The November general election may feel a long way off, but a few candidates for seats on the Thurston County Commission are starting to gather contributions and host campaign kickoff events.
So far, at least one current commissioner is looking to keep his seat, and two challengers are making the case for how they might fix a board they view as broken.
What’s Up For Grabs
Terms for commissioners representing District 1 and District 2 expire in 2020, and voters will decide who keeps or claims those seats. District 1 covers the middle third of Thurston County and includes downtown Olympia, while District 2 covers the eastern third, including Lacey.
John Hutchings, who currently represents District 1 and serves as chair of the board, will vie to keep the seat he won in 2016.
“I’m running because I love the job, and I still have work to do,” Hutchings told The Olympian in a phone interview last week.
District 2 Commissioner Gary Edwards hasn’t officially stated his intentions one way or the other. Recently, he told The Olympian he was “exploring his options.”
The longest running campaign so far is that of Lacey City Council member Michael Steadman, who registered with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) May 14 to run as a Democrat for Edwards’ seat.
Steadman has so far reported almost $35,500 in cash contributions and more than $3,200 in in-kind contributions — significantly more than any other candidate, with contributors that range from Washington State Democrats, to businesses such as Glacier Gun Club, to a slate of individuals.
Edwards, who stated no party preference when he ran and won in 2016, was born and raised in Yelm and served in the Army then in law enforcement. He was Thurston County Sheriff for two decades.
“I like him as a person,” challenger Steadman said of Edwards. “But just because you’re a 28-year sheriff — I voted for him in the early ‘90s — doesn’t mean you transition into a good county commissioner.”
Steadman cited several specific issues as his reasons for running during a phone interview with The Olympian, saying the commission needs to be a better partner to local jurisdictions and communicate with the public.
One example: a 2017 proposal from the county commission to create and operate a convention center. Lacey City Council voted to opt out of the proposal, which would’ve put a measure on ballots to create a convention district and governing body.
“We were given five days to opt out,” Steadman said. “We had to have a special meeting.”
He also mentioned a November commission meeting when Edwards unexpectedly voted against a property tax increase slated to fund expenditures the board, including Edwards, already approved. Edwards justified his vote at the time in part by saying he’s listening to the public.
Hutchings, who registered with the PDC Jan. 2 to run for re-election as an independent, points to empowering youth, public safety, and economic development as priorities moving forward.
Thus far in office, Hutchings says he’s proud of funding an award-winning public works program that’s opened up fish passage barriers, submitting a draft plan to streamline gopher habitat reviews to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and hiring 11 staff at the Sheriff’s Office, among other feats.
He often references his lifetime of public service — serving on the board of Together! for eight years and his membership with PFLAG, for example — among his qualifications, along with his work history. Hutchings worked as an Olympia police officer before becoming Chief of Police in Tenino, and he considers keeping people safe still part of his job.
“It’s been my job for 38 years now and I love it, and I’m not ready to sit and grow tomatoes just yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and I have the experience and wherewithal to do it.”
Challenging Hutchings is a new face to local politics: Rory Summerson, who’s 33 years old and openly gay.
Summerson, who registered with the PDC Nov. 15 as a Democrat, says he cut his hours in half at Blue Ribbon Service Company, where he’s Assistant Manager and Service Manager, to run his campaign. Part of his goal is to serve as an example that people in his generation can serve in government, even as they hold down a job or two to make ends meet.
“Communities in my age group and LGBTQ communities don’t see that we have any real representation right now at the county level, specifically,” Summerson said in an interview. “The way we see the Board of County Commissioners, historically, is an old boys’ club.”
He thinks that culture creates an environment where, for example, the Sheriff’s Office feels comfortable spending more than its allotted budget.
That two commissioners come from policing backgrounds is also a concern for Summerson, who believes learned experience shows in decision-making.
“I find it hard to believe that if that’s been your focus your whole life, that won’t be your go-to solution” when it comes to social issues, he said. With his background in customer service and the service industry, in contrast, he says he brings experience of listening to and working with anyone, regardless of ideological background.
Summerson grew up in Onalaska, in rural Lewis County, and moved to Thurston County about 12 years ago. He and his husband were among the first handful of gay couples to get a marriage license here — their photo from that day is in The Olympian’s archives.
Summerson calls his main “planks” a people-first approach, accountability, and prioritizing environmental issues.
“I’m huge on environmental issues and conservation issues and making sure we’re prioritizing those, a balanced budget with solid accountability and oversight, and creating space that meets needs for everybody in our community in terms of inclusion and representation,” he said.