Meet the driving force behind Washam recall

ROBIN FARRIS: A political novice, she launched recall drive against Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam support: She picks up backing from well-known Pierce County political figures

March 13, 2011 

When Robin Farris gets hot, when her old naval-officer instincts kick into overdrive and her temper flares, she remembers the calming advice a subordinate once gave.

“L.T.!” the sailor had teased, calling out Farris by her lieutenant’s rank. “Breathe in Jesus, breathe out the devil.”

Farris, 49, has taken plenty of deep breaths since October, when she filed a petition to recall embattled Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. She was a political novice then. She knows a few more people now.

A March 3 order from the Washington State Supreme Court gave Farris the go-ahead to begin collecting signatures to bring a special election to the ballot. Legally, she has six months to do it, which would mean early September.

Farris wants to go faster. She’s aiming for 90,000 signatures by June 30, exceeding the legal threshold of 65,495.

A cross-section of Pierce County leaders, some of whom have opposed each other in the past, have thrown their weight behind Farris, bringing political know-how and connections to an effort that started with an evening of musing at a computer terminal.

Those leaders say they had no idea who Farris was until she filed her petition Oct. 29.

She had been reading news stories and postings on Washam’s official website, growing more and more annoyed by the image of a leader whose conduct broke every rule of command she’d learned in 20-plus years of military service.

Washam’s two-year tenure in office has spawned multiple internal investigations that have concluded that he retaliated against employees, abused his authority, wasted government resources and hindered the investigations. Four current and former employees have filed damage claims against the assessor’s office, citing similar circumstances and seeking a total of $4.25 million in damages.

“I just wondered in my mind, why hasn’t somebody recalled this guy?” Farris said. “My second thought was, well, I could do that.”

Washam did not respond to requests for comment from The News Tribune regarding Farris and the recall. The requests were sent Tuesday and Thursday via phone calls and voice-mail messages to his assistant, Gretchen Borck.

Washam spoke to another news outlet, The Eatonville Dispatch, on March 4 after the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Of course I disagree with it,” he said.

The court released a brief order, noting that a formal opinion would follow later. Washam told The Dispatch that the court should have released its formal opinion immediately. He also disputed the recall charges and denied any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, Washam posted an announcement on his official website – the first in almost three months. He said the assessor’s office was doing more with less money, and alluded to staff morale.

“Your Assessor-Treasurer’s Office staff is happy and well, as demonstrated by their good works,” Washam stated. “Don’t believe anyone who would tell you differently.”

He and Farris haven’t met formally. She went to a public meeting Washam held last fall after she filed her petition – their only face-to-face encounter outside of court proceedings. At the meeting, Farris sat in the audience and asked a few questions.

PUYALLUP SAILOR

She’s a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Puyallup High School, Class of 1979, the oldest of three siblings (and the bossiest, she says.) She has a sister and a brother.

Her mother, Leanna Schletzbaum, serves as her campaign treasurer, collecting and recording contributions, which stand at $4,850 in cash and $20,817 of in-kind contributions tied to legal services, according to the latest Public Disclosure Commission filings.

“I trust her,” Farris says of her mother. “She knows how I think. Plus, she’s super organized, and I’m super not.”

Farris likes heavy metal music. Informally, she calls friends “dude.” She’s a former sailor, but she doesn’t swear like one: Her worst curse might be “ding-dang.” She’s been married and divorced. She got braces last year and hates them, but her front teeth were grinding; she had to stop them from cracking.

She hadn’t planned on a military career after high school. It was an epiphany, she says – she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but her cousin was in the Navy, and it seemed like the right place to go.

She aced her entrance tests in 1981, and started out as an electronics technician. By her own account, she wasn’t too good at first. She learned.

When she entered the service, female sailors were scarce – about 8 percent of the enlisted population, she says. Starting from the bottom, she became a chief petty officer in 1993. She was later selected for the Limited Duty Officer program, obtained her commission and rose to the rank of lieutenant. She was stationed on the USS Blue Ridge in Japan, the first woman to serve on that ship’s company.

A 1993 article from USA Today on women in the Navy gives a snapshot of Farris at that time. In a photograph taken on board the USS Acadia, she salutes the camera, flanked by a pair of female sailors. The story quotes her saying, “We’re on the cutting edge.”

Her tours of duty took her to Iceland, where she was the officer in charge of a NATO satellite ground terminal; to Hawaii, Singapore and Japan; and finally to London, where she was the assistant officer in charge of the Navy’s communications station, responsible for 500 system-users.

“I told my folks when I first took over that department, my goal is that when you leave here, you say this is the best command you ever had,” she said. “The only way I can make it the best command is by trusting my troops and making them be the best they can.

“Most of the time if you facilitate them to do their own job to the best of their ability and give some guidelines, everybody wins.”

Farris retired in 2004 as a lieutenant commander, feeling she’d done enough, ready for something else.

Along the way, she’d taken night school courses. Eventually she earned degrees in political science and business communications from Chapman University in California and Jones International University, an online institution based in Colorado. (Both institutions verified Farris’ degrees to The News Tribune.)

She returned to Puyallup in 2004, bought a small house and worked at an insurance company for two years as a training development specialist. She worked for her brother’s construction business briefly as a project manager, then started a small online retail business, buying and reselling household castoffs such as china and clothing.

Apart from that, she lives on her retirement pay.

Last October, she’d started thinking about what to do next when she decided to take up the recall. She says she wasn’t thinking about entering the political spotlight or making a name for herself. No one backed her or pushed her.

“I want to say unequivocally, that was not my motivation to do this recall,” she said. “No one put me up to this. This was something that I thought of.”

GETTING SUPPORT

Whatever her original intent, Farris has attracted political support from local heavyweights – Democrats and Republicans who have put their names and reputations behind the recall effort.

The honorary co-chairman and chairwomen of her campaign committee are former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma (a Democrat), former County Councilwoman Barbara Gelman (a Democrat who was assessor in the 1990s); and former County Councilwoman Jan Shabro (a Republican who also was county auditor).

Baarsma met Farris at a recent public meeting of retirees and senior citizens. Farris asked him for his support, and he quickly volunteered. He said he joined out of a sense of civic duty. He first met Washam in 1976.

“I feel that this person has committed recallable acts, and I feel strongly about that,” he said.

Baarsma’s wife, Carol, a former Kitsap County assessor, also has endorsed the recall campaign.

Gelman narrowly lost to Washam in the 2008 run for assessor in a unique election operated under an instant run-off system that featured multiple candidates. Voters later abandoned the system. Gelman joined the recall effort at Farris’ request.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Gelman said.

Shabro has known Washam since 1994, when she first ran for office. She also fell short against him in the 2008 instant run-off election. She said the defeat has nothing to do with her support of the recall.

“Hardly,” she said. “My interactions with him convinced me that we could be better served. You can agree to disagree. You can still respect people. You can be professional with people.”

Like Gelman, Shabro agreed to join the campaign at Farris’ request.

“She’s been a career naval officer,” Shabro said. “My husband and son are ex-Navy people, so I have a certain regard and respect for people who have been in the service.”

Farris’ attorneys, Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon, who have represented her in court hearings on the recall, approached her and offered to represent her for free after she filed her recall petition.

“They were super nice, but I wasn’t sure why they were calling,” Farris said. “So I asked, ‘Are you for the recall or … ?’ They burst out laughing and said that they called because they thought I needed help. Boy oh boy, did I. When they said they would take the case pro bono, I was overwhelmed.”

Other political names appear on Farris’ list of endorsements. Gig Harbor City Councilman Derek Young is one of them. Alex Hays, a political consultant who often works on Republican campaigns (as well as the recent campaign of Prosecutor Mark Lindquist), is another.

Former County Executive John Ladenburg shows up in the mix. His law office is one of the sites Farris has listed on her website as a location to sign petitions.

Finally, there’s Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, the former county auditor who knows Washam as well as anyone. He tried four times to recall her from office after losing three elections to her in the 1990s.

Pearsall-Stipek has no official role on the recall committee. She has offered advice to Farris and shared political connections. She knows that her participation might be viewed with suspicion. She did not know Farris personally before the recall effort began and did not contact her initially when she heard about it.

“I waited quite a while,” Pearsall-Stipek said in a recent interview. “I thought that if I joined on, people would say that I was doing it because of what (Washam) did to me. That is not true.

“When Dale was elected I contacted him personally and congratulated him and wished him the very best. And told him that now he had an opportunity to show if he really was the person that he had portrayed himself to be.”

Pearsall-Stipek said she told Farris she would withdraw from the recall campaign if necessary. Farris told her no.

“There’s nobody that is leading her,” Pearsall-Stipek said of Farris. “She makes her own decisions.”

Some of those decisions have landed Farris in muddy water.

Her initial fundraising drew the attention of the state Public Disclosure Commission. Farris filed under the mini-reporting option, expecting to raise less than $5,000. She says she did not realize at first that the free legal services provided by Oldfield and Helsdon would violate rules governing individual in-kind contributions. Those services, valued at more than $20,000, blew past the mini-reporting limit.

Farris has since shifted to full reporting. Apart from the legal services, her contributions have come in small doses – $25 to $250 apiece from 30 individual contributors. (Those numbers could climb; they reflect donations through February, before the Supreme Court’s order set the signature-gathering campaign in motion.)

Based on the initial errors associated with the attorney services, the PDC has charged Farris with violations of the contribution rules. The commission still is considering imposing fines. Farris and her attorneys are arguing that finding. A hearing on the matter is set for April 28.

The missteps worry citizens such as Lisa Jones, a Puyallup-area resident who keeps an eye on county government. Jones doesn’t call herself a Washam supporter, but she believes he makes a valid point about the misdeeds of Ken Madsen, the former assessor who preceded Washam in office.

Madsen used statistical models to revalue some county properties, instead of the physical inspections required by state law. Washam tried to recall Madsen on that basis in 2005, but the petition was rejected, and Washam did not appeal the decision.

Jones thinks county leaders wrongly minimized and dismissed Madsen’s actions, instead of taking steps to ensure that they won’t be repeated.

Washam might be a poor manager, Jones says – but he’s not the only one in Pierce County.

She has nothing against Farris or the recall effort.

“Every citizen has the right,” Jones says. “More power to her.”

At the same time, Jones questions Farris’ stumbles with the PDC and the excuse of ignorance. She thinks Farris, a military veteran and college graduate with a political science degree, should have been smart enough to know the rules beforehand or at least ask about them, especially with attorneys assisting her.

“I think when you start a procedure and especially if you hire attorneys, that you should make yourself as knowledgeable as you can. You learn to read fine print,” Jones said.

“(Farris) is asking for accountability on Washam. I feel that she should be being held to the same standard.”

NOT MUCH TIME

Farris knows she has to work fast. She has less than four months to meet her self-imposed June 30 deadline to file signatures.

On the first weekend after the Supreme Court order, she handed out 600 petition sheets with room for 20 signatures each – enough for 12,000, if every page comes back filled.

Not close to enough, she said. She’ll need more than seven times that many – 4,500 petition sheets – to meet her goal. She plans a rally in the coming weeks. On Friday, she took the audacious step of gathering signatures at the Pierce County Annex, outside the assessor’s office. Supporters wearing RECALL WASHAM T-shirts parked an RV outside the annex, calling it the “Recallmobile.” By noon, the columns of signatures were filling, and Farris took a quick trip home to gather more petitions.

She’s enjoying the thrill of politics, the juice that infects every first-timer. She’s spoken at political meetings, dressed up in heels, answered questions, explained herself.

Does she see a future in politics? She doesn’t know. That wasn’t the idea when she started. She wouldn’t rule out a run for office at this stage, but she says she’s not sure.

“You know, I’m really kind of happy with my life right now,” she says.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486; sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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