In the race for state lands commissioner, both candidates are trying to gain an edge in part by running against stereotype. Republican Doug Sutherland is a veteran politician and longtime government manager from Tacoma who shows a preference for button-down shirts, khakis and loafers. Democrat Peter Goldmark grew up and still lives on a cattle...
When the two candidates for state lands commissioner showed up for a recent debate, the small-town Eastern Washington rancher wore cowboy boots, while the veteran Puget Sound-area politician sported tasseled loafers.
The unusual thing: The Democrat was the guy in the boots.
In this hard-fought race, both candidates are working to gain an edge in part by running against stereotype.
Republican incumbent Doug Sutherland is a longtime politician and government manager from Lacey, Thurston County, who shows a preference for button-down shirts, khakis and loafers.
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His image as a moderate urbanite and experienced manager could play well with voters in the Seattle suburbs, a key battleground in this race.
“I think it does help him,” said state Republican Party Chair Luke Esser, pointing to Sutherland’s long involvement in Pierce County politics. “That gave him a familiarity with those kind of voters and what they want to see from the commissioner of public lands.”
Sutherland’s opponent, Democrat Peter Goldmark, grew up and still lives near the tiny northeast Washington town of Okanogan. He’s spent decades running the family’s cattle ranch and wheat farm there.
While Goldmark’s environmental message could play well on the Westside, his backers hope to lure Eastern Washington voters with his ranching biography and name recognition from an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2006.
“He’s a rancher, he’s from Eastern Washington, he understands these issues from a state perspective,” said Clifford Traisman of Washington Conservation Voters.
Crossing party lines
Sutherland grew up in Spokane but made his political career in the Puget Sound area.
A former Boeing manager and business owner, he was elected to the Tacoma City Council in 1979. He went on to become Tacoma mayor, SeaTac city manager, and then Pierce County executive in 1992.
Along the way he established himself as a moderate, pro-business Republican, supporting abortion rights and the Growth Management Act, which restricts where growth can occur.
Sutherland won his first race for state lands commissioner in 2000, when he hit the term limit for the county executive’s job. He was re-elected in 2004, taking 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
The genial 71-year-old casts himself as the experienced, bipartisan hand needed to run the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), an agency of 1,400 employees that manages more than 5 million acres of state-owned forests, farm land and aquatic land.
When he came to the agency, DNR had weathered eight years of turmoil driven by new protections for spotted owls, criticism of state logging, and a hard-charging lands commissioner — Democrat Jennifer Belcher — who frequently butted heads with the timber industry.
“When I arrived in the spring of 2001, I was facing an organization that was ready to implode,” Sutherland said.
His work has won raves from timber companies and even some Democrats, including Terry Bergeson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Bergeson, who serves on the state Board of Natural Resoures, which oversees management of state land. “I’ve seen him do a superb job to build the organization.”
He has strong backing from the state’s business community, including the Washington State Farm Bureau, timber companies, the Building Industry Association of Washington, and the Association of Washington Business.
But his opponent challenges Sutherland’s image of fairness and management savvy. Goldmark says Sutherland hasn’t listened to environmentalist’s concerns, resulting in several lawsuits the agency lost.
“Clearly there’s a problem here in terms of taking the industry’s viewpoint and shutting out others, and then it takes a lawsuit to bring that back around,” Goldmark said.
Sutherland says he’s gone to great lengths to include all sides. But when environmentalists don’t like the result, they go to court for “a second bite at the apple.”
Goldmark also points to an incident in which a young woman working at DNR complained of inappropriate touching and remarks by Sutherland.
The woman said Sutherland ran his hand down her back and touched her waist at a public meeting, then remarked something like “could have felt … up front.”
Sutherland apologized to her after an internal investigation found he had violated department rules, but that the incident didn’t rise to the level of illegal harassment. However, he disputes that he ever made the remark, and says the physical contact was just his attempt to be friendly.
The woman quit soon after. There is no evidence of other harassment complaints against Sutherland.
Sutherland’s supporters shoot back that while Goldmark is tut-tutting about this case, he campaigned with former Gov. Mike Lowry in Goldmark’s 2006 congressional race. Lowry in 1995 agreed to pay a former aide $97,000 to settle her sexual-harassment complaint.
Most of Peter Goldmark’s life has been spent outside the state’s political orbit.
He earned a doctorate in molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, then went to work as a research assistant at a Harvard laboratory studying how nerve cells connect with the heart.
When he returned to the family’s Okanogan ranch in 1972 for his honeymoon, he stayed. Thirty-six years later, Goldmark still oversees the 8,000-acre wheat farm and cattle ranch.
Taking a page from a playbook more commonly used by Republicans, the 62-year-old labels Sutherland a “career politician.” Goldmark touts his business credentials as a source of real-world experience. And he points to his ranching to ease concerns he’s a pawn of Seattle-area environmentalists.
But his support comes more from environmentalists than major business interests. He’s backed by Washington Conservation Voters and big-name Democrats, including all the Democrats in the congressional delegation.
His critics question whether Goldmark is prepared to run a big state agency. And they charge he has inflated experience to overcome that.
Goldmark frequently talks of his time as head of the state’s Agriculture Department during the Lowry administration in 1993.
“I have important experience managing a state agency,” he said at a recent debate.
What he mentions less often is that he resigned after five months, saying it was too hard to juggle the job with raising a young family. Likewise, in 2006 he started his congressional campaign against Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, dropped out citing the need to run his ranch, then re-entered the race.
His opponent also notes that twice in the last four years Goldmark was a month late paying his property taxes, as further evidence that Goldmark isn’t organized enough to run a state agency.
“I’d say he’s probably a good farmer. But quite frankly managing a large, complex organization, whether it be a city or a county or this organization here is a very difficult thing to do,” Sutherland said.
Goldmark tries to flip that inexperience into an advantage.
“You don’t necessarily want someone camped out in an important office for a long period of time because they lose touch with the issues and the people,” he said.
Today, Goldmark says his children are grown, he has a ranch manager, and he’s ready for a full-time government post. He says the late tax payments were a paperwork oversight he corrected as soon as he learned of it.
He also talks of his service on the Okanogan School District Board and the local planning commission, and his nine years on the Washington State University Board of Regents.
Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle attorney, served on the board of regents when Goldmark was board president. Goldmark oversaw the search for a new president, which led to the 2000 hiring of V. Lane Rawlins, who retired in 2006.
“When Peter was president, there was no question that Peter was in a leadership role,” Marler said. “He’s a thinker. I always used to tease him that he spent a lot of time on his combine and tractor, so he had a lot of time out there to think about how things should be.”
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org