Despite opposing political views, Franklin commission race remains civil

Republican Clint Didier and Democrat Zahra Roach are running for Franklin County Commissioner.
Republican Clint Didier and Democrat Zahra Roach are running for Franklin County Commissioner. Tri-City Herald

Franklin County Commission candidates Clint Didier and Zahra Roach are at near opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But their race for Franklin County Commissioner is a respectful one.

Didier, a Republican who has previously run for state and federal office, is a right-leaning farmer who played in the NFL and is a frequent critic of county government.

Roach, a Democrat, is an educator who chairs the Pasco planning commission and speaks of connecting at-risk students to social services. Access to health care, transparency in county government and diversifying Franklin County’s economy are among her top priorities.

Didier and Roach are facing off for the commission seat left open when incumbent Rick Miller, a Republican, placed third in the four-way August primary. The winner in November will serve a four-year term and will join incumbents Brad Peck and Bob Koch, both Republicans, on the county’s three-member commission.

Washington is a top-two primary state. In conservative Eastern Washington, that often means a choice between two Republicans. But this year, a strong showing by Democrats in the August primary led to a number of two-party contests.

The Didier-Roach race is one of them.

Didier received 40 percent of the ballots cast and Roach received 32 percent in August. Incumbent Rick Miller and Rodney Burns split the remaining votes.

Despite their party differences, Didier and Roach remain focused on issues of governance.

For instance, they share the view that Franklin County needs a fresh dose of transparency and new voices in light of a wave of conflict between multiple county offices. They differ on the best way to tackle the challenges.

The commissioners control the county’s budget and sets policy but separately elected officials operate the various departments.

The candidates

Didier was born and raised in Franklin County.

He spent eight years in the NFL in the 1980s, including six with the Washington Redskins. He’s coached football at Connell High School and grows hay on 1,100 acres near Eltopia with his two sons. He unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, for Washington Commissioner of Public Lands in 2012 and for the U.S. House in 2014 and 2016.

Didier adheres to the Franklin County Republican platform and supports conservative views on marriage and homosexuality. His primary issue is property taxes, and he said he would not support social spending for mental health programs.

Didier has been called a “kook” and an “extremist” by mainstream Republicans. In 2014, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton lobbed the insult as the party united behind Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside for Congress.

Didier dismissed the attack, attributing it to his refusal to endorse Dino Rossi, a Washington State Senator who has run unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. Senate. This year, Rossi is in the running for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Republican David Reichert.

Roach was 6 when her family moved to Pasco in 1988 from Alaska.

She graduated from Washington State University Tri-Cities and taught in local schools. She moved to Boston to pursue a master’s degree and taught there before returning home. She taught at New Horizons and Pasco High, and is currently raising her three children. She joined the Pasco Planning Commission in 2011 and is its current chair.

She is focused on smart planning to accommodate Franklin County’s growing population. She wants to bring a younger perspective to county government.

Roach said it would have been “dishonest” to run as a Republican since her values align with the Democratic party.

“Being a Democrat in Franklin County does not mean I’m a flaming westside liberal Democrat,” she said.

Like Didier, she is unhappy with her property tax bill.

Franklin County Courthouse.JPG
The Franklin County Courthouse on North Fourth Avenue in Pasco. File Tri-City Herald

Courthouse conflict

Didier said he felt called to run for a local position because of what he sees as disarray in county government.

He called out the long-running embezzlement of millions of dollars by Dennis Huston, a former public works administrator now serving a prison sentence; a lawsuit against the county’s elected clerk, Michael Killian, over court record keeping; a controversial land transfer; and a December deadline to bring the county jail into compliance with a 2016 federal court agreement.

Roach shares Didier’s view about chaos without calling out specific incidents.

Increased transparency in government would shine a light on the county’s problems, she said.

She wants to schedule meetings outside of the usual Tuesday morning business session and would support broadcasting video of the commission’s public sessions. Meeting audio is posted but offers little context to those who aren’t familiar with the speakers or their voices.

“It takes voters seeing that it’s not working, that there’s a culture of secrecy,” she said.

Transparency is a priority for Didier as well, though he’s wary of the cost of broadcasting sessions.

“I want transparency without cost,” he said.

Role of commissioners

Didier said the ongoing litigation between the judges and the clerk could have been avoided by pushing Michael Killian, the county’s elected clerk, to maintain the paper records the judges want, he said.

“We needed someone to sit down with Michael and reason with him,” Didier said. “No one did.”

Both candidates expressed reservations about the professionalization of the commissioner’s job, which pays $94,000 plus benefits and other costs.

Didier objected to a 2016 election-day pay raise that boosted salaries. He said it should be closer to $60,000.

Roach would like to see Franklin County consider a county council form of government, akin to a city council.

A five-person council, for instance, would bring a more varied group of commissioners to the table, she said. It could also cut costs since a paid administrator would run the county while the elected council members would receive stipends but no salaries, health insurance and cars.

Didier is skeptical that adding more elected officials won’t lead to more salaries, benefits and retirement pay.

Pasco’s Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center, aka TRAC, will become The HAPO Center under a $1 million naming rights deal headed for approval on the Franklin County Commission’s Tuesday agenda. Herald file photo

Future of TRAC

Franklin County developed the Trade, Recreation and Agricultural Center on Pasco’s Burden Boulevard in 1995 as an event venue and showcase for the agriculture community. One half is a hard-floored event center. The other boasted a dirt-floor suited to rodeos, monster truck shows, barrel racing and bull riding competitions.

This year, the county paved the arena, saying the dirt-floor events were unprofitable and TRAC was at risk of losing its most valued customers, including Latino dances and the spring and fall home shows sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities.

Didier, who felt TRAC should have been privately developed, said it’s time to drop the “A” from its name and turn the facility over to Pasco.

“It’s more of an events center than anything else,” he said.

Roach said she wants to explore ways to turn a profit at TRAC. She is reluctant to sell it, calling it too valuable an asset to give up without more study.

Construction workers in the Hayden Homes Riverhawk Pointe housing development work on constructing new homes recently in the the 4100 of Vermilion Lane in west Pasco. The new neighborhood is located off Road 84 and is visible from Interstate 182. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Urban-rural divide

The county’s population is increasingly concentrated in Pasco, one of the fastest-growing cities in Washington.

Didier said farmers fear losing their voice in county government as the urban voice grows.

State law requires counties to balance commissioner districts by population after the decennial census. Franklin County commissioners reviewed the matter this year but decided against acting before the 2020 Census results are released.

Didier is upset by a map drawn up as part of the conversation that was heavily weighted to Pasco. Two districts were concentrated in Pasco, and the third was split between Pasco and rural Franklin County.

“This is what the farmers are concerned about,” he said.

Roach acknowledges that rural residents have different concerns than their urban counterparts. But she urges pragmatism and communication.

“The urban pull of Pasco is happening,” she said.

She noted that when the city’s planning commission reviewed Pasco’s municipal boundaries, it invited rural residents to discuss their concerns, leading to a productive conversations.

“All it took was an invitation to talk about goals,” she said. “This is not rocket science.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514