The Pierce and King County councils on Saturday, January 7 approved the appointment of newly-elected State Rep. Phil Fortunato (R-31) to the district’s Senate seat vacated by Pam Roach in the wake of her election to the Pierce County Council.
In November, Fortunato, of Auburn, defeated Democratic challenger Lane Walther, 57.7 percent to 42.2 percent. The House Position Two opening in the 31st came after incumbent Democrat Chris Hurst chose not to run for re-election in 2016. He defeated Fortunato in 2014 and prior to that, held the seat since 2006, and from 1998 to 2002. Fortunato previously served in the State House between 1998 and 2000, representing the 47th District.
Local Republican officials earlier this week nominated to replace Roach with – in order of preference – Fortunato, David Patrick, or Cheryl Marshall, a former legislative assistant for Roach. Both other nominees voiced their support for Fortunato’s appointment during the January 7 meeting.
“We need Phil to represent us in the Senate,” Marshall said. “He has proven he can win elections against all odds.”
The sentiment was shared by Marc Perez, Pierce County Republican Party Deputy Leader, for the county’s 2nd district. “He (Fortunato) knows the 31st, his passion is serving the people in the 31st,” he said during public comment. “They’ve already elected him as their representative.”
First elected to the State Senate in 1990, Roach resigned from her Senate seat after she successfully ran for Pierce County Council Position 2 in the November, 2016 election. The Washington State Constitution requires a vacated seat must be filled by someone of the same party and district. In a legislative district such as the 31st that includes multiple counties, joint county council approval is needed for replacements.
Appointee Cites Business Experience
During the Saturday joint council meeting, Fortunato accented his background as a 40-year contractor and cited his knowledge of international trade and the business climate. He also described himself as Western Washington’s top expert on federal Clean Water Act compliance, saying someone’s lawyer “is likely to hire me” if they get sued for violating it.
Nominated by local Republican officials to replace Fortunato in the State House were Sharon Hanek, Morgan Irwin, and Ted DeVol. The joint county councils on January 7th selected Irwin.
There had been worries among some 31st district Republican officials such as Colleen Wise that the joint councils might appoint a nominee other than Fortunato in order to make the seat more competitive for Democrats in the upcoming November special election. Wise is the leader of the party’s district organization.
While Fortunato and Patrick said they would run this fall, Marshall said she would not.
Must ‘Listen To The PCOs’
Prior to the councils’ vote, Wise told Lens that “You hope the councils will listen to the PCOs (precinct committee officers).”
State Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) told Lens he isn’t worried about the party losing either the 31st District Senate or House seat to Democrats this November. “I think it’s (31st District) become pretty safe for Republicans,” he said. However, he added, “There are a lot of independent qualities” there.
Washington Secretary of State elections results show that while the State Senate seat and House Position One in the 31st have been solidly Republican for most of the last three decades, House Position Two has over the long haul see-sawed between Republicans and Democrats.
Senate Majority In The Balance, In 45th
To hold the appointed seat, Fortunato will have to win a special election this coming November. Another Senate special election in November, in the 45th District, is considered especially key for the fiscally conservative majority coalition caucus to hold its slim advantage in the chamber. The majority currently has 25 votes, including 24 Republicans plus State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35th). Democrats hold 24 seats in the Senate.
In there 45th, Republican former State Sen. Dino Rossi has been selected to fill the seat of the late Sen. Andy Hill. Rossi will not run in the special election, and both parties are in the early stages of fielding candidates for the crucial contest.
Hurst Won’t Seek 31st Senate Seat In ’17
Hurst, who chose for personal reasons not to run for re-election to his State House seat in the 31st last year, told Lens in an interview he does not plan to challenge Fortunato in the 2017 special election for Senate, but added, “I might consider it at some point in time.”
Hurst said Fortunato has a good chance of making it through the special election in the “off-off-year” of 2017, with sharply lower voter turnout, but could face a stiff challenge in 2018 if a candidate “with the right DNA emerges.” Often, said Hurst, that is not someone with a background of political party activity, but instead a local business person or other individual with deep community ties.
Additional reporting by Matt Rosenberg