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Playing Politics: Dems force their hand to pick prosecutor

MONTESANO — Former prosecutor Michael Spencer was made ineligible to compete for the appointment to the unfilled term of Prosecutor Stew Menefee by the Grays Harbor Democrats last week, when they opted not to place Spencer on their list of three candidates seeking the position. Instead, the Democrats put Grays Harbor Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda at the top of their list and two other candidates, who aren’t really interested in the position and will ultimately cast their support for Svoboda.

Now, the county commissioners are mulling whether to send the whole matter to Gov. Jay Inslee to deal with in their own protest.

And County Commissioner Frank Gordon, a Democrat, is so mad he said he may just quit his political party altogether and declare himself an Independent.

Spencer, who also served a term as judge, was the only candidate besides Svoboda who sought the appointment before the appointment process was done on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Polish Club in Aberdeen. Svoboda was at the top of the list of eligible appointees, followed by Grays Harbor Democratic Chairman George Smylie, an attorney for the state, and former Democratic chairwoman Vini Samuel, an attorney from Montesano.

The majority of precinct committee officers said they were worried that the Republican majority on the Board of County Commissioners would ignore their wishes and not give Svoboda a fair shot at the position. It’s the first time in 80 years that the Republicans have had a majority of county commissioners with Commissioners Wes Cormier and Herb Welch in office. So, the Democrats decided to take away the commissioners’ choice through the political process. Some also questioned Spencer’s Democratic pedigree since he hadn’t been to one of their meetings in years.

To be formally considered, Spencer’s name had to be on the list of the Democrats’ top three favorites and the commissioners have to pick their appointee from that list. If the commissioners chose not to act on the appointment, the appointment ultimately becomes the responsibility of Gov. Inslee. The county commissioners have until the end of November to make their selection.

“The candidates are presented in rank order as they were nominated and ratified by the Grays Harbor County Democratic Party,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to the county commissioners. “We call on you to respect the wishes of the Democratic Party to appoint Katie Svoboda, the top-ranked choice of the PCO’s. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this important appointment.”

Menefee retired on Sept. 30. The commissioners named Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Gerald Fuller as acting prosecutor. Fuller didn’t seek the permanent position and was sworn into the position on Monday.

“This is party politics at its worst,” Commissioner Cormier said.

“I’m going to have a hard time trying to come up with a decision here (based on the three names) because, obviously, it’s all based on politics,” Commissioner Welch said.

The big question the commissioners will task their legal counsel to research is if they abstain from selecting anyone on the list of three and punt the issue to the governor, would Inslee be bound to pick from the list?

At least one attorney told The Vidette that Inslee wouldn’t be bound by the list.

“That is the ultimate question,” Gordon said. “That would be the ultimate way out of this. To pick Vini and George, neither one of them want the job. They’ve stated it. They don’t want the job. …

“Our job is to pick the best person who will serve the whole county, not just the best Democrat to serve their own little base,” Gordon said. “I was very offended that they used that end game to pick Katie. I like Katie. I think Katie is an excellent attorney. I think the people of Grays Harbor would support her. But we should have had all of the legitimate candidates to pick from and interview and Michael Spencer should have been on the list. And that’s why I’m a little bit disgusted with the Democratic Party even though I’m a dues-paying Democrat. I’m just about ready to bolt from the party. My wife told me to give it a few days, to not make any rash decisions, but that’s how mad I am here.”

Cormier said he’s prepared to abstain from voting altogether.

“Why is there even a process if they won’t do it right?” Cormier said.

“Just speaking for myself, I wouldn’t even have a problem just to show the distaste of the commissioners to just let the governor pick it and pass it on being we have no decision and for us to take a vote it just makes a joke of us,” Gordon added. “We’re not here to be a joke, us three commissioners, even though we’re different political groups, we’re here to serve the people and what happens to the people whether we’re a Republican or a Democrat. If we’re going through this here game that they’re doing, we’re as bad as they are. That’s not saying anything against Katie at all. I think if we go through the process we’re as guilty as they are.”

“I certainly empathize with what you’re thoughts are,” Welch told Gordon. “I feel pretty much the same way. I need to do some thinking before I pass this on to the governor.”

Gordon noted that Fuller is quite capable of handling the Prosecutor’s Office for the next couple of months until they get some firm answers.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with Republicans and Democrats in this case because you’re picking from Democrats and they’re going to give us hopefully three great candidates so we can pick,” Cormier said. “That’s the way the process was supposed to work … For me, I don’t know why they brought partisanship into this. It’s not like I get to pick a Republican hidden on the list.”

Samuel cited a recent decision by the commissioners not to appoint Democrat and former county commissioner Al Carter to the Marine Resources Committee as evidence that the Republican majority was concerned more about party politics than the best person for the job.

“Nobody was more qualified than Al,” Samuel said before the Precinct Committee Officers cast their votes. “That was hard ball politics shown to us by the Republican commissioners on a minor appointment and the stakes are much higher on this election so I don’t trust them. I don’t trust them to honor our No. 1 choice and I don’t think they will. We need to protect what is best for the party. We cannot reduce this to a simple job interview. It is not. It is the Democratic Party choosing its leadership and a public official representing us and that’s why you the PCOs are the only ones voting.”

Samuel urged support for Svoboda,

“I learned one thing from the Seahawks,” Samuel added. “Let us be your offensive line against the Republican commissioners. You choose the top choice. But George and I would like to be your numbers two and three because I don’t trust them and I don’t think they should choose who our prosecutor should be.”

Smylie told the Democrats last week, “If you know a commissioner, strongly suggest to them they quickly approve our No. 1 choice.”

Each of the 21 Democratic Precinct Committee Officers present were allowed to vote for their top three picks, although they could decide to just put one name on their ballot if they chose. The first tally had Svoboda with 19 votes, Smylie with 14, Samuel with 14 and Spencer with five.

Spencer said he had questions about the process the Democrats used, but said he didn’t “feel like I could bring myself to sue the Democratic Party over this.”

He didn’t discount a possible run for the position in 2014, although he wasn’t prepared to immediately declare his candidacy.

“I’m so disillusioned in the party, I don’t know what I would run as,” Spencer said.

Spencer served as the elected prosecutor in Grays Harbor County as a Democrat, and was elected twice, in 1982 and 1986, when he served just one year of his second term. Menefee was appointed in 1987. Spencer went on to serve another six years as a superior court judge and is currently in private practice at Brown Lewis Janhunen & Spencer with offices in Montesano and Aberdeen.

Svoboda has been with the Prosecutor’s Office since 2004 and Menefee says she “has my absolute support. She’ll do a good job with the office. She’ll make us all proud.”

“I want to be your first female prosecutor,” Svoboda told the Democrats. “I want to represent the Grays Harbor Democrats and the county. It’s time for the PCOs to exercise their power and put a slate of candidates in front of the commissioners and there are two things that need to be at the forefront to make this decision. One, is the nominee qualified to be prosecutor? And, two, have they shown leadership in this party as a Grays Harbor Democrat. And I believe of the four of that will speak, I am the only one that fits that bill.”

Svoboda criticized a letter sent to other Democrats on Sept 23 from fellow Democrat Don Norkoski. Norkoski wrote that he felt, “Katie was low key and somewhat casual” while Spencer “came out hard-hitting, dealing with issues and even throwing a few jabs. He presented the image of a tough prosecutor, which I feel is the proper image for that particular office and is the main reason why I am supporting him.”

Several of the Precinct Committee Officers said they were offended at the thought that Svoboda couldn’t be seen as aggressive enough.

“I have actively and aggressively been pursuing criminal cases for 10 years,” Svoboda said. “And I have a long list of references most of which are in the state prison system that tell you I fight hard but I fight fair. Can I throw a few jabs if it’s necessary? Absolutely. But I never fight dirty. Am I tough? I would say the work I’ve done for the last decade has been tough,” she added, citing the homicide and child sex cases she’s been involved with.

Coming into the selection process, Spencer was setting himself up as the establishment candidate with 48 attorneys endorsing him, as well as the mayors of Hoquiam, Aberdeen and Cosmopolis and as the majority of commissioners on the Port of Grays Harbor and the Grays Harbor PUD.

Spencer had letters of endorsement from former Democratic county commissioners Bill Vogler, Mike Murphy, Bob Paylor and Dennis Morrisette.

“After serving Grays Harbor as Sheriff for 19 years and working with you during those years in both your positions as deputy prosecutor and prosecutor I know first hand that your prosecutorial professionalism and aggressive approach to enforcing the law and going after criminals is what the citizens of Grays Harbor want,” Morrisette wrote in an endorsement letter.

“Svoboda supporters knew in a head to head contest with me before the commissioners she would not prevail, thus the need to block my name from the three person list,” Spencer said. “I want you to know this isn’t sour grapes. But importantly, none of these ‘candidates’ talked about public safety, how the prosecutor’s office should be run, or even generally their vision of how to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the office and law enforcement. The only reason I sought the position was because of the mismanagement in that office.”

After last week’s meeting, several Democrats criticized Spencer for “trying to ruin the legacy of Menefee” and criticizing Svoboda too much.

“Katie’s a fine lawyer, I hope she stays if I’m selected as your county prosecutor,” Spencer told the Democrats. “I think she could be trained — she is experienced on the criminal side, but she needs experience on the other side.”

“I’m absolutely sure that Katie Svoboda doesn’t need any further training,” Samuel said to great applause in response. “I want to be clear about that.”