OLYMPIA — Robert Sutherland had pivoted from a career in biopharmaceutical research to one crafting distilled spirits when he got infected with politics.
One meeting with other Republicans and, he recalled, he had the bug.
A dozen years later, the Granite Falls state lawmaker finds himself a voice of vitriol in a chorus of Republicans convinced President Joe Biden didn’t win the November election and former President Donald Trump wasn’t responsible for inciting the Jan. 6 siege on the nation’s Capitol by a mob of his supporters.
Days ahead of Trump’s second impeachment trial, Sutherland continued to push a disproved narrative on Facebook that the former president’s re-election victory had been stolen through massive voter fraud organized and perpetrated in part by foreign adversaries on behalf of Biden.
Days after too.
“I am 100% convinced that was an unfair election,” he said Friday. In time evidence of “massive voter fraud” will emerge but for now he said, “I am not going to continue beating that drum too loudly.”
He landed in the spotlight when he did beat it loudly.
Sutherland enjoyed a growth spurt among philosophical allies and critics in the weeks leading up to the insurrection with a forecast on social media of a potential for violence — a civil war is how he phrased it — breaking out when Congress convened to certify the Electoral College results.
He said he was prognosticating, not advocating. With emotions running high among backers of both candidates post-election, it seemed a logical conclusion people should prepare for any outcome, he said.
“I think January may go down in history for better or worse,” Sutherland said Dec. 31. “It seems there is going to be some action. I hope not. That’s just how I see it.”
Sutherland isn’t afraid to say things as he sees things.
“I speak my mind,” he said. “If my speech offends you, I’m sorry. I try to be as honest as I can.”
While he admitted there are times he probably could be more careful with what he pens on Facebook or espouses at rallies, he’s not taking any back.
He sees no reason, given voters in the rural 39th Legislative District re-elected him with 60%.
“Maybe I’m wrong. I come to my own conclusions,” he said. “And my base is growing all around Washington state.”
Sutherland, 60, was born and raised in Burbank in Southern California, home of NBC and Warner Brothers studios. He did a stint in the United States Air Force before moving to Spokane and enrolling at Gonzaga University in 1994 through a program targeting older non-traditional students, he said.
He graduated in 1998 and worked a decade as a research associate and quality control analyst for different firms including Cell Therapeutics, Inc. Sutherland said he retired in 2009 and decided to try his hand at craft distilling and devise his own brand of Whiskey.
But after he started attending meetings of local Republicans in 2009 he redirected his energy into politics.
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 captured an open seat in the state House created by the retirement of Dan Kristiansen, a Republican and former House Minority Leader.
In November, he won re-election to a second term in the solidly GOP district which takes in rural areas in Snohomish, Skagit and a sliver of King counties, including Arlington, Monroe and Granite Falls. While Sutherland got 60%, he received fewer votes than his Republican seatmates in the 39th District — Rep. Carolyn Eslick and Sen. Keith Wagoner.
Sutherland is a conservative guy in his politics.
He’s known to show up, armed, at gatherings of like-minded folks, like in Snohomish in May. He’s a frequent speaker at demonstrations organized by fellow conservatives and attended by armed members of militia groups, Proud Boys and other organizations which make law enforcement nervous.
And in the Legislature he serves in a caucus of some pretty conservative colleagues.
But his comments in December went too far for one of them.
“I am writing you to express my grave concerns with recent comments you have made concerning the election and ‘attempted coup’, ‘war coming’, etc.,” Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, wrote in a Dec. 17 email. “This combined with your posts earlier this year in which you referred to law enforcement as ‘goons with guns’ is an affront frankly to our caucus reputation and our ability to lead.”
“Our Republic has peacefully transitioned presidential powers and administrations for 58 election cycles. Inherent to our form of government is that peaceful transition. Your recent posts insinuating a coming war are borderline sedition,” continued MacEwen, assistant floor leader and a Navy veteran. “I strongly encourage you to be a unifier and not a divider. If life is lost because your words and actions incite violence then that unnecessary bloodshed will be on your hands alone.”
Sutherland delivered a full-throated response the next day.
“My mention of the possibility of war, whether hot, whether cold, whether foreign or whether domestic (civil), or perhaps some combination of those scenarios, is based on much evidence and research,” he wrote. “I will not share that evidence and research with you at this time because, frankly, I do not wish to waste any more of my time responding to your blithering comments than is absolutely necessary.
“Mentioning that we ought prepare ourselves for the possibility of war, given the current state of affairs AND given the fact that factions on both sides of the controversial issues have stated that it is their intention to fight is the prudent course of action,” he wrote. “I will advise you: pray for peace but prepare for war.”
Sutherland figured there’d be fallout from the dust-up.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said prior to the session he’d had a “good exchange” with Sutherland and looked forward to a de-escalation of emotions.
“When I’ve talked with Representative Sutherland, he’s always told me he believes in nonviolence,” Wilcox said.
At the start of session, Sutherland found himself no longer with seats on the high profile public safety and appropriations committees, and the powerful Rules Committee. This year he’s on the transportation, community and economic development, and college and workforce development panels.
He said he wanted on transportation as the issues are critically important to the district.
“It was a much better fit for me,” he said. “I am a much happier camper sitting on transportation.”
Unlike most lawmakers in both parties, Sutherland doesn’t introduce a lot of bills. He’s had three this year — two aimed at lowering taxes and one to provide discounted hunting licenses to seniors. None have received hearings. He’s yet to have a bill signed into law.
Sutherland has plenty of boosters in the ranks of the Grand Old Party. Critics too, though they are loathe to publicly criticize him.
“He’s a decent guy. He does speak for a sizable number of people in the East County area,” said Robert Hagglund, chairman of the 39th District Republicans.
But he admitted a few of the lawmaker’s posts are cringe-worthy.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said. “Sometimes he says things a little off-the-cuff and not thinking about what he says.”
Snohomish County Republican Party Chairman Doug Roulstone said he’s seen no evidence of blowback on the local level or other elected GOP officials from the uproar stirred by Sutherland’s comments in December.
“I think what he’s doing is speaking to his base and to some degree they support what he’s saying and how he says it,” said Roulstone, himself a big Trump booster in the last election.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, who also represents the 39th District, is a different cut of conservative cloth.
“He says things I wouldn’t say. He thinks things that I don’t always think,” Wagoner said. “If (voters) think he’s the man for the job, I’ve got no opinion otherwise.”
Jerry Cornfield: email@example.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.