MOUNT VERNON — Anacortes City Councilwoman Liz Lovelett was appointed Tuesday to the state Senate, filling the seat vacated by former Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.
At a joint meeting of the governing boards of Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties, the members voted to support the two-term councilwoman to represent the 40th Legislative District.
“I am honored,” Lovelett said after being sworn in. “This is going to be an incredible experience.”
Lovelett was selected over former state Rep. Kristine Lytton and local labor leader Trevor Smith.
The 40th District encompasses northwest Skagit County — including Anacortes — southwest Whatcom County and all of San Juan County.
Ranker resigned Jan. 11 amid a sexual harassment investigation, according to the Associated Press.
In a report released Friday, investigators determined he harassed a former aide and, after she left, he created a hostile work environment for her at her new employer.
Lovelett will serve through 2019, and the seat will be up for election in November. The winner of that election will serve through 2020 — the end of Ranker’s term.
With the legislative session underway, Lovelett said she needs to hit the ground running and will focus on relationship building.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the 13 members of the county governing boards interviewed each candidate. Lovelett took the opportunity to discuss her experience in local government.
She said she was the only candidate who had personal knowledge of how state policy affects local governments. Unfunded mandates, she said, put local governments in difficult situations, forcing them to pay for things they couldn’t vote on and may not be able to afford.
“That viewpoint is critical in Olympia,” she said.
Of her record in Anacortes, she said she is most proud of her work on affordable housing. She cofounded a City Council committee on the topic and was influential in the passage of the county’s affordable housing plan.
In the state Senate, she said she wants to strengthen the state’s commitment to affordable housing, mental health care and environmental protection.
“I wish Liz the best,” Lytton said after the vote. “She will do a great job.”
Lytton said she was unsure if she would run for the seat in November.
In voting on the appointment, each of the three counties got three votes, split evenly between the representatives on their governing boards. Skagit and San Juan counties have three-member boards, while Whatcom has a seven-member council.
Lovelett earned 5.6 of the nine votes. Of the Skagit County commissioners, Ken Dahlstedt and Ron Wesen supported her.
Her appointment was counter to the recommendation of the 40th District Democratic Party, which recommended Lytton in a vote Saturday.
Dahlstedt said his support for Lovelett was all about her experience in local government.
“We have a huge void in the Legislature of people who understand the challenge of funding local government,” he said.
He said Lovelett has a proven track record on affordable housing — something the county severely needs.
In explaining his vote, he said he wasn’t happy with what the state House did on mental health care when Lytton was serving.
Ahead of the vote, several members of the three county boards expressed concern with the way the appointment has been carried out by the state Democratic Party.
Whatcom County Council Chair Rud Browne and San Juan County Council Chair Jamie Stephens both sought appointment to Ranker’s seat but were told by the state party that — based on a 1987 opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office — members of county councils or commissions cannot be appointed to a vacant seat in the Legislature.
That opinion hasn’t been clarified or challenged since it was written.
Browne said there is no basis for this opinion in state law or the Constitution.
He said elected county officials are often the most prepared to serve in the Legislature, and the appointment process unfairly barred qualified candidates.
Dahlstedt, who has helped fill four vacancies, said as a Democrat he was frustrated with the way the state party has chosen to handle this.
“This is the most divisive, unprofessional process I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, also a Democrat, expressed similar frustrations with the process and said she would support action from the Washington State Association of Counties to challenge the opinion in the future.
Lovelett is legally allowed to continue serving on the Anacortes City Council while she is a senator, but she said she was unsure whether she would do so.
She said she expects the council would rather have a member who can be present year-round.