Every campaign season features battles that test partisan loyalties, but for sheer equilibrium-busting, the race for Pierce County prosecutor is hard to match.
The contest pits challenger Mary Robnett against incumbent Mark Lindquist. From the outset, it promised to be a sizzler. On the eve of Tuesday’s primary, it’s turned into a full-blown fire, and the spendiest county-level race in the state by a wide margin. As of Friday, the rivals had raised more than $392,000, according to figures reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Those fundraising numbers represent a virtual dead heat. Lindquist has raised $195,114, adding to a war chest he began filling almost four years ago. Robnett has raised $197,776. Her efforts started in January.
Lindquist, 59, is running for a third term. He drives his campaign message home with a familiar mantra.
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“I stay focused on making our community safer,” he said in response to a set of emailed questions. “The best path to re-election is to do your job. In 2018, our standards are higher than ever, we’ve cultivated a public-service culture and our office is focused on how we best protect the public.”
Robnett, 62, is a first-time candidate. An assistant attorney general who worked at the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office from 1994 to 2012, she regularly tackled some of the county’s worst crimes. At one point, she was Lindquist’s supervisor. After he became prosecutor in 2009, he appointed her as chief criminal deputy. She campaigned for Lindquist in 2010 during his first run for the office.
Since then, her views have shifted. Her campaign theme is professionalism, and she points to missteps in Lindquist’s tenure as justification for change.
“I was very supportive of him when he was appointed to that position and his first run in 2010,” she said. “What’s changed is I’ve had a chance to watch his track record. I’m running because Pierce County deserves something better.”
A look at spending by the two candidates reveals more similarities than differences, reflecting a hard-fought race that will continue until the November election. Lindquist’s campaign has spent about $150,000, including a $40,000 advertising buy in late July aimed at cable television and online platforms.
In the same period, Robnett has spent about $131,000, including a $50,000 set of ad buys in the same spaces as Lindquist.
While the votes will count, the result of Tuesday’s primary won’t change anything immediately. Regardless of the outcome, Lindquist and Robnett will advance to the Nov. 6 general election for a final showdown.
So what are the stakes on Tuesday?
Viewed through a political lens, the answer boils down to two words: viability and vulnerability. The viability test applies to Robnett. A competitive primary result would demonstrate potential strength in a long-haul campaign, despite Lindquist’s fundamental advantages: incumbency and name recognition built over a decade.
The vulnerability test falls on Lindquist, who faces the toughest challenge of his political career. Tuesday’s results will offer the first glimpse of how voters view his often-controversial record, a topic Robnett emphasizes regularly on the stump.
The race has scrambled local and regional party politics. Lindquist, a Democrat, touts endorsements from scores of local elected officials, including Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards. Robnett, running as a nonpartisan, has won endorsements from local Democratic organizations in the 27th, 25th and 31st legislative districts. She’s backed by Democrat Pat McCarthy, current state auditor and former Pierce County executive.
To further blur the partisan picture, Robnett recently gained the endorsement of former state Attorney General Rob McKenna, among the state’s highest-profile Republicans.
In contrast, Lindquist counts Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman among his supporters, as well as state Sen. Hans Zeiger, a Puyallup Republican. Lindquist recently landed the biggest fish of all, scoring an endorsement from Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.
The shifting partisan sands run deeper. Robnett’s supporters include former county Prosecutor Gerry Horne, a popular Democrat who backed Lindquist’s appointment in 2009. Horne said he now supports Robnett because of Lindquist’s politicization of the prosecutor’s office.
Confused yet? Lindquist’s longtime campaign consultant is Alex Hays, a Republican who has needled Inslee on Twitter, calling him “the worst governor in state history.”
Hays, saying the offices of governor and prosecutor are too different to compare, acknowledged his shots at Inslee, but softened them with a quip.
“I’m glad he agrees with me on who the Pierce County prosecutor should be,” he said. “I’m sorry he doesn’t agree with me on other topics.”
Hays also describes Robnett’s campaign as “tapped into the far left.” He contends she is largely funded by criminal defense attorneys, calling it a historical pattern echoing previous county prosecutor campaigns.
The records of previous prosecutor campaigns over the past 20 years suggest a different pattern. Typically, incumbent prosecutors run without any opposition at all. Former Pierce County prosecutor John Ladenburg ran unopposed in 1998. So did Horne in 2002 and 2006. So did Lindquist in 2014.
Campaign-finance records reveal contributions to Robnett’s campaign from defense attorneys — and a roster of other legal professionals. Her contributor list includes retired judges, civil attorneys, municipal and state attorneys, and current and former deputy prosecutors who have worked for Lindquist.
Robnett also counts the county’s largest law-enforcement unions among her endorsers. Tacoma police union Local 6 backs her, as do the unions representing county sheriff’s deputies, sergeants and corrections deputies. Most recently, she picked up an endorsement from commanders: the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs.
“My backers are from all walks,” Robnett said. “My view is those are the people who really pay attention to what’s going on in the criminal justice system. I think it’s about the ethical aspects of being a lawyer and practicing law. That’s the feedback I’m getting.”
Lindquist recites a list of accomplishments and initiatives as a measure of his competence and effectiveness since he took office in 2009.
“I have a longer and stronger record,” he said. “Specifically, we now have an Elder Abuse Unit, a new, unified Domestic Violence team, our High Priority Offender program, which uses data-driven prosecution to get career criminals off of our streets, and our lawsuit against Big Pharma.”
Lindquist also underlines his work at the state government level. He has spearheaded collaborative efforts to pass so-called “fair-share” legislation that limits the flow of convicted out-of-town offenders released into Pierce County by the state Department of Corrections. He has been a driving and vocal force behind legislation aimed at dangerously mentally ill offenders who sometimes slip through gaps in the criminal-justice system.
“We’ve also worked on improvements in the criminal-justice system, including mental-health court,” he said. “I’m proud of the work our good people do on literally thousands of various cases each year.”
Robnett acknowledges those efforts by Lindquist, but she says the picture is incomplete.
“He ignores part of his record,” she said. “I want to run on my record, and I want him to run on his record.”
On the stump and in campaign ads, Robnett emphasizes other aspects of Lindquist’s tenure. She points to his costly battle to prevent public disclosure of his text messages, a case that has cost county taxpayers more than $1 million. She cites an active bar complaint and a pending disciplinary hearing tied to Lindquist’s penchant for publicity-seeking, scheduled for December. An adverse finding could lead to the suspension of Lindquist’s license to practice law.
McKenna, in a mid-July campaign event announcing his endorsement of Robnett, alluded to those circumstances briefly while describing the prosecutor‘s office as the county’s largest law firm.
“You need someone with impeccable judgment,” he said. “The current occupant has not displayed impeccable judgment. You want a prosecuting attorney who is not creating more legal work for his own activities.”
Above all, Robnett cites the results of a wide-ranging whistleblower investigation that led to multiple adverse findings against Lindquist’s office in 2015. The findings have resurfaced in recent campaign ads.
The investigation, spurred by complaints from two deputy prosecutors, relied on interviews with 65 witnesses, including many current and former members of Lindquist’s staff. Robnett, who had by then left to work for the state, was one of them.
One complainant was Stephen Penner, Robnett’s successor as chief criminal deputy. He since has left the prosecutor’s office and has endorsed Robnett. The other complainant was Steven Merrival, at the time the longest-serving member of Lindquist’s staff. Merrival, since retired, is backing Robnett.
Among other things, the investigation found Lindquist was image-obsessed, and viewed himself as a “judge-maker” in local elections. It found he ran a politicized office driven by retaliation against critics, sometimes characterizing them as mentally ill.
The report also found Lindquist judged job candidates by physical appearance. A former human-resources manager in the office heard him ask several times if a female job candidate was “HWP,” meaning “height-weight proportionate.”
According to records of the investigation, Lindquist was subsequently warned by the county’s human-resources director that “physical appearance should play no role in the hiring process.”
Asked what drives her to enter the political fray and seek the prosecutor’s office, Robnett touched on the duties of attorneys in public service.
“It’s so imperative that the lawyer who’s going to represent Pierce County puts the client first,” she said. “That’s why I’m running. I’ve got the experience as a trial lawyer, I’ve got the legal skills, I’ve got the management skills to do what’s best for the taxpayers.
“Crime isn’t partisan and justice shouldn’t be political. I just want to go do the job.”
Asked for his view of the contest, Lindquist referenced his frequent visits with community members.
“One advantage of speaking with community groups all around the county is that I’m confident I know what people care about,” he said. “Too many candidates think they can win by lying, insulting, and degrading our civic dialogue. I disagree.
“My focus is premised on my belief, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, that we all want basically the same thing. We want to live our lives in purpose and happiness and raise our families in safety. It’s my job is to help make that possible in Pierce County.”