Anacortes City Council member Liz Lovelett was sworn in late Tuesday, Feb. 5, as Washington state’s newest senator, to represent the 40th Legislative District.
Members of the San Juan and Whatcom County councils, and the Skagit County Commission, voted to appoint Lovelett at a joint meeting in Mount Vernon. Lovelett replaces Kevin Ranker, who resigned on the eve of the current session.
Lovelett had the support of all three members of the San Juan County Council and two of the three Skagit County commissioners. This was enough to win her the seat, as each of the three counties was given equal voting strength.
That meant that votes by Whatcom Council members were worth three-sevenths of a vote, to one each for members of the other two county bodies. The only Whatcom Council member to vote for Lovelett was Tyler Byrd. All others voted “no” for Lovelett, except for Rud Browne and Barbara Brenner, who abstained.
Browne said before the vote that the whole process of nominating the three candidates—Lovelett, former 40th District Rep. Kristine Lytton, and labor leader Trevor Smith—was “fundamentally undemocratic.”
Democratic Party precinct committee officers from the 40th District nominated Lytton, Lovelett and Smith, in that order, for consideration Tuesday by the three county councils.
Browne, who chairs the Whatcom County Council, had wanted to be considered for Ranker’s seat, but Democrats disqualified him because he is a current member of the Whatcom County Council and would be in a position to make the appointment. Browne on Jan. 25 had sent 40th District PCOs a legal opinion commissioned by the Washington State Association of Counties, which stated that acting county commissioners are eligible but must recuse themselves from the vote on the appointment. This argument did not win over the party leadership. The PCOs nominated the three finalists without the chance to consider either Browne or Jamie Stephens, a San Juan County Council member who also was interested in the seat.
“I have no complaint about the character of the nominees that stand before us,” Browne said at the joint meeting, ”but the justification for preventing consideration of all 13 members (of the three county councils) won’t be found in the rule book of a free and fair democratic society.” Browne cited the constitutional right of every citizen to both vote and serve in public office.
Even though Lytton received the most votes from PCOs, Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt moved to consider Lovelett first. Because she received a majority of votes, neither Lytton nor Smith were considered by the 13 county leaders.
Lovelett, who was serving her sixth year on the Anacortes City Council, was primary author of an affordable housing strategic plan for the city and cited that work as her proudest achievement while in office. She also supported a new rule passed in Anacortes that prevents the long-term lease or sale of Anacortes water rights to outside corporations.
Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt liked Lovelett because she spoke forcefully about how the state Legislature saddles city and county governments with “unfunded mandates” that put a financial burden on municipalities.
“The big hole we have in the Legislature is people who understand local government and the challenges they face,” Dahlstedt said.
Lovelett will report to Olympia immediately and take the seat Ranker had held since 2009.
“There’s going to be a little bit of catch-up going into the session, but I’m a fast learner and trial by fire is one of my specialties,” Lovelett said.
Ranker resigned Friday, Jan. 12, after he was accused by a staffer of touching her inappropriately and making unwanted sexual advances during the 2010 session. (As any reporter or media-savvy politician will tell you, late Friday is the ideal time to drop bad news.) An independent investigation, concluded last week, determined that Ranker harassed a member of his staff, Ann Larson, and created a hostile environment for her in her next job.
Democrats have been strangely quiet on the matter of Ranker’s misconduct toward a woman who worked for him, even after he admitted to violating the Senate’s anti-harassment policy. As of Tuesday morning, no official statements had appeared from the Washington State Democratic Party, the 40th District Democrats or the Whatcom Democrats. Then again, maybe there’s nothing to say. Ranker was admired by local liberals, especially for his work on the environment. And he had already resigned, so maybe best not to beat a dead horse.
In a statement posted to his Facebook page on Feb. 1, Ranker managed to sound both contrite and defiant. He said he resigned not because his role as state senator had been compromised by his actions; rather, the media was to blame for airing Larson’s grievances in public, before the investigation had concluded. Ranker said he hoped “this first test of our procedures can help inform and improve how the Senate moves forward in the future.” He also took credit for new Senate policies intended to better protect people facing harassment.
“I ... was one of the Senate leaders who pushed for the updated policies used in this investigation so that anyone, regardless of the accuser or the accused, can come forward safely to report mistreatment. What we did not anticipate in our efforts to create a fair, transparent process is the toll on all parties when a parallel, public process plays out in the media concurrent to investigation.”
Ranker explained away Larson’s accusations of sexual advances, saying he was only being “flirtatious.” But he also recognized that his actions were nonetheless inappropriate, given their past sexual relationship. He also suggested that on the spectrum of #MeToo transgressions, his was on the milder side.
“Did I treat her in a way that was different than others as a result of our previous relationship? Likely yes. But that does not make my actions acceptable. While in the position of power as a boss, one must consider the formality of the workplace; all employees should feel supported and successful in their job,” Ranker said in his statement. “We must recognize that looking the other way for lesser actions creates a society that can be pathetically accepting of the worst offenders. Otherwise, there will be no real progress.”
Larson’s statement that Ranker yelled at and belittled her may have been softened by the statements of witnesses, who said that Ranker talked to a lot of people that way. From the report: “Many witnesses stated that (Ranker) engaged in that type of conduct many times with respect to many people when he was displeased with their positions on issues he was passionate about. Witnesses provided numerous examples of (Ranker) expressing negative opinions in unprofessionally harsh terms, and with aggressive vocal tones and body language.”
“It does not matter that I am passionate about the issues I work on,” Ranker said in his statement. “What matters is that I recognize the impacts of my actions.”
When news of Larson’s accusations broke, Ranker had said he believed he would be exonerated of the allegations.
Larson was motivated to tell people in Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration in October that she was going to go to the media with her harassment claims against Ranker after watching the way the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee handled accusations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.