Politics & Government

Mary Robnett, Pierce County’s first woman prosecutor, sworn in to standing ovation

Swearing-in ceremonies tend to be stodgy affairs, more solemn than jubilant.

That was not the case Thursday when newly elected Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett took the oath of office. The crowd was so thick that spectators had to wait in line outside Courtroom 100 in the County-City Building. They were handed programs as they entered.

Sitting in the audience, former Superior Court Judge John McCarthy recalled past ceremonies. This one was different.

“I’ve never seen so many people at one of these,” he said.

Perhaps it was the unspoken knowledge of sweeping change that filled the room with energy. Robnett’s decisive November victory unexpectedly ended the nine-year tenure of former Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, long a dominant force in local politics.

County Executive Bruce Dammeier played the role of emcee Thursday.

“I’m very, very excited for this day to finally come,” he said.

Soon, he handed the microphone to a guest: former County Executive and current State Auditor Pat McCarthy, a prominent supporter of Robnett’s campaign.

McCarthy, the first woman to hold both the executive and auditor’s offices, noted that Robnett was a fellow pioneer.

“You my dear, are the first woman Pierce County Prosecutor,” she said. “And you will be a role model.”

The crowd cheered. When Robnett walked to the podium, they rose to their feet and cheered again.

She thanked them for the applause. Repeating an oft-uttered campaign theme, she said Pierce County and its citizens would be her first priority. Her closing line was short and direct.

“I look forward to getting to work,” she said.

Interviewed before Thursday’s ceremony, Robnett described a moment of clarity that came last week. Still working on transitional matters, she got her first boss call. Two deputy prosecutors in the midst of a difficult trial wanted her advice. Could she come and talk to them?

Robnett, holed up in a temporary office on the seventh floor of the County-City Building, took a trip upstairs. She entered the ninth floor, the main branch of the prosecutor’s office.

Almost seven years had passed since she’d left the office in 2012. She knew the place, having worked there for 18 years. Yet she didn’t.

“It was kind of surreal,” she said. “It was familiar and odd at the same time.”

She recognized faces and saw smiles from colleagues she’d known for years. After 10 months of campaigning, here was reality: desks, offices, duty.

“I know many of the people who are here and have known them for decades,” she said. “They’ve been very warm, very welcoming, and it’s been a really nice experience.”

She’s been working on the transition for the past two months, separating from her job in the state Attorney General’s office and preparing for the new gig.

“I’ve been trying to get kind of a handle on what would be the decisions that I’d have to make immediately,” she said. “Personnel, vacancies, structure of the office, real estate, just kind of an overview of everything.”

Some decisions have been swift. Faces at the top level of the prosecutor’s office have changed. Chief of Staff Dawn Farina, one of Lindquist’s closest allies, has left the office. Deputy prosecutors Jared Ausserer, John Sheeran, Tim Lewis and Lori Kooiman departed after receiving word from Robnett that they would not be reappointed.

In their stead, Robnett has appointed a mix of old and new leaders. Deputy prosecutor Jim Schacht, a veteran of the office, is the new chief criminal deputy. Lana Weinmann, who worked with Robnett at the Attorney General’s office, is the new chief of staff.

“She’s been my division chief for the last seven years,” Robnett said. “I hired my boss.”

Other changes will come more slowly. Robnett plans to spend the next few weeks on a listening tour of the 218-employee office, meeting with deputy prosecutors and support staff.

“I’ll be listening to their concerns, their ideas, getting feedback about what we need to do, how the office could work better and how they could work more efficiently,” she said. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach. We want to see what makes sense, based on real input from the real people who are in this office doing the work.”

The office is more spread out than she remembers, with teams scattered in different buildings. In the last few days, she’s moved into the nerve center on the ninth floor, though she’s not fully settled yet.

Will she shift entirely to administrative duties, foregoing the courtroom and the live trials she has always enjoyed? She’s not sure yet.

“I hope that I will still be able to get into court and do some work, because I love doing it,” she said. “But I sort of need to take it slowly and find out what the demands of this job are. I know this job has a lot of administrative requirements, but I hope to still be practicing law.

“I know there’s a great team in place here,” she added. “We have a great group of deputy prosecutors who have been serving the public well. I would like to help them improve on the great job they’ve been doing.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.