Politics & Government

The race for Pierce County prosecutor is shaping up to be a slugfest

The contest between Mark Lindquist, left, and Mary Robnett is the costliest county race in the state. The heat will rise through November
The contest between Mark Lindquist, left, and Mary Robnett is the costliest county race in the state. The heat will rise through November

Once they were friends and colleagues. Now they’re political opponents, digging in for what promises to be the hottest local campaign of the 2018 season. By November, either Mark Lindquist will be headed for his third term, or Mary Robnett will become the first woman to lead the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office.

Lindquist, 59, known as a relentless and telegenic campaigner, has been pounding the trail and gathering support for his re-election since 2015, the year he began his second term.

Robnett, 62, an 18-year veteran of the prosecutor’s office who once served as Lindquist’s chief criminal deputy, is running her first campaign while juggling her duties as an assistant attorney general handling sexual assault cases.

Already, the race is growing testy.

Lindquist’s campaign is trying to undercut Robnett’s endorsements while pitching his accomplishments in office, such as programs aimed at curbing elder abuse and stopping persistent criminal offenders.

Meanwhile, Robnett points to the ethical baggage Lindquist has accumulated during his controversial tenure, including bar complaints, a whistleblower investigation based on complaints from his high-ranking subordinates and a long-running public disclosure lawsuit over his text messages that has generated more than $1 million in public legal bills.

“I still support Mark personally,” she said. “He has a wonderful family. This is literally about the job.”

Lindquist, in response to questions about the campaign from The News Tribune, answered with an emailed statement and forwarded questions to Alex Hays, his campaign manager.

"I'm focused on keeping our community safe,” Lindquist said. “Protecting elders, removing career criminals from our streets, reducing gang violence, diversion programs for those with drug addictions and mental health issues. Most recently, I filed a lawsuit against Big Pharma to hold them accountable. Everything I do is with the ultimate goal of a safe, strong, and equitable community."

Robnett, who responded to questions via phone and email, gave a statement that has become her campaign mantra.

“I want to give the people a chance to have a professional prosecutor,” she said. “I’m endorsed by many law enforcement organizations, retired judges, and by former Prosecutor Gerry Horne, not to mention many, many practicing attorneys. These endorsements all have one thing in common: They know how the Prosecutor’s Office should be run, and they know we need to make a change.”

Robnett’s career in the prosecutor’s office began in 1994. Originally hired by then-Prosecutor John Ladenburg, she rose through the ranks to head the office’s special (sexual) assault unit and eventually became chief criminal deputy, appointed by Lindquist in his first term. During her tenure, she tried cases involving some of the county’s notorious homicides.

Lindquist’s assets are obvious. Appointed to the office by County Council members in 2009, he has eight years of incumbency. His name recognition is high. Twice, a majority of county voters checked the box next to his name on the ballot. He ran unopposed in 2014.

By contrast, Robnett has never run for elected office before, though supporters mounted a late write-in campaign on her behalf when Lindquist ran in 2014.

The race easily ranks as the most expensive on this year’s county ballot. The latest records from the state Public Disclosure Commission show Lindquist has raised $164,801 in contributions since he began fund raising in 2015. He has nearly 700 individual contributions.

Robnett, who started her campaign in January, has raised $134,638 from roughly 300 contributions.

Lindquist has spent $52,254 to date, while Robnett has spent $22,254, leaving both candidates with roughly the same amount of cash on hand.

The race began long before the candidates formally filed. Lindquist has been meeting with community groups throughout the county on a regular basis, giving talks about his office’s elder-abuse unit and high-priority offender program, which targets repeat offenders using data-driven analysis.

At times, the community outreach efforts have generated controversy. Lindquist’s spokesman, James Lynch, was outed earlier this year for attempting to remove unfavorable news stories from Lindquist’s Wikipedia page using county equipment.

On April 28, two days before an internal deadline limiting the use of county resources during campaign season, the prosecutor’s office produced a glossy, 28-page “community report,” listing various accomplishments. The brochure cost $7,429 and was mailed to 633 recipients. It includes four photos of Lindquist. His name appears 28 times.

Robnett points to Lindquist’s penchant for political self-promotion as a distraction from the work of the prosecutor’s office.

“He has spent a substantial amount of time trying to shape the media’s coverage of himself and his office,” she said. ”He has added a full-time public relations position at taxpayers’ expense and the incumbent’s use of high-profile cases to garner publicity is not only improper, it’s proving to be costly.”

The battle for endorsements, a key metric in the early stages of the campaign, reveals sharp contrasts and the first stages of what promises to be a bare-knuckle fight.

Lindquist touts broad support from politicians, while Robnett emphasizes the legal and law enforcement communities.

Reading Lindquist’s endorsements from elected officials requires a long scroll. He is running as a Democrat, but his backers come from both political parties. They include Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and six Tacoma City Council members. Scores of council members and mayors from other Pierce County cities, including Lakewood, University Place, Puyallup and Bonney Lake, add to the tally.

“I’m impressed with Mark’s record of being tough on crime,” said Puyallup City Councilman Tom Swanson, who also works as a county legislative analyst. “That’s the big thing for me. I appreciate Mark’s tough stance on the Hilltop Crips. I know there’s some issues and challenges that come out of that. For me, it’s a results-oriented thing in the prosecutor’s office. As far as restorative justice, I think he’s been very reasonable, but I think he’s been very tough on people who are dangerous to us.”

Robnett’s list of backers is shorter, and less overtly political. She’s running as a nonpartisan. Among elected officials, state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, are supporting her, but the bulk of her endorsements come from the law and justice arena: the people who work most closely with the prosecutor’s office, including current and former members of Lindquist’s staff.

Diane Clarkson, a deputy prosecutor since 1993, and the immediate past president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association, is one of Robnett’s key backers.

“I vouch for Mary’s integrity, her inclusivity, her professionalism and her legal mind,” Clarkson said. “She has leadership skills. She’s tough on crime, but she can fairly balance tough on crime with compassionate prosecution. You can disagree with her opinion and not be penalized. She will restore the honor and integrity of the work that we do as deputy prosecutors.”

Another prominent Robnett backer is Horne, Lindquist’s popular predecessor. Horne supported Lindquist’s original appointment in 2009, but he has since expressed regret about the decision due to Lindquist's politicization of the office. Horne has backed Robnett since she announced her campaign in January.

Five retired Superior Court judges endorse Robnett, including Roseanne Buckner, Gary Steiner and Vicki Hogan. Her list of backers and contributors also includes several local defense and civil attorneys who have clashed with Lindquist in the past.

Hays, Lindquist's campaign manager, referred to Robnett not by name, but as “the opponent.” He dismissed her backers as “a clique of criminal defense attorneys,” and added a zinger: “a small number of supporters — less than the average ‘serious’ candidate in fact.”

Recently, Robnett picked up a significant trifecta, gaining endorsements from the three largest police unions in the county: the Pierce County Sheriff’s Guild, the Pierce County Corrections Guild and Tacoma Police Union Local 6.

The Tacoma police endorsement came after Robnett and Lindquist met separately with union members on May 10. Paula Johnson, a 21-year veteran of the force who attended the meetings, described a back-and-forth with Lindquist that turned uncomfortable.

“I’m not normally a political person,” Johnson told The News Tribune. “There were people from his office that were politicking to get us to vote in his favor. I made a little list of questions.”

Johnson said she asked about an active bar complaint against Lindquist, lawsuits involving sheriff’s deputies who have clashed with him and a 2015 whistleblower investigation that found Lindquist ran a politicized office and retaliated against subordinates and critics who disagreed with him.

“He got really defensive,” Johnson said. “He said those are all disgruntled employees, that’s all those people are. A non-answer is what he gives. It was very telling. He sat forward and pointed at me and said, 'I could get a bar complaint defending you.' I thought, ‘Now this is about to get real.’ ”

Johnson said Lindquist appeared to be angry, and later asked the union president who she was. The subsequent vote among union members for Robnett was unanimous, she said.

Hays downplayed the Tacoma police endorsement, saying some members were out of town responding to new developments in a long-running criminal case. Johnson said those members have since returned, and they’re voicing support for Robnett.

Robnett also won a recent endorsement from the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association and touted it on her campaign website and Facebook page. Hays disputes the endorsement, calling it false, though the endorsement announcement includes a statement of support from union board officer Doug Clevenger.

“The large majority of law enforcement officers support Mark and his office,” Hays said.

In response to questions, Robnett referenced the 2015 whistleblower report, which was based on complaints from now-retired deputy prosecutor Steve Merrival and former chief criminal deputy Stephen Penner, another Lindquist appointee who has since left the office and endorsed Robnett.

Apart from findings referring to retaliation against employees, the whistleblower investigation examined complaints that Lindquist commented on the physical appearance of staffers and made hiring decisions based in part on physical attractiveness.

Lindquist denied it at the time. Penner reported hearing him comment in a joking way, “She meets our hiring criteria,” referring to the physical appearance of a job candidate. A former human resources manager in the office recalled Lindquist asking several times if a female job candidate was “HWP,” meaning “height weight proportionate.”

The whistleblower investigator concluded that Lindquist "has made remarks about the physical appearance of candidates and appearance is a factor in his decision making."

According to records of the investigation, Lindquist was subsequently warned by the county’s human resources director that “physical appearance should play no role in the hiring process.”

Dawn Farina, Lindquist's chief of staff, provided a statement Friday in response to the whistleblower findings.

"This report, orchestrated by supporters of Mark’s opponent, was shameless politics and absolutely not true," she said. "It’s unfortunate how low they are willing to stoop for political gain. "

Said Robnett: “I hope to run on my record and I hope Mr. Lindquist runs on his record.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT
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