Politics & Government

Tacoma state lawmaker defies calls to resign following allegations of inappropriate behavior

State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma.
State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma. Courtesy

State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, says he will seek reelection in 2018 despite pressure from some within his party to drop out of the race or resign in the wake of allegations he has behaved inappropriately toward women.

In a Tuesday Facebook post, Timothy Farrell, chairman of the Pierce County Democrats, said he urged Sawyer to resign his position. In the absence of a resignation, Farrell said he and others are “actively working” to find an “outstanding alternative” to run against Sawyer.

“Mr. Sawyer is and was a skilled legislator, but he showed a lack of respect and professionalism with the people that he worked with and represented,” Farrell wrote. “He should not continue to represent this county in elected office.”

Farrell told The News Tribune and the Olympian on Wednesday that he was acting on his own and that his organization has yet to take a formal stance on the allegations against Sawyer.

Sawyer, who has denied acting inappropriately, said he will continue to run for his seat in 2018 and called for a neutral investigation into the allegations.

“I believe I have conducted myself professionally and lawfully,” he said in a written statement provided to The News Tribune and The Olympian on Wednesday.

Sawyer is currently restricted from working with his staff in the House as officials review a recent unspecified allegation made against him related to personal-boundary concerns.

Eight women also have accused Sawyer of engaging in inappropriate behavior toward them both before he was a legislator and after he was first elected in 2012.

Those accusations, detailed last month in a story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio’s Northwest News Network, include persistent or suggestive electronic messaging, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones.

Seven of the women are current and former lobbyists, legislative staffers and campaign volunteers who first crossed paths with Sawyer professionally. One woman was involved in Tacoma public affairs but knew Sawyer primarily through a mutual friend.

In his statement Wednesday, Sawyer said “a process to investigate these claims is underway.”

“This clearly requires an independent, neutral investigation outside of the Legislature to ensure this process is not politicized and so all parties are confident the investigation is thorough and fair,” he said.

Farrell’s call for Sawyer to resign represents the strongest response to the allegations made against Sawyer to date.

House officials have either declined to comment or deferred to the ongoing investigation. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, could not be reached Wednesday.

At least one other prominent Democrat has called for Sawyer to leave the Legislature.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma said on Facebook Tuesday that “at a minimum” Sawyer should not seek reelection.

Jinkins did immediately respond to a request for further comment Wednesday. She chairs the House Judiciary Committee and has long been an influential person in Pierce County political circles.

Farrell’s post on Facebook drew a heated debate.

John Ladenburg Sr., a powerful attorney, Democrat and former longtime elected official in Tacoma and Pierce County, offered a strong rebuttal of Farrell’s stance, calling it a “stupid conclusion” that is “totally ridiculous.”

Sawyer is currently a law clerk at Ladenburg Sr.’s firm, called Sadler Ladenburg.

“He has apologized for any conduct that was not appropriate, but it is social conduct, not any kind of physical attack or conduct,” Ladenburg Sr. said in a response to Farrell on Facebook.

Branden Durst is the only other candidate running for Sawyer’s position so far in the 29th Legislative District. He is currently the head boys’ soccer coach at Bethel High School. Durst said on Twitter Wednesday that he will run as an independent Democrat.

Durst, a former state lawmaker in Idaho, unsuccessfully challenged Sawyer in 2016.

Durst’s relationship with his ex-wife was a point of contention during that campaign.

She was granted temporary protection orders for domestic violence and harassment following accusations Durst acted in a frightening and threatening manner toward her. A judge who later decided not to extend one of the protection orders cited testimony from Durst’s ex-wife that he never physically hurt her. Durst, who has since remarried, denies the events happened. The most recent temporary order against him expired in December 2015.

Farrell said he is not supporting Durst, although Durst said he has some backers within the district, including the endorsement of Tacoma City Councilman Chris Beale.

Democrats hoping to unseat Sawyer face a tall task. He has raised nearly $80,000 for his campaign so far, the second-most by any state representative during this cycle.

Farrell said in a Wednesday interview that he felt he had to “take a stand.”

“I know a lot of the parties involved,” Farrell told The News Tribune and The Olympian. “I believe the women in this case.”

The 29th District includes parts of Tacoma, Lakewood, Parkland, Spanaway and Frederickson.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein