They came, shook hands and attacked.
The first public candidates forum featuring Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and challenger Mary Robnett didn’t disappoint. The two combatants wasted little time with pleasantries before taking shots at each other.
Lindquist, citing his “proven record” of accomplishments, led with a standard stump speech about various programs within the prosecutor’s office, such as an elder abuse unit, efforts to combat gang violence and a lawsuit against drug companies that market opioids.
Robnett, her message by now familiar, said she offered change and professionalism, and added she would be a “steady hand,” in contrast to Lindquist’s 9-year tenure, which she described as “battered in the press and by scandals.”
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The forum, hosted by the Fife-Milton-Edgewood Chamber of Commerce, is the first of several ahead of the Nov. 6 general election. The candidates took questions, some provided in advance, others submitted from the audience in real time.
Lindquist, the incumbent seeking a third term, faces an unexpected uphill battle. In the Aug. 7 primary election, Robnett, an assistant attorney general and former deputy prosecutor, shocked local political observers, defeating Lindquist by more than 11 percentage points.
She has since taken the lead in fundraising, another surprise. The latest reports from the state Public Disclosure Commission show Robnett has outraised Lindquist by close to $20,000 in a race that easily ranks as the spendiest county-level contest in the state.
Following the primary, Lindquist sent an election-night note to supporters, vowing to attack Robnett and citing her alleged shortcomings while tangling himself in a dispute with the Tacoma Weekly, a local publication. The disagreement with the Weekly led to a blunt editorial that rebuked Lindquist’s tactics.
Wednesday’s forum revealed contrasts in style.
Lindquist, taller than anyone in the room at 6-feet-7, name-checked local officials who attended, his already booming voice amplified by a microphone. When the candidates were asked to pick the endorsements they valued most, he cited “over 500” from various people, both Democrat and Republican officials, as well as community leaders. He mentioned Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who didn’t attend Wednesday’s forum, and Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach, who did. Roach sat at a table near the front of the room.
“I appreciate all the support I’ve received from Pam Roach,” Lindquist said, citing her endorsement as evidence of his bipartisan backing. “The reason these Republicans have crossed the aisle to support me is because they know me. They know my integrity.”
Robnett spoke more softly and less smoothly, pausing occasionally to examine notes. Asked to cite her key endorsements, she pointed to local law enforcement unions representing Tacoma police and Pierce County sheriff’s deputies. She gave three names: Democrat Pat McCarthy, former Pierce County Executive and current state auditor; Republican Rob McKenna, former state Attorney General; and Gerry Horne, former Pierce County prosecutor and Lindquist’s predecessor.
“McCarthy had the opportunity to work with Mr. Lindquist for eight years while he was the elected prosecutor and she was the executive,” she said. “She’s strongly endorsing me.”
One question from the audience asked about the record of cases dismissed or reversed in Pierce County due to prosecutorial misconduct. Lindquist’s office leads the state in that dubious category.
Lindquist tried to pin the blame for reversals on his opponent, saying most of them occurred while Robnett was serving as his chief criminal deputy.
Robnett, familiar with the history, turned it around, noting that one reversal involved a murder case Lindquist had prosecuted personally. The defendant, Jaycee Fuller, was convicted in 2010, but the state Court of Appeals reversed the decision two years later, forcing the cost of a new trial that ultimately led to a conviction.
“A silly error,” Robnett called it.
Lindquist tried to minimize the reversal, saying it reflected a disagreement between judges about admissible evidence
“The judge had erred,” he said. “Many times you can be easily misled by these claims of prosecutorial misconduct. Be careful with misinformation.”
He omitted a key fact. Robnett, who knew the case well, swiftly filled the gap.
She said the case was reversed because Lindquist committed misconduct in his closing argument by suggesting that Fuller’s decision to remain silent during an interrogation implied proof of his guilt.
“Mr. Lindquist asked the jury in closing argument to draw a negative inference from someone invoking their right to remain silent,” she said. “That’s not a judicial error. That’s kind of what prosecutors learn basically. That’s prosecutor 101.”
Robnett was right, according to the record of the appeals court decision. The court noted the judicial disagreement Lindquist mentioned, but the first point of the decision referred to Lindquist’s closing argument.
“We hold that the state committed prejudicial prosecutorial misconduct by using Fuller’s partial silence as substantive evidence of his guilt,” the 2012 opinion reads. “...Our courts have assiduously protected a defendant’s constitutional right to remain silent.”
The sharpest moment of the forum — there were many — came near the end, when the candidates were asked to explain the differences that set them apart from each other and give closing statements.
Robnett spoke first. She cited the turmoil in Lindquist’s office, including whistleblower complaints by his employees and a subsequent investigation that found a politicized atmosphere, among other problems. She referred obliquely to his documented self-promotion efforts.
She mentioned a long-running case involving Lindquist’s text messages that has cost taxpayers more than $1 million to date. She mentioned an upcoming hearing before the state bar association regarding Lindquist’s alleged misconduct, scheduled for December, and the possibility that he could lose his license to practice law.
“I’m alarmed by the money spent on attorney fees, penalties and judgments,” she said. “The prosecutor’s office makes decisions and uses discretion that’s far too weighty to have partisan issues or politics interfere. It’s a very serious job. I’m firmly convinced that there’s no room for politics, grandstanding, public image management, that kind of thing. I have a stellar record. I’m very happy to run on my record. I don’t have any of these scandals or problems in my background.”
Lindquist, undaunted, fought back. He accused Robnett of being involved in various frivolous complaints filed against him.
“She’s been trying to politicize the prosecutor’s office from the outside for several years, and now she has the gall to stand in front of you and complain about those same political problems that she and her supporters have caused,” he said.
He added that Robnett faced a bar complaint of her own, related to a conversation with a another deputy prosecutor about possible deletion of public records. (Robnett later said she checked with the bar association after Wednesday’s forum, and was told no such complaint has been filed to date.)
Lindquist closed with standard rhetoric.
“I’ve stayed focused on what I think matters for our community, and that is the safety and the strength of our community,” he said.