Kennewick Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Brown soon will be on her way to Olympia for a new job in the state Senate.
Benton County commissioners at a special meeting Monday unanimously chose Brown to replace Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, who recently was sworn in as a commissioner.
The vote came after about an hour interviewing Brown and Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and almost 30 minutes talking about the three candidates behind closed doors.
Dozens of people crowded into the commissioners' chambers at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick. Many showed surprise as commissioners appointed Brown, bucking the tradition that the senior House representative -- Haler -- be appointed to the senate seat.
"What I just saw was very poor decision-making by these commissioners," said Sean McGrath, a former Benton County GOP chairman and Haler's campaign manager in the 2012 election.
McGrath told the Herald he was disappointed that commissioners opted for someone with three years of experience in elected office instead of Haler, who served 14 years on the Richland City Council and eight years in the Legislature. Brown was elected to the Kennewick City Council in 2009.
"What's in the best interest of the community is to have the most experienced legislator," McGrath said.
McGrath said his comments were not intended as a negative reflection on Brown, whom he believes is capable if less seasoned than Haler.
Vic Parrish, chairman of the Benton County Republicans, said he thought a number of people who attended the meeting were startled by the decision to appoint Brown, but that he thought all three candidates were qualified.
"I really didn't know who they were going to pick," Parrish said. "When they came back in and picked Sharon, I know some people who were disappointed. I know others who were happy."
Haler was the first name chosen by Benton County Republican precinct officers during a meeting Jan. 17 in Richland in which they narrowed a field of six applicants to three. Those names -- Brown, Haler and Klippert -- then were provided to commissioners to make a decision.
The state constitution says when a lawmaker resigns, his or her replacement must come from the same political party. The local party chooses nominees, and then the county commissioners in the legislative district select the replacement. The 8th Legislative District where Delvin has served is entirely contained within Benton County, leaving the decision to the Benton County commissioners -- including Delvin, who was sworn in to replace Leo Bowman in late December.
It was Delvin who put Brown's name forward as his replacement during the Monday meeting, saying he believes she has the qualities to succeed in Olympia.
"I think I have a unique perspective on what it takes to be effective over there and get stuff done," Delvin said. "It has to be a community-wide perspective. I have to take this into consideration. What I heard was someone who talked about vision several times."
Brown, during a short introductory speech and question-and-answer session, said several times that she believes her job as state senator would be to spread the word about the Tri-Cities so that the area gets its due from Olympia.
"We are the fifth-largest economy in the state. It's time Olympia recognized that," Brown said. "I would be a strong voice for the Tri-Cities."
Brown said another priority would be to loosen regulations on businesses to create a more competitive business climate.
Commissioner Jim Beaver said he liked the tone of Brown's message.
"I heard some really positive things about the future and the Tri-Cities," Beaver said.
Commission Chairman Shon Small thanked all three candidates for applying, and said the decision was a tough one.
"We had three very strong, qualified candidates," Small said.
Brown will hold the seat until a special election in November. She told the Herald that she plans to run in that election.
She may face a challenge from Haler, who before Monday's meeting had filed public disclosure documents so that he can raise money in the race.
McGrath said he's encouraging Haler to run, and believes that the Richland lawmaker is more electable than Brown.
"The people of this district know Larry, they like Larry and they trust Larry," McGrath said, noting that Haler won re-election to his 8th District House seat in 2012 with 73 percent of the vote.
Haler was on his way back to Olympia after the meeting Monday and did not return a message left on his cellphone by the Herald.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mduplertch