Politics & Government

Election: Charter review campaign features 42 candidates, little rancor

There are some elections that only government junkies can love. The contest to fill 21 seats on Pierce County’s charter review commission is one of them.

Looking for bruising political attacks? Out-of-control dark-money spending? Campaign mailers and ad blizzards featuring dubious claims about opponents?

Prepare for disappointment. The charter review races are mostly quiet, with little or no money raised and a low rancor rating.

The charter, first adopted in 1980 and amended several times since, is the local equivalent of a constitution. It’s the document that sets principles and policies for county government.

The commission, elected every 10 years, will convene next year, review the charter and decide whether changes are in order. Those changes, in the form of proposed amendments, will be submitted to the voters in the 2016 general election.

The last charter review in 2006 led to a handful of proposals, major and minor. The most prominent: shifting the county sheriff from an appointed to an elected position, and adoption of a now-defunct ranked-choice voting system that swiftly unraveled following the election and stormy tenure of former Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

Since the commission hasn’t met yet and its members haven’t been elected, there are no proposals for voters to weigh in advance of the Nov. 3 election. Political rumblings involve possible tweaks to the county’s initiative and referendum process, as well as rumors involving minimum wage issues and anti-labor proposals.

Looked at collectively, the 42 candidates for charter positions suggest an establishment clash between local conservatives and progressives, with each side seeking enough seats for a controlling majority.

The roster of candidates includes plenty of familiar faces. Former County Executive John Ladenburg is running for a seat against Elizabeth Burris, chairwoman of a Tacoma neighborhood council. Former Auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek is running against Jamie Nixon, a communications staffer in the Washington Legislature.

Former county council members Tim Farrell and Barbara Gelman, both Democrats, are running. So are ex-council members Shawn Bunney and Jan Shabro, both Republicans.

Ex-state legislators in the races include Grant Pelesky, a Republican, and Carolyn Edmonds, a Democrat.

Three aides to current Republican county council members are on the ballot: Michele Smith (assistant to council member Joyce McDonald); Alice McDaniel (assistant to council member Doug Richardson); and Amy Cruver (assistant to council member Jim McCune).

One race — the only one that has generated significant campaign contributions — features a pair of up-and-coming candidates who graduated from rival high schools in the Franklin Pierce School District in 2010. April Sanders and Eric Herde are both 23, and both backed by respective party organizations: Sanders by Republicans, Herde by Democrats. By reputation, they are equally tireless campaigners.

Sanders, a policy director for King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, has raised $5,973, according to the latest campaign contribution reports. That’s the most for any candidate, although Herde isn’t far behind at $5,305.

Most other candidates for charter review have raised no money at all.

Why so much energy in one race compared to the rest?

“Well, I think we both come from campaign backgrounds,” Sanders said. “There are a lot of similarities between us. We both have campaigning in our blood, so having a competitive race just sort of came naturally.”

Herde, a lifeguard who has worked on the campaign to raise Tacoma’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, has a slightly different take. He suspects many of the other candidates, former officeholders familiar to voters, can afford to coast on reputation.

“I think a lot of them are relying on name recognition,” he said. “So they’re making a conscious choice to not raise money for this.”

Both of the young candidates hear plenty of speculation about possible proposals heading into next year’s charter review. Conservatives such as Randy Boss, another charter review candidate, fear that progressives and $15 minimum wage backers will try to take their campaign into the charter review, which Boss calls “an end run.”

Herde, who knows something about the minimum-wage effort, doesn’t buy it, nor does he support moving the topic into the charter review process.

“I am a little amused that that speculation has come up,” he said. “I think it could get messy if we tried to put a minimum wage in the charter.”

For her part, Sanders knows conservatives are still miffed about the debate over the county’s proposed general services building on the site of the Puget Sound Hospital. That issue led to a county lawsuit (later withdrawn) against activist Jerry Gibbs, who sponsored the successful effort to bring a referendum to the Nov. 3 ballot.

Some charter candidates, notably Pelesky and Burris, have spoken of clarifying or strengthening referendum provisions in the charter. At this stage, Sanders is more interested in the process of drawing County Council district boundaries and isn’t willing to go down the referendum road.

“Changing the referendum process is going to come up,” she said. “I don’t support that. And even though I’m personally conservative, I don’t think the charter should lend itself to any partisan view. I look at it more holistically.”

Read more in our online voter’s guide

Go to bit.ly/1ZiVxHl to find out more about the 42 candidates for Pierce County Charter Review and other candidates for local office.