker pro tem); Mill Creek City Council (1994 through 1998); retired as a sergeant from the Washington State Patrol in 2004 with 31 years of service; U.S. Coast Guard. Active in Gold Creek Community Church, youth mentoring and efforts to promote domestic violence awareness.
  • Website: www.electjohnlovick.com

DAVE SOMERS

  • Party: Democrat
  • Age: 62
  • Residence: Monroe (unincorporated)
  • Experience: Snohomish County Council (2006 to present, 1998 through 2001); Tulalip Tribes fisheries biologist (1979 to 1997); consultant for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (2004 to 2005); president of the Pacific Watershed Institute (1990 to present). Puget Sound Regional Council executive and growth management boards; Washington State Forest Practices Board; and the National Association of Counties steering committee for the environment, energy and land use.
  • Website: www.davesomers.org

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