Partisan the new nonpartisan: Tri-City GOP, Dems push politics into school, city races

Motorists drive past a multitude of political signs near the Steptoe roundabout in Richland. The Republican and Democratic parties of both Benton and Franklin counties have either endorsed or recommended candidates in local nonpartisan races, an unusual move that injects politics into local races in a new way.
Motorists drive past a multitude of political signs near the Steptoe roundabout in Richland. The Republican and Democratic parties of both Benton and Franklin counties have either endorsed or recommended candidates in local nonpartisan races, an unusual move that injects politics into local races in a new way. Tri-City Herald

On Nov. 7, Prosser voters will return an appointed incumbent to the school board or elect a native daughter who made good.

For voters unfamiliar with the candidates, the Republican and Democratic parties of Benton County stand ready to assist.

Republicans are backing the incumbent, Scott Coleman, a Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District supervisor. Democrats are backing his challenger, Maricela Sanchez, a Kadlec Regional Medical Center anesthesiologist.

In the topsy-turvey world of modern American politics, even obscure, nonpartisan races for school board are subject to partisan scrutiny.

Ditto for city councils, even water district posts.

The Prosser race is one of 10 local, nonpartisan matches with a Republican-backed candidate squaring off against a Democrat-backed one. This political twist on nonpartisanship is a feature in Pasco, Richland and Kennewick elections too.

“Welcome to the world of modern politics,” said Bill Berkman, chair of the Benton County Republican Party.

Welcome to the world of modern politics.

Bill Berkman, Benton County Republican Party

The 2017 election is what might be termed a “local” one. Washington has a tradition of nonpartisan local offices, dating to 1949 legislation that set nonpartisan standards for city councils and special districts.

The reasons have been lost in time, but a 1949 column in The Seattle Times offered a hint of what policy makers were thinking.

Nonpartisan seats could serve as a corrective against the corrupting influence of the old school practice of voting for party tickets. “(T)he most competent administrators are those who are not drawn from partisan politics,” it concluded.

$44,238Raised by Benton County Democratic Central Committee

$53,267Benton County Republican Party

$85,866Franklin County Republican Central Committee

$0 Franklin County Democrats

As a result, the ballots hitting mailboxes this week are packed with contests for nonpartisan seats on dozens of local councils, boards and commissions. The Benton County ballot has two partisan races, off-year elections for the unexpired terms of the sheriff and treasurer.

In a striking shift, local political parties are taking sides and supporting their candidates’ campaign efforts.

Together, the Benton and Franklin Republican parties have raised nearly $140,000 this election cycle, according to filings with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Benton Democrats have raised $53,200. Franklin Democrats have not raised any money.

Benton Republicans endorsed 14 candidates, but are reconsidering their support for Lloyd Becker over the Richland City Council candidate’s social media posts and conduct. It is expected to review the matter when its central committee meets Nov. 2.

Benton Democrats have recommended 13 candidates. Franklin County Republicans recommended one candidate for Pasco City Council and endorsed another. Franklin Democrats endorsed three.

Benton Republicans declared their intent to elect partisan candidates to local office in May, shortly before filing week. The party circulated a letter that celebrated partisan efforts that put conservatives on the Olympia City Council. Electing conservatives stopped “harmful rules and regulations” in Olympia.

Bob Thompson 2017
Bob Thompson

The local party openly expressed its desire to repeat that here.

“If a liberal gets elected to office with no conservative challenger, we are one step farther away from our goal of electing Republicans,” it wrote. “The Democrats are not giving up. We must rise to the challenge and find Republican/conservative candidates to run for election. It can be done!”

The party went beyond soliciting candidates. It targeted seven incumbents for replacement as “not doing a good job” — highlighting their names in red.

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson was one of them. The party changed its mind after the August primary and endorsed Thompson in his re-election campaign against challenger Rhoda Williams, a small business owner. Williams is recommended by the Democrats.

Thompson is wary of the endorsement, though he acknowledges participating in the endorsement process.

He credits the Trump election for bringing partisan politics into local elections but called it an unwelcome arrival. City councils should focus on public safety and keeping the lights on, not social engineering, he said.

“With partisanship, you get locked in on politics,” he said. “Do I think it’s good? No, I don’t.”

With partisanship, you get locked in on politics. Do I think it’s good? No, I don’t.

Mayor Bob Thompson, Richland City Council

He hadn’t heard he was targeted for replacement before being endorsed.

Berkman, the Benton GOP chair, defended the move to recruit and endorse candidates. Local government directs how taxes are spent and creates policy. That’s partisan, he said.

“I think it points to the division we are experiencing in politics today,” he said. The party backed its endorsements with online support and at least one postcard mailed to voters last week.

Democrats too announced a desire to run sympathetic candidates in May. The former Benton County chair, David Rose, called the Trump election a blessing in disguise that, he hoped, would inspire candidates and help turn a “deep red area into a lighter red one, or even blue.”

Benton Democrats are recommending 13 candidates. The party initially described its support as an endorsement on its website. Allison Dabler, the current chair, said the language was a mistake.

The party only gives endorsements in partisan races. Its “recommendations” carry less weight and can be conferred on candidates regardless of if they seek it or affiliate with the party.

Franklin Republicans and Democrats are also supporting candidates in nonpartisan races, but to a lesser degree than their Benton County counterparts.

We want to know we have school board candidates who are going to be protective of rights of students.

Jennifer Goulet, Franklin County Democrats

Jennifer Goulet, chair of the Franklin Democrats, said partisan issues already intrude on local government. She cited schools becoming battlegrounds over contentious social issues.

“We want to know we have school board candidates who are going to be protective of rights of students,” she said. “It’s the nature of what it is. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

Not everyone welcomes partisan involvement.

Jennifer Goulet check spelling
Jenn Goulet

“I believe nonpartisan races are nonpartisan,” said Rick Jansons, who is running for re-election to the Richland School Board against challenger Ron Higgins. Jansons, who has run for state office as a Republican, is recommended by the Democrats. Higgins is endorsed by the Republicans.

The Jansons-Higgins match highlights the awkwardness of inserting partisanship into nonpartisan races.

Jansons said he declined to pursue the Republican endorsement. Last year, he ran as a Republican when he challenged Rep. Brad Klippert for his seat in the Washington Legislature.

He believes it’s wrong to inject partisanship into local races. He was unaware the Democrats recommended him over Higgins, until he was informed about it by the Herald.

“Maybe they know who I’m running against,” he said.

He decried the “winner takes all” mentality creeping into local election, calling it damaging to local government, including schools.

“Citizens need to stand up and take back their government right now and quit letting the far right and far left make these decision for us,” he said.

Citizens need to stand up and take back their government right now and quit letting the far right and far left make these decision for us.

Rick Jansons, Richland School Board

Jansons isn’t the only candidate startled to find himself in a partisan-in-air-quotes race.

Kennewick City Councilman Don Britain is another wary Republican endorsee. Britain said he completed a questionnaire and participated in the party’s interview process, but never signed a pledge of support to the party.

He provided similar information to the Democratic Party, which chose to recommend his challenger, Lindy Verhei.

“I’ll interview with anybody,” he said.

Don Britain

Britain said he’s proud to have been endorsed by groups representing a range of political views. But he’s committed to doing his best regardless of politics on the council, where he is currently the city’s mayor pro tem.

“I try not to bring party ideology into this. I try to look at it through a neutral lens,” said Britain.

Verhei said she did not seek support from Democrats and did not apply for the Republican endorsement, believing it would go to her opponent.

The partisan intrusion into local politics isn’t exactly new, said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science and public affairs at WSU Vancouver.

Nonpartisan races are a western phenomenon. In the east, elected offices are party-oriented from top to bottom. New York City, with a partisan city council, is a glaring example.

That said, Stephan said norms are being broken in the election with the endorsement of candidates. The parties traditionally took a more subtle approach in local elections, he said.

By backing specific candidates, they could engage voters who vote by party affiliation rather than any particular knowledge about a candidate or race. It could boost notoriously low voter turnout for local elections and reduce the phenomenon of under voting, where voters ignore lower level races.

“To endorse in that way is really to say in a straightforward fashion that these may be called nonpartisan races, but they’re not.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

Candidate support

Mid-Columbia political parties recommended nonpartisan candidates regardless whether the candidate sought party support. Incumbents (Inc), city council (CC) and school board (SB).


Republican support

Democrat support

Kennewick CC Ward 1

Don Britain (Inc)

Lindy Verhei

Kennewick CC Ward 4 (Open)

Bill McKay

Christy Watts

Kennewick SB Dist. 1

Mike Massey

Heather Kintzley (Inc)

Richland CC Pos. 1

Bob Thompson (Inc)

Rhoda Williams

Richland CC Pos. 3

Lloyd Becker*

Sandra Kent (Inc)

Richland CC Pos. 4 (Open)

Ryan Lukson

Ginger Wireman

Richland CC Pos. 7

Michael Alvarez

Dori Luzzo Gilmour (Inc)

Richland SB Dist. 2

Ron Higgins

Rick Jansons (Inc)

Pasco CC Dist. 5

David Milne

Rebecca Francik (Inc)

Prosser SB Dist. 4

Scott Coleman (Inc)

Maricela Sanchez

*Under reconsideration