Election 2020

Compare Candidates: Thurston County Commissioner District 1 Primary

Six challengers seek to unseat incumbent Hutchings

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One of the curious political realities in Thurston County is every presidential election year we also vote for two of our three county commissioners. And although most of us get pretty excited about who’s running for president, our election of the majority of our county commission probably has a bigger impact on our everyday lives (think: taxes, roads, deputies, jails, and courts). Given the relatively small electorate of our county versus our nation, your vote counts for much more.  

As you read this, your ballot probably sits in that place where special mail goes. Before you open the envelope and apply pen to paper, I expect (hope) you try to sort out the seven candidates who filed for the county commissioner race in District 1. You will get to choose between John “Hutch” Hutchings, C Davis, Carolina Mejia, David Gaw, and Rory Summerson, Bud Blake, and Tom Bolender. To add confusion to this crowd, Hutchings currently holds this position, but Blake was also a commissioner until two years ago when he lost to Tye Menser. But undeterred, he moved to Hutching’s district and is now challenging him. 

A point about the county commission race to keep in mind.: the primary is only in District 1 (middle third of the county). So if you are in District 2 (east third) or District 3 (west third) you won’t see this race on your ballot. But the top two who advance will be on the November ballot county-wide. So keep reading! Or bookmark this page for October….

As we did with the 22nd Legislative District Position 2 primary, JOLT is profiling this highly competitive race. I interviewed cive candidates (the ones who answered –– thank you!) and asked them a series of questions, which hopefully will provide insight to their positions and characters. First some introductions:

John (Hutch) Hutchings (Independent) He’s a former Olympia police officer and Tenino Chief of Police and county commissioner for the past four years. Hutchings is soft spoken and thoughtful, and shows interest and curiosity on a variety of topics.

C Davis (Republican) Davis described his career as “a diverse mix of 23 years in corporate work, the arts and small business,” and has been a musician for more than 30 years. He’s a lively speaker with many opinions.

Carolina Mejia  (Democrat) Mejia works for the Thurston County Superior Court. She is exuberant and tells her story with a focused sincerity.

David Gaw  (Democrat) Gaw works on occupational safety and health at the Department of Labor and Industries and has a long career as an energy project and efficiency manager. He has the straight-forward, no-nonsense approach of a technical kind of guy.

Rory Summerson (Democrat) Summerson is a service manger for a local business and serves on several non-profit boards. He speaks eagerly and with devotion to issues he cares about.

Walter (Bud) Blake (Independent) Blake served for 25 years in the Army and was a county commissioner from 2015 through 2018. He did not reply to emails or a phone message.

Thomas (Tom) Bolender  (No Party Preference) He did not reply to emails and has no phone on record.

The Money Race

I checked the PDC to look at the candidates’ donations. Here’s the most recent, as of mid-July (listed by totals  –– “large donations” are over $100):

Blake raised $19,221 from 88 donations, for an average donation of $218. Large donations came from himself, Olympia Master Builders, several real estate firms, other building trade businesses and from individuals.

Mejia raised $19,091 from 117 donations, for an average donation of $163.  Large donations came from herself, several liberal and women’s political action committees, state Democrats,and individuals.

Summerson raised $16,517 from 152 donations, for an average donation of $108. Large donations came from himself, state Democrats, and individuals.

Gaw raised $11,432 from 44 donations, for an average donation of $260. Large donations came from himself, state Democrats and individuals.

Hutchings: raised $11,320 from 42 donations, for an average donation of $270. Large donations came from himself, several local businesses and individuals.

Davis raised $880 from 14 donations, for an average donation of $63, all from small individual contributions.

Bolender is using mini-reporting, so no campaign contributions are reported. The limits of mini-reporting are a maximum of $5,000 total contributions and no individual contribution above $500.

Seven questions

JOLT came up with several diverse questions to help you learn about the candidates. Some are philosophical, some crystal ball gazing, and some may sound like a job interview (which it is, really). You can research their policies on their websites, but we’d like to help you know more about them as people.

Why are you running for office?

Hutchings cites a “life devoted to public service.” He mentions his 35 year career in law enforcement, several nonprofit boards, Tenino Chamber of Commerce, the Lions Club, and the Rotary Club.

“I am addressing the challenges in my community,” he said.

Davis tells of how he’s lived in the county for 27 years. He describes how when he was first here, he walked around town and played music.

“There was hardly any crime," he said. "Over 27 years, I’ve seen the homeless population grow to thousands, drug use go from a little pot to meth and other serious drugs. You can’t go downtown, can’t take kids downtown and the rural areas aren’t safe anymore.”

Mejia says it was not something she planned.

However, “Working for the county I started paying closer attention," she said. "I was unhappy with policies. A lot of people are unaware of what a commissioner does. I wanted to help people be aware of the issues, and what they do.”

Gaw sees the need for “an element of competency and understanding of role of commissioner.” He grew up here and saw the transformation of the county. His career transitioned from renewable energy and conservation to serving on the Thurston Climate Action Team board.

“I’m committed and experienced.," he said. "I can provide added value that is needed by the community. The county is in the same space it always has been –– the status quo with the homeless and other issues. I can bring the benefits of my experience to the community.”

Summerson wants to be “a voice at the table for youth, renters, people in the working community, in marginalized communities.” He explains he represents a “section of the population we’ don’t see much” and that he’s “more progressive than most candidates, especially the incumbent." He describes a variety of issues he’s concerned with, including housing, health care and the environment.

"Of the three Democrats, I have a perspective with all of the concerns," he said. "I’ve been homeless and a small business manager. Other candidates are in government or law enforcement, and they are part of the problem. I’m looking from outside the government.”

What famous contemporary or historical figure is your inspiration for running for office, and why?

Hutchings: Mother Theresa.

“She was helping the homeless, had compassion for the homeless and those suffering from mental illness, which is not just an Olympia problem, it’s national. Putting them in jail doesn’t solve the problem. You should work with compassion. There are people who deserve help and the government’s help.”

She also answered she admires Abraham Lincoln.

“He was bold, led great changes culturally, and surrounded himself with good people," she said. "He was also a compassionate person.”

Davis: Abraham Lincoln.

“The history is really important," he said. "Republicans ended Jim Crow, gave women the vote, gave citizenship to Blacks. Richard Nixon created the EPA. There’s a core that follows traditional values, such as the constitution, liberty, freedom, due process, and equal protection. Lincoln was a constitutional figure”.

He added, “I also like Donald Trump because he’s not a lawyer and not a politician. Neither am I”.

Mejia: Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor.

“They are an inspiration and people I’ve looked up to," she said. "I like their life stories. For RBG: she was able to beat the odds in a male-dominated field and she made her role an important one. Sotomayor rose up from poverty. They are people to look up to.”

Gaw: His father.

"He instilled a model of behaviors –– resourceful, work ethic, integrity, quality of work," he said. "The ability to be resilient. He was a Burmese-Chinese man who learned to deal with racism and got people to see him as a person who contributes. He gave me a lot of inspiration when I was entering an industry –– energy –– that is predominantly white.”

Also Simon Sinek.

“He is a recent one," he said. "He questions why we do what we do, how we collaborate and work and bring in an element of curiosity. Regardless of our role, we should do it with curiosity and work with others, leverage understanding and add value.”

Summerson: Bernie Sanders.

"I got involved after 2016 election and kept involved," he said. "He's the person who had more sway over getting me involved.”

Describe a public policy issue you worked on . What were the outcomes?

Hutchings describes the issue of the Habitat Conservation Plan as “one of the biggest in the last four years”. He explains how the federal government pushed the county into it  with the Mazama Pocket Gopher, then a butterfly, a bird, and a frog.

“It was brand new for the county and the state," he said. "We were the only county addressing the pocket gopher. We engaged the State Department of Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, environmental and development staff, farmers, business, Olympia Master Builders and homeowners.”

He goes on to present a long and winding road of process, with no guidance on how to do it and review after review.

“In a March meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, I threw down the gauntlet," he said. "Landowners and builders need to know. It costs the county because people aren’t building.”

The  county is waiting to hear if the plan is accepted and funded.

Davis said it was the $30 car tab.

“I spoke at city council [meetings] about misuse of taxpayer’s money," he said. "I talked at Lacey and Olympia. Olympia didn’t seem to care. Fifteen minutes later Eyman showed up and said the same thing. The important part was the following week I spoke at the Lacey City Council. Lenny Greenstein said ‘We don’t have a chance, but at least let’s try’. I got up and looked at the swing vote. ‘If you vote against the $30 car tab, you will pay in the Fall’. Lacey was the only city not to pass this resolution.”

Mejia discussed policy issues in the past related to immigration.

"When Obama passed DACA, it was very important to the immigrant community," she said. "I was living in Tennessee at the time, and went to D.C. on a couple of occasions. A lot of people I worked with got the temporary protective status, which was really important. We were able to get some laws changed, like the requirement that if they entered illegally and were deported, they had to spend 10 years outside the country.”

Gaw explains how there was a bill passed in 2015, signed by the governor, that provided protection to customers’ energy data.

“I worked on this while working at a utility (Cowlitz PUD)," Gaw said. "I worked with WPUDA and the local chamber and other local people. It gave us the ability to use and manage energy consumption data to help improve planning and strategic direction. It included appropriate restrictions for how data was used. I went through the whole process, wrote the resolution, got it to the board on time, got it passed, and helped implement it.”

Summerson describes his work on a nonprofit board of directors that did county contracting for house camps.

“We are highly focused on services and connecting people to emergency services and advocacy, clothing, food, cleaning material, training, counseling, preventing the worsening of conditions for the houseless population and domestic and sexual violence," he said. "Our success was retaining services with a contract from the county. It addresses the needs of the homeless, including LBGTQ+, domestic survivors, and helping people return to be actors in the community.”

How will being an elected official change your life?

Hutchings: “Let me go get my wife," he said.

He explains that he knew he would be busy mornings, afternoons, evenings, and weekends.

“Issues come at me like spaceships at warp speed," he said.  "There are issues on the table, then disappear, then [there's more, then an emergency. And now the pandemic. It’s my first pandemic. I’ve got to get it right.”

He described some of his work and said he’s busy all the time, but “I have gotten to meet some really cool people, incredible people who deliver services. Moms who had babies with syndromes from addiction. It’s heart to heart, helping people.”

He says there are things that keep him up at night.

“The Sheriff’s office is so underfunded," he said. "Citizens deserve a deputy to show up on time. I’m worried about deputies’ health."  

Davis starts by saying the county budget needs to be cut, which will be a lot of hard work.

“Everyone has their hands out for government money, and you don’t give them money, they’ll get mad," he said." I’ve been around for a while and I’m o.k. with them disliking me. No matter what you do, someone won’t like me. You can’t make everybody happy. People say they’ll make everyone happy, but you can’t.”

Mejia said the position will put her in the spotlight way more than she's used to.

"I’m used to working in the background,” she said.

She explained how she’s already involved in the community.

“It will help me learn more about the community," she said. "I want to help to build the bridge between the community and county government, especially with local government. My personal life won’t change that much, but I won’t have much free time. I’m a community person, so I’d just become more of a community person.”

Gaw believes it will create positive opportunities.

“I’m engaged in multiple areas of the community, with environmental issues and the workplace. It will be very different regarding work, engaging the community, working with the county and other jurisdictions. It will be a vehicle to be more of a contributor and bring in perspectives of the community.”

He doesn’t see it as a big thing.

“My father drove into me that we have to invest ourselves with things we believe in and engage the community and bring out quality and transparency. It seems natural to me, so it won’t be a significant change. It will change timing and schedules. I’ll still contribute in the same manner.”

Summerson knows that the commission is a thankless job, and stress levels will go up.

“There will be a lot of stressors for providing for our community," he said. "I’m very aware of them, and combine them in my world view.”

He sees the position as a growth opportunity.

“I don’t know everything, so I’ll continue to learn, seeing limitations in our community and trying to make progress," he said. "I’m confident that we can make social changes, which will benefit me, too, as an individual.”

Describe a really difficult situation where you were in conflict with other people, but you were able to resolve it to a good outcome.

Hutchings responded that COVID was a new issue that touches public health and economic development. He gets emails about masking and Sheriff’s enforcement. It shut down much of the business community, so people lost jobs and health benefits.

“It’s heart-breaking," he said. "Right now we are engaging in a different way with development, assisting businesses with grants to help reopen stores, getting employees back into jobs."

He continues, “It’s full-contact budgeting right now. How do we reduce services without losing people, without furloughs and layoffs? There are three different people on the commission with three different value judgments.”

He described how they are trying to fill a $5 million gap from lost sales tax revenue.

“I don’t know when it will stop," he said. "We’re trying to get visitors here. Hoteliers are seeing some uptick. It’s scary. The mean age is 37, but it’s hitting little kids. We need to do masking, cleaning, social distancing. Some people have set minds, but you need to still be respectful and use the best science and evidence we have. We can’t have the sheriff arresting everyone.”

Davis tells a story from 2018, when he was downtown in Olympia.

“On the street, there were a bunch of anarchists, and one of them recognized me," he said. "She started swearing and yelling. After five or 10 minutes of that, I said ‘Would you like a civil conversation?’ We discussed civil responsibility. Other anarchist friends came over. We talked for about an hour and a half.”

Mejia described her previous job as a law clerk and office manager, where she worked a lot in mediation.

“I’ve done that a lot," she said. "One of the first things in the process to resolve conflict is communication. Things can be misinterpreted, so I believe in an open door policy.”

She also believes that consistent leadership is what people want.

“Those two are very important to address relationships and conflict to come to a decision.”

Gaw described a time in his career when he had less experience while working for the WSU energy program. He was given a project to manage a federal contract, and negotiate to maintain service.

“I had to do due diligence," he said. "It involved five different states, and many wanted to discontinue service. We were providing technical assistance over five states from a centralized location. I gathered perspectives, and many didn’t want to continue. It was a lot of conflict. I had to listen to concerns, justify what we were doing from a cost-benefit perspective. I brought in policy issues and how we did energy management planning and included technical assistance. I tried to align the value aspects around the work, and got them to understand the value of the work.”

 Summerson said he encounters lot of complaints and concerns in his on-site services and field work as service manager. He describes his most difficult situation.

“One customer was suffering from dementia, and claimed something was stolen," he said.  "I took two weeks of dialog. Our priority was the concerns of the customer, and proving nothing was stolen. But it had a positive ending.”

He described how he kept up dialogue, provided some credits for service, and got good word-of-mouth afterwards.

“It was difficult," he said. "There were a couple of phone calls with accusations. It was a test of my character to maintain a happy customer.  Also, as a gay man with piercings and tatoos, initial perceptions may make a customer apprehensive. But after discussions we are on good terms. We’ve had really good resolutions to conflict.”

Describe the number one accomplishment you would like to achieve at the end of your term.

Hutchings wonders how do you pick just one.

"Fish barriers and culverts is huge," he said.

He felt that too many constituents would experience an impact on their quality of life. “Am I an environmentalist?" he said. "I don’t know. Once you pave it over it’s gone. But we need development too, need to get both.”

He also would like to get the HCP completed, and see the human rights commission be successful. He mentions a show called Modern Warrior Live, about a veteran’s experience from joining through training until post-deployment.

“You will understand what a combat veteran experiences," he said. "After the show you get a list of resources. Thurston County is a “Purple Heart” county. Veterans never turned their back on me, and I won’t turn my back.”

Davis said there are two things.

“A couple months ago I’d say set up a plan for an appropriate budget to repair the existing courthouse without a new one," he said. "We need a good plan to do that, and budget the money to do it. Repair the courthouse we have and bring it up to standards. But now, public safety is number one. I want to see a county with no anarchist violence. I was at the county commission today to speak out against defunding the Sheriff’s office. It’s imperative we ensure the safety of the people of Thurston County.”

Mejia believes that one of the biggest issues now and for a few years will be recovering financially from the pandemic.

“That will be a priority for me," she said. "Getting out of the deficit might not be possible in four years, but I will try. I want to reestablish the rainy day fund and get the county in a place of financial stability. I have a couple ideas but need to look at this more.”

She discussed the budgets with other departments, where many are facing  very low resources such as staff shortages.

“I want to bring in new jobs like renewable energy," she said. "Let’s see what we can cut in the criminal justice system. It’s a big part of the budget. For example, pre-trial services can reduce recidivism and costs. Drug court system is also a good example. I want to foster partnerships with other organizations, like Child Protection Services (CPS).”

Gaw said “the one big thing is climate crisis and its challenges.

He wants to see implementation of the county climate plan.

“I want to implement mitigation practices and measure its success, align with policies of local jurisdictions," he said. "Greener homes, cut off natural gas, progress on transportation such as electric vehicles, carpools, busses, biking, and walking.”

Summerson wants to see county-hosted mitigation sites in unincorporated Thurston, where there are currently no mitigation sites for homeless camps.

Cities host some sites, but the county needs a managed site too, to offset the burden to the cities," Summerson said. "One of my overarching goals is to find space for the homeless. There are 800-1,000 people per year. It’s increasing, and job losses and shortfalls in the economy will make it worse. They need the services. As a commissioner I’d be heavily focused on that.”

He believes kicking the homeless out without an alternative just makes the problems worse, including loss of possessions and connections to services.

“It's also a misuse of police," he said. "I’ve seen it on the street. Instead of arresting people and complicating their lives, and adding to the PTSD, we should prioritize mental health services.”

What are a few of your favorite books, and why do you like those authors?

Hutchings: “That’s easy!," he said.  "Centennial by James Michener smacked me between the eyes. I couldn’t put it down. You get attached to the animals at the beginning. Utterly fascinating.”

He also mentioned Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

“How they built castles, how the builder put his mark on the masonry," he said. "When visiting England, I was shown the marks, right from Pillars of the Earth! I love historical fiction.”

Davis: Hamlet (Shakespeare’s play). “I’m always interested in conspiracies and the way people deal with them.”

Swann’s Way by Proust. “Very interesting read into the imagination of a person. The human psyche is fascinating.”

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869, by Steven Ambrose.

“It’s about the building of the transcontinental railroad," he said. "Great story! What I really liked was that Ambrose said ‘I started out wanting to bash this project, but after doing the research I had a different idea.’ The transformative aspect of that impresses me.”

 Mejia: The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo.

“It was a short read, but it was very insightful," she said. "It gives a view that there is a vision you have in life, but it might not be what it was meant to be. Life doesn’t work the way we expect. It throws you for a loop. In the search for the pot of gold, you might encounter obstacles, but as long as you are enjoying life it will work out in the end. I like the Harry Potter series, too.”

Gaw: Call of the Wild, by Jack London.

“It’s about individual survival, the fight to survive," he said. "To me it meant I wanted to contribute so we could survive personally and socially.”

The Stand by Stephen King.

“It's surreal and dark, from the lens of where I’m at right now," he said. "We need to get to a place where we aren’t destroying what’s around us. These are the drivers of why I’m still trying to contribute. It forces me to think about my role and what’s I’m after and better how we do things. We’ve invested a lot, but we haven’t gotten there yet."

Summerson: Dante’s Inferno (Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy).

“It’s the idea of a different point of view, as someone not that religious, of the experiences of a historical and religious point of view," he said. "It has a poetic style and historical way of writing, representing cultural ideas. Looking at the narrative of religion as it evolved over the years. I want to understand why some people think that way.”

Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle. “Growing up, I liked fantasy novels," he said. "It strikes a balance of social constructs and a fantasy narrative. It’s a fun series. But I read a lot of technical manuals these days.”

And a Dollop of Analysis

Now that you now know a little bit more about the candidates, I’d like to give you my impressions. I haven’t chosen or endorsed anyone. Here is a brief “compare and contrast:"

Hutchings: Hutch (as he prefers to be called) impresses me as thoughtful and balanced. Thurston has a recent trend in Republicans calling themselves “Independent” (and getting elected in a “blue” county), and although I suspect Hutch has a history and connections to the GOP, his voting record suggests he can be genuinely independent. He’s undoubtedly to the right of the three Democrats in the race, but appears to be more moderate than Blake or Davis. As the true incumbent, he has a good chance of advancing to the general election.

Davis, as you can infer from his comments, falls clearly into the right-wing “populist” advocacy mold modeled by Tim Eyman and other local gadflies. He will be a long-shot, without the history of Gary Edwards and considering the tendency of the county to lean blue. But he’s clear about where he stands.

Mejia knows county government, and as the one female candidate, has a lot going for her. Her background in thejustice system could be valuable in finding ways to balance the county budget. She is enthusiastic and cares about issues. This might give her an edge among the progressive candidates.

Gaw is obviously smart and thoughtful. He’s passionate about battling climate change (I am too), although he might be perceived as a “one issue” candidate. His technical background and analytical approach could be an asset on the board.

Summerson may turn out to be the surprise “dark horse” in this race. He is passionate and well informed about homelessness and other critical local issues. He is both a progressive and an outsider. If he is successful, it will bring a dynamic to the county commission that we probably haven’t seen before.

Blake didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but he’s known by his term as a commissioner, where he took more conservative positions than Hutchings. He’s raised a lot of cash, and his PDC filings show support from the building community. He lost to Menser by a whisker two years ago. With seven candidates splitting the vote, anything can happen, and he may get his shot at another term in the general election.

Bolender is not mounting much of a campaign, other than some yard signs, so he probably won’t have much of an effect on the election.

And finally: this election affects the everyday lives of everyone in this county. Do your own research, look at the candidates' qualifications and policies, and let’s make good choices!

Paul Pickett is a member of JOLT's Board of Advisors and formerly an elected official for two different offices in Thurston County.  Read his comparison of candidates running for the 22nd Legislative District here. 

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