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Thursday, November 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Power shifts, yet again, in Snohomish County

Times Snohomish County bureau

For the third time in a decade, rural Snohomish County voters have toppled the County Council majority.

As the county struggles to deal with its phenomenal growth, voters can't seem to decide whether they prefer strict growth control, with tough building standards and environmental protections, or a focus on property rights, with greater freedoms for developers and landowners.

On Tuesday, voters in the county's northern and southeastern communities evicted two of the five-member council's most liberal Democratic members, Dave Somers and Mike Ashley, for conservative Republicans, Jeff Sax and former state Rep. John Koster, both foes of the state Growth Management Act.

That evoked memories of 1993, when the same voters discharged Ross Kane and Peter Hurley, both Democratic environmentalists. Elected in their places were Republican educator John Garner and R.C. "Swede" Johnson, a developer-recruited conservative who beat Hurley in the Democratic primary.

"There's some real rebellion out there," said Councilwoman Barbara Cothern, D-Bothell, who is retiring at year-end. Tuesday's voters decided to replace Cothern with Dave Gossett, Democratic mayor of Mountlake Terrace, who defeated state Rep. Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell.

Somers and Ashley yesterday attributed their losses, in part, to the huge amount of money donated to their opponents' campaigns by development-related interests. The council this year tightened development rules for high-density residential projects; both Sax and Koster say they'll repeal those restrictions.

Sax raised nearly $112,000, at least $73,000 of it from real-estate interests, development and timber interests. The Robinett development family also donated $14,000 to the 44th Legislative Republican Committee, which three days later paid $13,500 for a Sax campaign brochure.

At least $58,000 of Koster's $109,500 campaign chest came from similar business interests. In contrast, Somers raised about $54,000 and Ashley about $59,000.

"I expect to see a sixth chair on the council dais come January, the one Sam Anderson has purchased," said Ashley, referring to the executive officer for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

Anderson said the Master Builders tried to educate Somers and Ashley on their issues. When that didn't work, they turned to Koster and Sax, he said.

"I find it frankly humorous that Mike Ashley thinks you can just buy votes," Anderson said. "I don't think the voting public is that stupid."

Schmidt was impressed by development interests' investment in his fellow Republicans' campaigns. "They were more active in this election than I've seen in decades," he said. "They saw the council had gotten so one-sided, so out-of-balance and so 'green.' "

County Councilman Gary Nelson, the panel's sole Republican for years, now will head a three-man majority. Next year he is expected to chair the council.

Somers said his district, which stretches from the Cascades to the areas becoming urbanized east of Interstate 5, is quite diverse politically. "Whoever mobilizes their ideological base, they can take it," he said.

Four years ago, Somers' platform of developer accountability and growth control worked. This time, the Sax campaign successfully blamed him for the county's growth, traffic and tax woes. Now, Somers said, the new council will go "180 degrees" in the opposite direction, perhaps dismantling much of his own work.

Koster and Jim Donner, a Sax volunteer, suggested rural voters were influenced by Somers' and Ashley's positions against Initiative 747 and the county's "right to plow" initiative, which exempted most activities on agricultural lands from county regulations.

Ashley agreed.

"It got that conservative property-rights crowd out to vote," said Ashley, a dairy farmer. "(Koster) does not have a mandate of the people. And he should remember that carefully."

Diane Brooks can be reached at 206-464-2567 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com.

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