The King and Pierce county councils Saturday chose Phil Fortunato to replace long-serving Republican Pam Roach in the state Senate.
Fortunato, 63, was the top choice of precinct committee officers in the 31st District, who were tasked by the state Republican party to forward three candidates for the councils to pick from.
Fortunato, a Republican from Auburn, was elected to the state House in 2016. He was Roach’s favorite to take her 31st District Senate seat.
But he wasn’t the No. 1 for every council member. And his appointment drew criticism from some at the meeting in Fife, who expressed concern the appointment process was rigged in his favor.
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The other two candidates chosen by 31st District precinct committee officers this week — David Patrick and Cheryl Marshall — said at the meeting they hoped Fortunato would get the job.
Patrick, a 70-year-old retired engineer from Bonney Lake, told the councils he was a longtime friend of Roach’s.
Marshall, an aide to Roach for 10 years in the Senate, said she didn’t think she was capable of serving in the Senate while caring for her son, who she said is disabled and uses a wheelchair.
The two were selected by committee officers over Republican state Rep. Drew Stokesbary, elected in 2014, who had hoped to be considered by the councils. Roach and others urged the committee officers not to put Stokesbary on the list this week, in part because of Stokesbary’s support of a transportation tax package passed in 2015.
“I feel the process was rigged so the councils were really only selecting from the top choice,” said Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert. “I don’t think that’s how the process should be handled.”
On Saturday, the councils specifically followed up with the three candidates to ask if they actually wanted to serve in the Senate. Marshall and Patrick clarified, yes, they would take the gig if offered.
Marshall, Roach’s aide at the county, said with help at home, she could have kept the position until the special election for the seat in November.
Despite the assurances, some council members weren’t satisfied with their options.
Talbert, a Democrat, said he believed Marshall was capable of being a placeholder in the seat until voters could pick their candidates in the fall rather than rubber stamp the top pick of the committee officers.
In the end, close to half of the council members picked Marshall.
Fortunato earned a slim majority of the two county councils’ votes. Since King County has more council members (9) than Pierce (7) the votes were calculated to give each council equal say.
Some picked Marshall and cited similar justification — namely a desire to see a candidate who wouldn’t run for re-election in the fall — but didn’t object to the appointment process.
King County Council Chairman Joe McDermott said the councils still could have picked any of the three. It wasn’t “his place to judge” how the committee officers arrived at their candidates, he said.
He supported Marshall because he thought she had better knowledge of the 31st District and more willingness to support King County council priorities.
Though McDermott once served as a Democrat in the state House and Senate, all positions on the King County Council are nonpartisan.
Fortunato still earned a slim majority of the council votes in a straw poll. Since King County has more council members than Pierce the votes were calculated to give each council equal say.
Democratic Pierce County Councilman Derek Young picked Fortunato, saying he didn’t think Marshall wanted the position.
He still criticized the appointment process in general, saying it gives both parties incentive all over the state to steer councils toward their favored replacements.
“I just don’t want to sit here and pretend the other candidates were really here to get appointed, because they weren’t,” he said.
Republican Pierce County Councilman Dan Roach supported Fortunato, saying he was the likeliest to win the special election in that district because he had already won a state House seat. Dan Roach is Pam Roach’s son.
Pam Roach, now on the Pierce council, said all three candidates were viable, and the process was fair. She said she voted for Fortunato because of his electability and because the committee officers picked him as their first choice.
“In the end, the right decision was made,” Roach said.
Fortunato said he was excited to work on mental health, education and homeless issues in the Senate and dismissed concerns the other candidates weren’t interested in the job. He also accused Democrats of putting forth just one viable candidate in past appointments.
“This is politics,” he said. “And it’s a political situation. It is a campaign, the object is to win the campaign.”
After Fortunato’s appointment to the Senate, the council members chose Republican Morgan Irwin, a 33-year Seattle police officer and member of the Enumclaw City Council, to fill Fortunato’s vacant position in the House.
Since the King County Council has nine members and the Pierce County Council has seven members, their votes were weighted to ensure the councils had equal say in the appointment process. King County council members got 7/9ths of a vote, while Pierce County council members got 9/9ths of a vote.