Thurston County Commissioner Edwards Faces Challenge From Democrat Michael Steadman

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While the race for Thurston County Commissioner in District 1 has garnered much attention since the August primary, the race for another commission seat has been simmering next door.

Commissioner Gary Edwards, a former Sheriff who identifies as an independent, wants to keep the District 2 seat he won in 2016. He faces a challenge from Michael Steadman, a Democrat who serves on Lacey City Council and believes his background better qualifies him for the job.

The two men were the only candidates in the district's August primary, a vote limited to the district that covers the easternmost third of Thurston County, stretching over Lacey, part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Yelm and Rainier.

Edwards brought in about 57% of primary votes, while Steadman claimed about 42%. In the general election, though, they'll appear on ballots countywide.

The candidates' campaigns

Edwards, 74, is a Yelm native and Army veteran whose family has been in the area for seven generations. He ran as a Republican for the Sheriff's role he held for two decades and has told The Olympian he advocated for the position to be nonpartisan at the time.

Steadman, 50, has served on Lacey City Council since 2014. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and owns Steadman Properties, a commercial leasing company.

Steadman has far out-raised Edwards -- he started with a balance of just under $850 and has received almost $100,700 in reported contributions, according to state Public Disclosure Commission data.

His top-three contributors are himself and Washington State Democrats, followed by a slate of individuals and businesses that donated $2,000 each. Among businesses that have donated are at least a few of Steadman Properties' tenants: Baskin Robbins, Cooper Point Public House, DK Hair Salon, and Private Sector Arms and its owner Don Teague are all on the list.

Edwards had a campaign starting balance of a little under $3,200 and has received nearly $24,600 in reported contributions. His top contributors are individuals, businesses, and committees that donated $1,000 each, including Setina Manufacturing Co., marijuana retailer T Brother's Bud Lodge, and The Affordable Housing Council (a political action committee for the Olympia Master Builders).

Steadman is endorsed by many progressive organizations, including Olympia Indivisible, Thurston County Democrats, and Sierra Club, along with politicians such as state Sen. Sam Hunt, Commissioner Tye Menser, and retired commissioners Sandra Romero and Karen Valenzuela. Lacey Professional Fire Fighters and local unions also have endorsed him.

Edwards is endorsed by the Thurston County Republican Party, though that's not featured on his campaign's website. He's also endorsed by the Thurston County Realtors Association and Washington State Farm Bureau PAC.

Former Sheriff Dan Kimball and retired District 2 Commissioner Diane Oberquell, both Democrats, have endorsed Edwards and donated to his campaign.

Their policy priorities

In response to a question in The Olympian's voter guide survey, Steadman wrote in part that his top-three priorities in office would be to ensure a strong economic recovery for "ALL citizens from this pandemic," a balanced, sustainable, and transparent budget that "builds healthy reserves," and a healthier environment "through remediation, acquisition and preservation."

To the same question, Edwards wrote that his top-three priorities for a second term would be to "revitalize our local economy while creating living wage jobs," "reduce regulatory roadblocks to create more affordable housing," and "ensure public safety and support for law enforcement."

Edwards often laments county permitting processes and consistently votes for measures that favor the Sheriff's Office. In June, for example, he voted to remove the office from an across-the-board 2% budget cut, likening including it to "defunding law enforcement." That decision was later reversed.

In a voter guide answer, Steadman said he disagreed with the board's 2-1 decision to exempt the Sheriff's Office from that cut, as well as the board's 2-1 approval of hazard pay for deputies and Corrections staff, which the county manager advised against.

The board has since ended that hazard pay, too, after a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail. Edwards was the lone commissioner who continued supporting it.

Another contentious county issue where Edwards has split from his seatmates: the county courthouse project, a disagreement he emphasizes at every opportunity.

The county has been talking about remodeling or relocating its courthouses and offices for at least five years.

Voters were set to weigh in on a proposal in April that, if approved, would raise property taxes to pay for a new complex. When the pandemic hit, the board unanimously decided to delay the vote.

Edwards said he supported the county's effort when officials asked the state Legislature in 2017 for more time to collect for construction bonds to replace the courthouse if voters approved a property tax increase. And he didn't object when the commission decided to look at locations for the complex.

He turned when the other two commissioners voted in support of building in downtown Olympia. Most county elected leaders voiced support for the accessibility of the Plum Street location, partnering with the city, and promoting economic development downtown.

The ordinance to put the measure on ballots allows for flexibility around the project's location, and the commission has since discussed revisiting other sites.

But Edwards still emphasizes his opposition, which he says is rooted in the potential for sea-level rise and how the city has let downtown "deteriorate." He believes the city has "coddled" people who are homeless and says recent demonstrations "really got out of hand" this summer and supports looking at a remodel and using adjoining county property.

According to the county, renovation has been considered, and a 2016 study featured projections that repairs and maintenance would cost about $50 million over 10 years without adding the space required to accommodate county services and population growth.

It's worth noting: Edwards puts a $400 million price tag on the project, while the county uses its latest estimate of $250 million to build a new complex.

When asked where a $400 million figure might come from, Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell offered a hypothesis: If the county borrowed $250 million and paid it off over 23 years and interest rates were about 4%, as they were a few years ago, they would pay back roughly $387 million over time.

People may be adding the interest and rounding up, she said. District 1 candidate C Davis, who identifies as Republican, has also cited the figure in his campaign.

Edwards stood by that number in a phone interview, confirming he was including interest and that's "the cost to the taxpayers" of the total package.

At any rate, the courthouse topic is likely to be revisited in the winning commissioner's term, as concerns over the safety, capacity, and convenience of the current complex continue.

When asked about the courthouse in The Olympian's voter guide survey, Steadman suggested looking at the pandemic as an opportunity, asking questions such as "Do we need as much office space, or the same type, with remote work options?" He wrote that the county should pay for it by saving in a seed fund.

But, in a phone call, Steadman said he would support the public process: Commissioners went through a long process, brought in outside firms and experts, and ended up supporting the move to Olympia. The people need to vote on the tax increase, he said, or it amounts to years and money wasted.

Steadman argues his approach to policy differs from Edwards because he's "well-rounded," with a background in building trade, a twin brother who's a police officer, his military background, and a range of other experiences. He points to his time on City Council when he, Congressman Denny Heck and Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder lobbied the federal government to open a veteran's outpost in Lacey and were denied.

The city found a way to fund it through its general fund, Steadman said, and now there are more than 80 providers who offer financial assistance, nutrition classes, counseling, employment, healthcare, housing, education, and other services to thousands of veterans. He pictures a future with hubs such as this serving other target groups.

He asserted that Edwards is looking out for a small number of people in south Thurston County and for the Sheriff's Office.

Edwards said Steadman is "mistaken" that he's only looking out for a small group, mentioning the courthouse issue as an example.

"I really think that I want this county to be the best place to live and work that it can possibly be, and that takes a total rounded approach, not any one approach," he said. "Not all about the environment, not all about corporate activity, but a balance."

Steadman: Edwards' independent label 'smoke and mirrors'

When Edwards took his seat as Thurston County Commissioner, he broke a decades-long streak of Democratic women representing District 2. He joined a board made up of men who identified themselves as Independents.

Since then, Democrat Tye Menser was elected in District 3. A Democrat and Republican are currently vying for the District 1 seat. If Edwards is re-elected, he will be the lone commissioner who ran without a party preference.

But Steadman told The Olympian his opponent's independent label is deceptive.

"He is a Republican, through and through," he said.

Edwards does sometimes echo Republican President Donald Trump. As recently as June, he referred to COVID-19 as "this communist virus" and in May suggested "the sun kills a lot of that virus business."

Steadman mentioned remarks the commissioner made last October. The Seattle Times reported then that Edwards and Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza attended a Yelm gathering where a few dozen people expressed angst over state gun regulations and Attorney General Bob Ferguson's support of such regulations.

The two elected officials were there to answer questions, according to the article.

The group discussed filing citizen complaints against Ferguson or, perhaps, attempting a citizen's arrest, The Times reported. Snaza and Edwards are reported saying they didn't like many recently passed gun restrictions but urging patience.

Edwards, in part, is reported as saying they should wait to see how the courts rule -- and that Washington gun-rights supporters face the same kind of resistance he thinks Trump has faced as president.

"If we're lucky, the president will get the courts stacked right," Edwards added later, according to The Times story. "If we're not lucky, we might have a revolution."

In a phone interview last week, Edwards said that meeting felt like the start of something similar to what recently happened in Michigan, where six men were charged in federal court with conspiring to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and called the people at the Yelm meeting "goofballs."

As to his comment about stacking courts, he said those comments don't mean he's happy with the current president.

"I'm not happy with President Trump. ... I wish he'd put his stupid phone away and watch what he says," he said, adding that he's happy with the economy and "with the fact that he supports the Second Amendment."

He later emphasized the context was a conversation about gun rights and that he believes the Second Amendment is "not about duck hunting."

Edwards stands firmly behind his independent label, though said he falls "in the middle, towards conservative," on the political spectrum.

"I am very independent," he said. "I don't take direction from either side. Basically, I base everything I do on the facts and my perception whether or not that's going to be beneficial or not to the public."

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