Politics & Government

Embattled Tacoma lawmaker concedes primary race, likely won’t advance

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

Embattled Tacoma Rep. David Sawyer lost ground in primary vote counts this week, likely cementing his third place finish and signaling the end of his time in the Legislature.

In a Facebook post on Friday, Sawyer said he called fellow Democrat Melanie Morgan to concede the race in the 29th Legislative District. The latest tally from election officials showed Morgan far ahead in first place and Sawyer more than 2 percent behind Republican Terry Harder with few votes left to count.

“It has been a privilege to represent my community over the past six years and I look forward, probably more than you imagine, to enjoying life outside of public service,” Sawyer said in the statement on Facebook.

Morgan, a Franklin Pierce School Board member, said in an interview on Saturday she is “proud of our voters” for picking her over Sawyer and believing the women who have accused Sawyer of inappropriate behavior.

“They showed us that enough is enough,” she said.

Sawyer, who was first elected in 2012, once held a grip on the district as a well-connected lawmaker who chaired the House Commerce and Gaming Committee.

That changed this year when he was accused by eight women in a February story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio’s Northwest News Network of behavior from both before and after he served in the Legislature that ranged from inappropriate to harassing.

A state-ordered investigation followed, and an outside attorney concluded in June that Sawyer broke House harassment and ethics policy with his behavior toward three women who work at the Capitol. In one case, investigator Elizabeth Van Moppes said Sawyer pursued a House staffer romantically despite her stated disinterest and sent her inappropriate text messages.

Sawyer has defended himself, particularly against what he saw as an unfair investigative process, but he also apologized broadly for his behavior and resigned his committee post after the investigation results were released.

“Clearly my actions made people who work with me uncomfortable,” he said in a statement at the time.

By that point Sawyer had lost support from most elected Democrats in Pierce County, and top party leadership had asked him to not run for re-election against Morgan. He decided to push forward anyway, sparking Democratic and liberal groups to spend more than $75,000 to unseat him.

From left, candidate Melanie Morgan and campaign manager Barbara Gilchrist knock on the doors of voters in Spanaway, Wash., July 19, 2018. David Ryder The New York Times

Some of the women who have accused Sawyer of misconduct entered the political arena to run advertisements telling their story in a push to oust the lawmaker.

The efforts were enough to secure victory for Morgan, who is favored to win the general election.

“We didn’t just squeeze by, but we zoomed by,” Morgan said.

The 29th District, which includes parts of Tacoma, Lakewood, Parkland, Spanaway and Frederickson, is strongly Democratic. Sawyer beat Republican Rick Thomas by more than 18 points in 2016.

Harder, Morgan’s GOP candidate, said he is “going to give her certainly a challenge at least.”

“I want to make sure that the voters that support me have a choice,” he said.

Morgan said she will focus on issues such as increasing affordable housing, boosting money for education and helping reduce transportation costs. Harder said he would search for fiscally responsible ways to reduce homelessness if elected, fight new gun regulations and work to protect charter schools.

In his Facebook post, Sawyer said he will leave “much of the work that I care about unfinished” but added “that work belongs now to a new group of legislators who will bend the arc of history toward justice.”

He touted his advocacy for programs that protect children from sexual predators, his support for tribes and his “continued work to focus on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.”

He also endorsed Morgan for the general election.

“I know this work will continue because we have some outstanding people headed to Olympia and I wish Melanie and the people of the 29th my best,” he said. “Go get ‘em Melanie.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein