Dan Satterberg, King County’s elected prosecutor for the past 14 years, announced Friday he will not seek reelection, paving the way for a wide-open race for the prosecutor’s office, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Harry Truman was president.
By announcing in the first week of the new year that he would not be campaigning for a fifth term, Satterberg said it gives potential candidates five months before the May filing deadline to consider a run for an office that’s been occupied by only four people — all men — since 1949.
“I just think it’s a good time for me personally to step down — but I also have to dig in,” Satterberg said in a phone interview ahead of a Friday video announcement on the prosecutor’s YouTube page. “I’ve got another year and we’ve got some of the biggest challenges that we’ve had in the last decades facing us right now. So I can focus on that instead of trying to be a candidate.”
Shortly after his announcement Friday, Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, announced she’s running to succeed her boss. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, a former senior deputy prosecutor, also said Friday he’s exploring a run. Both Manion and Ferrell registered as candidates Friday, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission’s online database.
Digging out from a historic backlog of some 6,000 felony cases that have piled up over the past 20 months of a pandemic-driven court slowdown is among the most pressing challenges facing Satterberg in his 15th year as prosecutor. A dozen years after introducing its diversion program for juveniles, the county is also getting ready to roll out a new Community Diversion Program for adults arrested for nonviolent property crimes and facing their first felony charge.
“It’s the end of a really important era. Dan was a really unique figure among prosecutors in this country, and in a number of important ways, was ahead of his time,” said Lisa Daugaard, the co-executive director of policy for the Public Defender Association. “The vision that he had about the role of the prosecutor and how much it needed to change was really a forerunner of the progressive prosecutor movement.”
For instance, when Satterberg proposed a juvenile diversion program that’s since evolved into the nonprofit Choose 180, which is aimed at keeping young people out of the legal system, he was frequently challenged, Daugaard said. His reply was that “it passed the compared-to-what test” since he and other community leaders knew that the then-common practice of prosecuting minors and locking them in detention was causing harm, she said.
Though she has disagreed with plenty of Satterberg’s decisions over the years, Daugaard said Satterberg’s willingness to engage in conversations and try new approaches to counteract those known to be failing is emblematic of what made him ahead of his time.
Satterberg was appointed interim prosecutor in May 2007 after the sudden death of Norm Maleng from a heart attack at age 68; Maleng was serving his 28th year as county prosecutor. Satterberg won a special election that year to serve out the three years left in the term, then ran unopposed in 2010 and 2014. Satterberg was reelected in 2018 after his opponent dropped out of the race for medical reasons before the November election.
Before him, Maleng — a moderate Republican who won election in 1978 — ran unopposed in all but the 1998 race and was the longest-serving prosecutor in the county’s history.
Satterberg is the fourth man to serve as King County prosecutor since 1949. Before Maleng, prosecutors Chuck Carroll and Christopher Bayley served for 22 and eight years, respectively.
“That’s extraordinary political stability for our office, which is pretty rare these days,” Satterberg said.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recalled Friday that he nearly ran against Satterberg to replace Maleng, but he ultimately opted against it, partly because “I thought that Dan would be great in the job.”
“He came into the job under very difficult circumstances following Norm’s unexpected death,” added Ferguson, who was then a Metropolitan King County Council member. “Norm obviously was a legendary figure, and it’s never easy to follow a legend. But to Dan’s credit, he did that in the best way I think anyone possibly could.”
In 2016, Satterberg, who previously ran as a Republican, successfully advocated for a voter-approved amendment to the county charter to make the prosecutor a nonpartisan position and two years later, changed his political affiliation to Democrat because he “didn’t want anything to do with Donald Trump.”
Satterberg’s tenure has not been without criticism.
His one-time challenger in the 2018 election, former public defender Daron Morris, criticized Satterberg for pursuing politically convenient reforms without addressing issues like mass incarceration and institutional racism.
“The reforms that are happening right now are not headed in the direction of fixing those problems. … They address maybe the tip of the iceberg, but they leave the iceberg,” Morris told The Seattle Weekly in June 2018.
Morris died in February 2019, five months after withdrawing from the race.
In 2011, Satterberg’s office faced pushback when prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in the fatal shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams. But Satterberg defended his decision, saying there was no way to prove malice as required under the law at the time. (In 2020, Satterberg’s office charged Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson with second-degree murder for killing a 26-year-old man in the line of duty under new police-accountability legal standards approved by voters in 2018.)
Some public defenders and former judges and prosecutors also have criticized Satterberg for his decision to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a 2020 Washington Supreme Court ruling enabling judges to consider a defendant’s age when sentencing a minor as an adult.
While the role of prosecutor was once a “boring, down-ticket” position that didn’t get much public attention, Satterberg said that’s no longer true, with growing focus on reforming a criminal legal system that’s been seen as complicit in disproportionately punishing people of color.
“This is now a high profile, important job and … there are competing tensions for places that have embraced criminal justice reform and those that want to return to the traditional, prosecutor role, which was to seek maximum sentences,” Satterberg said. “How you actually run this office is somewhere in between.“
Satterberg, who graduated from Highline High School in Burien and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Washington, has spent his career in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Hired as a second-year law intern in 1984 and full time in 1985, Satterberg was a trial attorney before becoming Maleng’s chief of staff in 1990 at age 30.
During his tenure as prosecutor, Satterberg proactively sought the release of certain people sentenced to life terms under the state’s three-strikes law; worked collaboratively with public defenders and other community partners to divert low-level narcotics users out of the court system in a program that’s since been replicated in cities and other countries; and publicly opposed the death penalty.
Nick Brown, the recently appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, credited Satterberg for taking a progressive approach among prosecutors nationally by trying diversion programs and other alternatives to incarceration. Brown noted that when he served as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s general counsel, Satterberg was receptive to clemency and pardons for offenders and supported Inslee’s moratorium on the death penalty.
“I’ve never found Dan to be close-minded,” Brown said. “He might disagree with you, but he’s willing to have a conversation. And at least from my vantage point, if you look across the country, there’s no doubt that he has been more proactive in trying these kinds of alternatives than prosecutors in most jurisdictions.”
In a private text exchange in 2019 with then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney, Satterberg shared the link to a New York Times opinion piece that highlighted how his late sister’s struggles with addiction helped shape his stance in support of programs that offer treatment for small-time drug offenders instead of prosecution.
“We are just getting started on this,” Satterberg told Durkan in the texts, which were disclosed in response to a public records request. “If we cannot do it in Seattle/King County, it cannot be done anywhere in America. We need to build and sustain the apparatus of help for people who need it and want it.”
“I completely agree,” Durkan responded. “…So let’s make sure we have the full range of tools. Not just hammers. And not just `nothing.’ A Meaningful range of alternatives.”
“I’m all in,” Satterberg replied.
Satterberg said he’s hopeful additional strategies and diversion programs that share power with community based organizations will be better able to manage gun violence and resolve lower-level offenses to produce a legal system that’s fairer to the people most impacted by crime.
“I came to the conclusion a long time ago that a lot of the matters that come to the court system don’t come to us because we’re the best option, they come to us because there’s no other option,” he said. “I think community nonprofits and the people who do that work have persuasive powers well beyond what the impersonal courtroom could ever have for people who are on the edge of falling into a cycle of crime for the rest of their life.”
By removing those people from the system, Satterberg said it would free up deputy prosecutors to concentrate on prosecuting serious violent crimes.
Satterberg, who will be 62 at the end of his term, said it will be refreshing to wake up next January without worrying about what tragedy has happened overnight and how to respond to it.
Cognizant that Maleng, his longtime friend and mentor, died of a heart attack while in office, Satterberg said, “Life is finite and this is the best job I’ll ever have … (but) it’s about what I want to do with the years that I have left and feeling like I can go out on top here and be proud of the office that we’ve built.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong first name of former King County prosecutor Christopher Bayley.