Dammeier ready to serve as Pierce County executive

From the Editorial Board

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, is The News Tribune’s choice for Pierce County executive.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, is The News Tribune’s choice for Pierce County executive. Courtesy Washington Legislature

Having to choose a new Pierce County executive from a pair of powerhouse candidates, Sen. Bruce Dammeier and County Councilman Rick Talbert, is a bit like having to pick a favorite in a hypothetical football game between their alma mater high schools, Curtis and Lincoln.

Hardcore sign-waving boosters will always line up on one side or the other. But the rest of us might feel moved to root for both opponents, out of respect for playoff-caliber local talent we don’t get to see every season.

The politics-football analogy isn’t perfect because Dammeier’s Vikings and Talbert’s Abes compete in different leagues and haven’t played each other as far back as anyone can remember.

The two candidates, however, have earned berths in the finals to lead county government for the next four years, despite proving themselves in different arenas — Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican, in the state Legislature and local school board; Talbert, a Tacoma Democrat, in county and city elected offices.

Each man has waged a hard-fought campaign, and either would make a worthy heir to term-limited County Executive Pat McCarthy. But we think Dammeier fits the vacancy slightly better.

Talbert, 51, pushes all the right buttons with his hometown fidelity. He’s a plain-talking, unabashed Tacoma boy, the face of East Tacoma on the County Council and a survivor of eight years on the City Council. We believe him when he says he has no elected aspirations beyond the 253.

Dammeier, 55, presents a different package. He has the broad perspective of a man who was raised in University Place, ran the family business in Lakewood, makes his home in Puyallup, where he served eight years on the school board, and went to Olympia as a legislator for another eight years.

He would be the first non-Tacoman to serve as county executive. (Thirty five years is a long time for suburban voices not to find expression at the helm of county government.) And he’d be only the second Republican.

Dammeier also would have instant credibility in the local veteran and JBLM community because of his military academy training and 8  1/2-year service in the Navy.

And don’t underestimate the value of his connections at the state Capitol. As senator, he helped secure $5 million in seed money for a planned psychiatric hospital in Tacoma, and he retains friends in high places.

A polished public speaker and easy conversationalist known for mostly moderate views, Dammeier took an ill-advised detour before the primary by going negative in a campaign hit piece against fellow Republican Dan Roach.

The Dammeier we’re accustomed to seeing is the statesman whose legislative career culminated with a seat at the leadership table on crucial budget and education issues. He also helped craft a reasonable compromise that will protect kids from electronic cigarette and vaping products.

It wouldn’t surprise us if Dammeier harbors political ambitions beyond Pierce County, as some have speculated and Talbert has insinuated. Is that such a bad thing?

There’s no question Talbert holds one advantage because he’s been tested in the crucible of local government, supplemented by his auxiliary roles on the boards of Pierce Transit and the city-county Health Department.

He talks openly about the need to raise more revenue, for public safety as well as mental health; speaks cogently about the need to protect precious industrial land from residential encroachment; and advocates passionately for domestic violence victims, as a founder of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center.

Talbert has two years remaining in his second term representing District 5 on the County Council. He has work left to do, including continuing to lead the full-court press by council minority Democrats for an overdue one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase for mental health services. Turnover in his seat could result in a loss of traction.

Dammeier, on the other hand, is about to complete the statehouse service to which he was elected and during which he excelled. After a full term in the Senate preceded by two in the House, he hungers for a new challenge: trying to change the culture of what he calls a “calcified” county government.

Likewise, Talbert is well prepared for a higher elected office. At risk of getting ahead of the curve, we think he would be a superb candidate for Tacoma mayor next year.

For the time being, however, Bruce Dammeier is a smart choice to lead Washington’s second-largest county and its nearly 850,000 residents to the threshold of the next decade. After several years of divided county government, he just might be a game changer.