Before he decided to give up alcohol for good, Reagan Dunn relapsed on a lobbyist’s yacht in 2017, going on a four-day bender near the San Juan Islands that brought crushing personal consequences.
Dunn, a longtime Republican Metropolitan King County Councilmember, had publicly pledged to give up booze in 2014 after crashing his truck and pleading guilty to DUI. He also had promised to abstain in a 2015 divorce settlement with this ex-wife, as a condition of visits with their two young children.
But aboard the yacht in August 2017, after helping fix an engine-system failure that temporarily left the vessel adrift, Dunn figured he deserved a beer or two. He spiraled over the next few days until he was waking up and drinking at 6 a.m.
The episode worsened an already fraught relationship with his ex-wife, leading to a court order limiting his time with their children to a single three-hour, professionally supervised visit each week. He had to blow into a Breathalyzer before and after each visit.
Dunn, 50, is running for Congress this year in the 8th Congressional District, challenging U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, who looks vulnerable in the midterm election after flipping the historically Republican district for Democrats in 2018.
Over the past few years, Dunn has spoken openly about his battles with alcohol and his recovery. He’s making his experiences a part of his congressional campaign — saying he expects opponents to comb through his record — and if elected, vows to take a national role on helping people in recovery.
Two other Republicans are also competing in the Aug. 2 primary: Jesse Jensen, a combat veteran and technology manager who ran for the seat in 2020, and Matt Larkin, an attorney and business executive who ran for attorney general two years ago.
At his worst, Dunn says he was downing up to a fifth of vodka a day, mixed with Diet Sprite. He says he took his last drink of alcohol on Dec. 27, 2017, and shared lab reports from regular hair, fingernail and blood tests that have documented his sobriety.
“I consider that relapse on the San Juan Islands my greatest failure ever. Number two is the DUI,” Dunn said in an interview. “Guess what they both have in common? Addiction is wreckage to a family.”
Dunn is far from alone in his struggles.
Nearly 15 million Americans have an alcohol-use disorder, and 95,000 die annually from the effects of alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Failed rehab program
In his congressional bid, Dunn is emphasizing a “re-fund the police” message and pointing to his record of opposing new taxes.
He is also trying to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Jennifer Dunn, who chaired the state GOP during the Ronald Reagan era (she named him after Reagan while the future president was still governor of California) and went on to serve six terms in Congress, from 1993 to 2005. She died in 2007.
A former federal prosecutor elected to the county council in 2005, Reagan Dunn first sought treatment for alcoholism in late 2011, during his unsuccessful run for attorney general. At the insistence of family members, he quietly entered a 28-day rehabilitation program at a ritzy Southern California facility.
“I wasn’t quite ready,” Dunn says of the treatment and why it didn’t stick for long.
After losing the 2012 attorney general race to Bob Ferguson, Dunn began drinking heavily again, leading his wife, Paige Green, an actress and daughter of a wealthy banking executive, to file for divorce after six years of marriage.
Their split was finalized in 2015, but disputes over Dunn’s child-visitation rights continued into late last year.
Before their separation, Dunn was “blacking out five days a week,” Green said in an April 2016 court filing that also described him as “emotionally and verbally abusive.” Green did not respond to interview requests.
Dunn acknowledged his drinking problems but pointed to successive parenting plans approved by judges in the divorce case, which stated neither parent had issues of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect.
The general public first became aware of Dunn’s alcohol issues after his Aug. 12, 2014, DUI arrest.
On that Tuesday night, Dunn was driving his pickup alone near Cle Elum on a relatively straight stretch of road just before 10 p.m., according to police and court records. He lost control and drifted into a ditch.
Alerted by a 911 call that was placed automatically by the truck’s emergency-alert system, Kittitas County sheriff’s deputies responded and found the vehicle with its air bags deployed, emergency flashers on — and no signs of a driver.
Dunn had been given a ride to his nearby weekend home by a passing motorist. When deputies showed up to question him, Dunn’s eyes were bloodshot, he smelled of alcohol and had trouble standing up straight, swaying from side to side as he held onto a railing, an incident report stated.
Dunn told the deputies he had been drinking at two restaurants before driving. He was arrested, declined to take a Breathalyzer test and was cited and released.
The arrest did not go public right away. Dunn revealed it after pleading guilty a month later. He was sentenced to one day in jail and more than $3,400 in fines and legal costs and had to use an ignition interlock device for a year.
“I’ve sworn off all alcohol,” he told The Seattle Times at the time.
But it would be another three years before he could shake the drinking.
Such relapses are not unusual for people with alcohol or drug problems.
“It is very common for people to have a drink again after being in some sort of period of sobriety,” said Mandy Owens, an assistant professor at the Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute at the UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
Owens pointed to a 2016 meta-analysis of 21 studies, which found only about one-third to one-half of people diagnosed with substance-use disorders were able to quit for at least six months. It took them an average of 14 years to reach to that point.
Dunn said he tried for years, at times quitting but then falling back into his old patterns.
“You wake up with a headache at 7 in the morning and you swear off drinking for the rest of your life, but by the time you get to 5 o’clock it’s like ‘I’ll do that tomorrow,’ ” he said.
Fateful boat trip
For Dunn, the 2017 relapse and its aftermath finally spurred him toward sobriety.
It all began with an excursion aboard the “Sine Die,” the 56-foot yacht owned by T.K. Bentler, a longtime lobbyist in the state Capitol for tobacco companies, auto dealers and other businesses. “Sine Die” is a Latin term for the adjournment of a legislative session. (Bentler does not lobby the County Council.)
Bentler was a relatively new boat owner and asked Dunn, who is more experienced, to help him navigate the yacht moored in South Lake Union through the Ballard Locks and north to the San Juan Islands.
Accompanying Dunn on the Aug. 18, 2017, trip was his then-fiancée Ashley Wilson (they’ve since married) and his two children with Green, as well as Bentler, his brother and sister-in-law.
A breakdown in the engine-exhaust system halted the trip, leaving the boat adrift without power. Black smoke poured from loose exhaust valves. Dunn and Bentler’s brother rigged them back into place.
“If Reagan hadn’t been there I would have had to call somebody to come and get us,” Bentler recalled in an interview. “I said, ‘You deserve a beer after that.’ “
Bentler said he didn’t know Dunn was supposed to be abstaining and was taking Breathalyzer tests three times a day as part of his child-custody agreement.
What started as a few beers aboard the vessel turned into a full-blown relapse over the next few days, much of it after parting ways with Bentler, as Dunn later confessed in an account filed in his divorce case.
He called Green to admit the relapse and she chartered a plane on Aug. 21 to pick up the children on Decatur Island. Green later described the children in a court declaration as “extremely upset and very scared” by the incident.
“8 p.m. Now that the children are gone, I begin to drink heavily … This occurs late into the evening,” Dunn wrote in his journal-like account of the relapse. “AUGUST 22 6 a.m. I wake up and drink.”
Wilson, his then-fiancée, confronted him and said he needed to stop. She called Dunn’s then chief-of-staff at the county council, who agreed to pick up Dunn in Anacortes and drive him to a hospital to detox before heading for a treatment facility, where he spent the next three days.
Call from brother
Dunn said his decision to give up alcohol came a few months later, after a brief, final relapse.
He credits, in part, a stern phone call from his older brother, Bryant Dunn.
“I laid it down in hard-line style that he was going to have to cut out any and all alcohol use forever if he was going to rise to the challenge of being a father and a successful professional and that there was no wiggle room there. Since that day he has done nothing but rise to the occasion,” Bryant Dunn recalled in an interview.
Dunn temporarily lost most of his visitation rights with his children as a result of his yacht relapse. He agreed to a new parenting plan, signed by a judge in 2018, which limited him to the weekly supervised visits.
Dunn was determined to build a documented record of sobriety that would enable him to get more time with his children.
Every few months, since 2018, he’s stopped by a lab where technicians snip from his scalp a pencil-width lock of hair.
Those hair tests can detect drug and alcohol use going back three months, said Taylor Collyer, president of ARCpoint Labs, who has personally taken some of Dunn’s samples.
After years of clean tests, Dunn last April petitioned a judge for more visitation time with his children. After a heated legal fight — Green strongly opposed Dunn’s request, citing his history of lying about his sobriety — Dunn won approval for more weekend and holiday time, and eventually, overnight stays.
Dunn estimates he spent $300,000 on the custody disputes, and eventually took to representing himself in court due to the high costs.
Despite his problems, which for years were not well known even as he held his county council office and ran for attorney general, Dunn said his drinking was an after-hours affair. “I can honestly look you in the eyes and say I never showed up to work drunk.”
He added, “There’s no question I was hung over” and said his addiction disrupted his moods and energy. “You wake up at two, three in the morning and you can’t go back to sleep. You end up showing up tired,” he said.
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, a Democrat who has served on the council since 2010, said he saw no signs of impairment from Dunn at work. “Since he has been in recovery and even before — I have never seen evidence he was drinking,” he said. “I have found him to be a strong advocate for people in recovery.”
So far, Dunn’s congressional race rivals have not made an issue of his past drinking problems, focusing their attention on crime and pocketbook issues like rising gas prices.
Randy Pepple, a longtime Republican political consultant, said Washington voters have not generally punished candidates who acknowledge addiction problems.
“They respect the candor — the exception being if they think you are being a hypocrite,” he said. “If you are voting for Congress this year, is the biggest issue going to be one candidate’s use of alcohol … or is it going to be inflation or gas prices, or the Ukrainian war?”
Over the past few years, Dunn has tapped his own experiences to advocate for policy changes and funding aimed at helping people in recovery.
He pushed for additional mental health and addiction-recovery money in the $1.7 billion Harborview Medical Center bond measure approved by voters in 2020. He was the primary advocate in 2016 for a state law that gives legal protections to communications between people in recovery programs and their sponsors.
This year, he pushed for a bill in the state Legislature that would require courts to consider adjusting restrictive parenting plans if parents in recovery can prove they have not used alcohol or drugs for two years. Senate Bill 5920 passed the state Senate but failed to pass the House.
Earlier this month Dunn was in Washington, D.C., making fundraising connections for his congressional campaign. He raised about $345,000 between announcing his candidacy in late November and the end of 2021, according to the most-recent Federal Election Commission filings.
Dunn says he also has been reaching out to Republican members of a bipartisan recovery caucus in the House. “If I’m elected … I will be the leading Republican member of Congress focusing on substance use disorder, period,” he said.