The Gristle

Experience Matters

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

EXPERIENCE MATTERS: Ballots are in the mail and have arrived for the state’s Aug. 4 primary election, the results of which should yield powerful clues about the mood of voters going into the fall.

The official voters’ guide is also out, and what a raucous, wild, wacko and thoroughly entertaining document it is, with fully 36 candidates seeking the office of governor in the midst of a pandemic crisis—a searing testament to the shattered state of the Republican Party in the Trump Era, which has enirely lost control of the party’s ability to select, prefer or winnow reasonable candidates who would run under their banner or brand in this election.

Notable and sad about the list of candidates is how few seeking the state’s highest office present any experience in government at any level, even at the level of town council or dog catcher; fewer still express any genuine understanding about what the role and duties of the high office they seek actually are. Is experience important? Imagine these candidate statements as a resumé, and you are hiring this person to represent your interests—because, indeed, that is what you as a voter are doing. Mentorship—once a sweet science grooming legislators and legislative aides and assistants, and indeed political parties themselves—is apparently a dead art in Washington. That convicted serial thief and sideshow barker Tim Eyman likely stands the most probable chance of arriving in the top-two slot in this primary out of this field—based on obnoxious notoriety alone—says all that needs to be said about the decayed condition of the country’s once most influential and sober-minded political party.

Related to that, early signs indicate another towering Blue Wave in down-ballot races, and the continued careers of Republicans in even safe districts like Whatcom’s 42nd LD are about to be carpet-bombed.

The prestigious Cook Political Report notes a powerful tidal shift in political preference in Washington and nationally, as Democrats are crushing Republicans in fundraising.

The Democratic candidates in the 11 most competitive Senate contests in the country raised a collective $67.3 million in between April 1 and June 30—$20.5 million more than their Republican counterparts. The story is the same in the House, where Democratic candidates raised $457 million in that second quarter of 2020 compared to $365 million for Republican candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates incumbent Democrats have nine times more money in the bank—$40 million to $4.5 million—than the best-funded Republican challengers. Generic congressional polls give Democrats a 10.5-point advantage over Republicans, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls.

The state’s Aug. 4 primary will test the strengths of these assumptions and serve as a powerful bellwether for November outcomes.

Changes in the state’s wonky Top 2 Primary mean even in races where only one or two candidates filed for a partisan office, that race will still appear on the primary election ballot—yielding a test run on all races in the fall. We will see early indications, for example, how incumbent Luanne Van Werven may fare against a challenge from Blaine City Council member Alicia Rule; and whether a Republican can gain any traction against Sharon Shewmake in the 42nd District. And we’ll see similar dry-run contests in the 40th District.

But perhaps the most consequential change in the state’s primary is in the manner and procedure of judicial races. Until 2013, a judicial candidate who received more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary was elected, without need for a runoff in the later general election. The idea was to de-politicize judicial races, which are nonpartisan in Washington. This made primary election eventful indeed for judicial races—influential and important positions that the public, quite frankly, receives limited information about. Now judicial races are decided similar to any other primary contest, but even with the change these races may be among the most critical decisions local voters must make in this election.

Whatcom County’s Superior Court is in a state of flux. A fourth court was added in 2014, and with the retirement of Presiding Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett and the advancement of Raquel Montoya-Lewis to the state Supreme Court, two positions will be decided by voters this fall. The county’s court system—as with every aspect of the county’s criminal justice response—is also undergoing seismic change as part of a social contract and mandate to reduce incarceration rates and improve justice outcomes. The courts play an important role in this, and judicial positions that were once apolitical by design have become political indeed.

Superior Court is at times referred to as “the court of unlimited jurisdiction.” This means the court can hear nearly any case imaginable—federal, state, local. The court impanels juries; examines major capital offenses by trial; settles civil disputes that can involve staggering sums of money; resolves government and inter-government disputes; interprets local law, including land-use regulations; and even decides what matters can be placed on a ballot for referendum or initiative, and writes the language of those ballot measures. Superior Court is powerful and complex in its diversity, and the skills, insight and experience it demands of judges are enormous.

Governor Jay Inslee appointed David Freeman to replace Judge Montoya-Lewis in Superior Court. Now voters must ratify that appointment through an election. While two other candidates appear well-qualified for the office, this seems an easy decision for voters: Retain Judge Freeman.

The other Superior Court race, with no appointment or incumbent, is more fraught—and is shaping up to be in many ways a rerun of the County Prosecutor race of 2018.

James Erb was a charismatic and articulate champion of criminal justice reform when he offered to take the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in a new direction. It’s an office that holds tectonic influence in justice outcomes through its power to determine who is prosecuted, how they are charged and—if convicted—how they serve. Erb’s passion stood as a challenge to the status quo; and a bitter contest in 2018 sowed division among Democrats. Now he seeks to bring some of those ideas to Superior Court.

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office prefers a different judge, Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones, setting up another potentially divisive quarrel among progressives seeking renewed justice outcomes and an end to the status quo.

The question is asked whether Erb, in a continuing atmosphere of bitter division, can adequately work with county prosecutors in a courtroom setting. But the more salient and important question is, why is the Prosecutor picking favorites, winners and losers, in the judiciary? It’s inappropriate, and it should stop.

On a more ringing note, Erb’s resumé, his actual courtroom and trial experience, appears the weakest of the three candidates—particularly given the breadth and complexity of cases that arrive in Superior Court. And Superior Court, and the special role it plays as impartial arbiter of the justice system, is a less appropriate forum for a firebrand reformer than the prosecutors office.

The Gristle favors the third candidate, Lisa Keeler, who demonstrated immense capacity and experience when she ran, unsuccessfully, for the state Court of Appeals in 2018. Of the three candidates, she has the most diverse criminal and civil court experience, and has actually served as a substitute commissioner on Whatcom County Superior Court.

Prosecutor 2.0 between Erb and Jones is taking up all the oxygen in this race. But we hope Lisa Keeler makes it through.

Past Columns
Smoke and Acrimony

September 16, 2020

Housing Saves Lives

September 2, 2020


August 19, 2020

In the Mail

August 5, 2020


July 8, 2020

Economic Snapshots

June 24, 2020

False Flags

June 10, 2020

Napoleons In Exile

May 27, 2020

Alcoa Unmade

April 29, 2020


March 25, 2020

Protecting the Vulnerable

March 18, 2020

An Evolving Crisis

March 18, 2020

Pandemic Pandemonium

March 11, 2020

A New Hope

March 4, 2020

Managing Expectations

February 26, 2020

A Mad Triad

February 19, 2020

Another Jail Fail?

February 12, 2020