The subdued Democratic campaign for King County Prosecutor

It's a rare opportunity for the Dems to grab it: Styles, politics, and everything else might change, but Republican occupation of the prosecutor's office goes back to the Harry Truman era.
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King County Prosecutor candidates (from top) Dan Satterberg, Bill Sherman, and Keith Scully.

It's a rare opportunity for the Dems to grab it: Styles, politics, and everything else might change, but Republican occupation of the prosecutor's office goes back to the Harry Truman era.

There is something odd about the campaign for King County Prosecutor. Democrats have the best chance in decades to take the office, but so far it's a quiet race. After longtime incumbent Norm Maleng died in May, his chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, seemed anointed by Maleng's family and by much of the legal community as dauphin in a long line of Republicans dating back to the Harry Truman era. Not much has dramatically changed the perception some have that Satterberg will follow Maleng, just as Maleng followed his boss, Christopher T. Bayley in 1978. Historians may correct me, but it's been a solid run of Republican prosecutors interrupted only by Lloyd Shorett for six years in the 1940s and Warren Magnuson for two years in the in the 1930s. It's almost as if the prosecutor's office was coated in a kind of armor, preserved and protected for the GOP despite a huge shift over the years to Democratic dominance in other offices. The long string of GOP victories derives from Maleng, whose integrity, steadiness, and commitment to nonpartisanship in the office denied an opening to a potential Democratic challenger; and from Charles O. Carroll, whose authoritarianism and excesses gave rise to a corrective movement that came from within his own party. Bayley defeated Carroll in the 1970 GOP primary. So Satterberg has not only the party's blessing but, more important, at least as his campaign would suggest, the mantle of moderate, steady leadership that puts him on course to fill the remaining three years of Maleng's term. Unless, of course, voters have something else in mind. That's where two Democrats, Keith Scully and Bill Sherman, come in. They are competing in the Aug. 21 primary for a chance to beat Satterberg in November. (A more prominent Democrat, King County Council member Bob Ferguson, briefly considered a run.) Whoever wins the general election will gain one of the most important elected offices in Washington. The King County Prosecutor not only heads one of the state's largest law firms and makes countless decisions, including whether to seek the death penalty, that person plays a major role in criminal justice across the state as a leading advocate for policies on sentencing, drug and mental health treatment, and municipal law. And since hundreds of lawyers go through the office as employees, the prosecutor serves as mentor to those who go on to serve in private practice or as judges. (Maleng was an exceptionally beloved boss.) Hoping to gain this job are Scully, 34, and Sherman, 39. Both are attractive and articulate but little known. Only Sherman has run before, placing third in the 2006 Democratic primary for the 43rd legislative district. In this race, Sherman bagged many of the prominent Democratic endorsements, such as former Mayor Norm Rice, Mayor Greg Nickels, state House Speaker Frank Chopp, and others. Sherman is on leave from his job as a deputy prosecutor, a position he's held since 2003. He also served as a clerk to federal judges, an attorney in the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, and as an assistant to former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. He graduated from law school in 1999. Scully is a former deputy prosecutor who left that post after six years to take a job as a United Nations war-crimes prosecutor. Returned to Seattle in 2006, he works for the environmental organization Futurewise. He graduated from law school in 1998. The son of a firefighter, Scully also is a former paramedic. He says he has not sought endorsements from elected officials because he wants to remain independent. I got a chance to hear the candidates speak last Saturday at a forum organized by Women in Unity, an African-American organization. Turnout was poor. Maybe six voters attended. Satterberg was a no-show because of a schedule conflict. In their forum comments and in interviews later, Scully and Sherman spoke respectfully of each other, even of Satterberg, though both said they heard of negative campaigning coming from the Republican side. Scully suggested he might look more broadly at changes to the office than Sherman might, but neither positioned himself as a dramatic reformer. Both wanted the criminal justice system to do more for juveniles and drug offenders who need treatment. Sherman said he was disappointed the prosecutor's office had not taken a "leadership role" about issues with accountability in the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff's Office. Scully likes New York City's system of a civilian review board. Sherman pledged to personally prosecute at least one case a year. "What we need is not a caretaker, but a leader," he said. The organization of the office has become rigid and bureaucratic, he said. Scully said "the re-entry" system for convicts transitioning from prison to the community was broken because of cutbacks in the supervision system and inadequate housing and job assistance. He wants to re-organize the fraud division to handle a broader set of cases, not just crimes over $100,000. He wants to create an environmental unit to go after polluters. At 47, Satterberg is now interim head of the King County Prosecutor's Office, where he's worked 22 years, handling cases involving homicides, gangs, drugs, and assault. He served as chief of staff for 17 years. He graduated from law school in 1985. Surprisingly for such a longtimer in leadership of that office, Satterberg goes down a long list of changes he wants to make, such as the handling of involuntary commitments and lower-level drug cases. He defends the office's handling of police misconduct cases and says the office is working behind the scenes to make improvements in the accountability system. Satterberg cites his experience as a key edge over his opponents. He says, for example, that more than 200 deputies in the office have more experience as prosecutor than Sherman. "Experience matters in this job," said Satterberg. "I'm disappointed that Dan has taken the traditional Republican tactic of negative personal attacks," Sherman replied. On his web site, Satterberg emphasizes his closeness to Maleng: "Dan was Norm Maleng's right-hand man for 17 years, and counseled Norm on every major case and issue faced by the office over that span of time." Satterberg promises continuity, maintaining "the legacy of fair and non-political professionalism that has served this office and the citizens of King County for over three decades." Satterberg has racked up for endorsements a long list of prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Attorney John McKay, plus James Kelly of the Urban League, prominent Democratic lawyer Jenny Durkan, and some labor groups. But even so, as a novice candidate largely unknown to voters, Satterberg is no shoo-in. GOP stalwarts may be surprised at Satterberg's style. Rather than talk tough, Giuliani-style, about law and order, Satterberg is very much like his old boss, kinder and gentler in tone. At his campaign kickoff July 19, Satterberg talked about helping kids, getting drug offenders out of prisons and into treatment, "leading the nation in compassion," and greeting low-level offenders with "a warm shower, hot soup, and a case manager, instead of a concrete holding cell." It's entertaining to consider what tough-guy Carroll might have thought about his interim successor's blatantly sentimental speech, one that also quoted John Lennon, that pot-smoking, war-protesting, posing-in-the-nude-with-Yoko hippie. But then, Satterberg also found a way to work in another revolutionary, J.P. Patches. Doubtless, Carroll would have just sat there, gritting his teeth about the soft talk but at least acknowledging the result, a GOP ownership of sorts of that office. And if Satterberg wins this time, it's likely he'll stay there a long, long time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.