The annual Lincoln Dinner recently held in Oak Harbor was the chosen venue for several Republicans, two of whom are currently in office, to announce their candidacy for their respective positions.
County Commissioner Mac McDowell, who is running unopposed thus far, will keep his hat in the ring while his appointed board colleague, Phil Bakke, will officially run to keep his seat. Reece Rose, who applied for the position Bakke was ultimately given, will challenge the former planning director in the August primary election.
Political newcomer Linda Haddon, having kicked off her campaign at a recent breakfast, “re-announced” her decision to take on longtime state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat.
McDowell, vying for his fifth term, outlined his priorities while highlighting the accomplishments that have kept voters stopping at his name on the ballot.
His “report card” for the 15 years he’s been a commissioner shows a county in solid shape financially. He said frugal spending and calculated planning have led to reserves more than sufficient for a possible emergency or rainy day.
“I’ve always been tight with money,” he said Monday. “We’re much more cost effective than most counties. Our primary duty as commissioners is to oversee the financial condition of the county.”
McDowell voiced his disdain for city, county and state governments’ frequent moaning about lack of funds.
“It’s not a lack of funding,” the District 2 commissioner said. “It’s a lack of self-control. Island County is in great financial shape because it doesn’t have this ‘pie in the sky’ idea of revenue. We live within the money we have.”
Since his first day in office, McDowell said he has made public safety his No. 1 priority. “People feel safe in Island County because of that,” he said.
McDowell has also placed the county’s groundwater as a high priority.
“We’re the No. 1 county of 39 counties in Washington with our knowledge of groundwater,” he said. “The state calls us with questions.” A hydrologist has been on staff for a number of years now.
The former Navy pilot and Naval Academy graduate has made protecting Whidbey Island Naval Air Station a continual goal, traveling to Washington, D.C. annually to apprise top brass on the continued joint, positive relations.
“I’ve been going there each year since the base faced closure in 1991,” McDowell said. “NAS Whidbey is relatively unknown from my personal experience with upper-leadership in the Pentagon. I take back information those leaders may not otherwise have about the county and Oak Harbor, and their great relationships with the base.”
In addition to down-zoning around both Navy runways, keeping the density down in hazardous areas to no more than one house per five acres, the commissioner said the county has changed the building code to require more noise attenuation in high noise areas. Buyers and lessees are also notified of higher noise levels in specific areas prior to documents changing hands.
McDowell said through the county’s policy-making, the rural character of the two islands have been preserved. He vowed to continue supporting programs that retain the natural feel of the county.
The incumbent and professional engineer said, after 15 years, he continues to relish fulfilling of campaign promises. He said he refuses to pander to special interest groups.
“It’s always important to be straightforward and straight-talking when you’re campaigning,” McDowell said. “And then when you’re in office, you do what you said.”
Phil Bakke, a product of South Whidbey, returned to the island after college and worked his way up the county ladder, finally settling in as planning director. He ascended to the top rung when he was appointed in September to fill the position that Mike Shelton vacated after accepting a job in Olympia.
Bakke said even with his intimate knowledge of county procedure, learning curves as commissioner have been large and time-consuming.
“It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of work,” the professional land use planner said. “My hat’s off to folks who came into this position cold.”
Bakke has been surprised by the multiple issues commissioners deal with on a daily basis. From public health programs or concerns, to land trust involvement, to creating an entirely new department, as it did this year with Human Services, the job duties of a commissioner are extensive, he said.
“It reinforces for me how much service, at the end of the day, the county provides to the people who need it,” Bakke said.
Constituents who might have discounted the longtime county employee as an “insider” ready to pander to higher-ups will be surprised at the tack Bakke takes in the part he plays as policy-maker, he said.
“I’m the commissioner who challenges the things we’ve been doing and helps find out if there’s a better way to do it,” he added. “I’m not going to roll over. People don’t expect us to grandstand. We’re there because of them and working for them.”
He said his record in six months on the board has included moving parks into planning, a reorganization he fought for and said highlights his desire to see long-term capital improvement projects for parks. Bakke will soon receive his master’s in public administration from the University of Washington, a degree with considerable focus on public leadership.
The Freeland resident has pressed departments to move forward with a permit tracking system that will make the local government more transparent through readily available information. The county has already chosen a new accounting system and Bakke is now working toward pushing through the acquisition of new technology in the offices of the treasurer and assessor.
With a minor degree in geographic information systems, Bakke said the board has a perfect blend of expertise with McDowell and Camano Island resident John Dean, the lone Democrat.
“We have a professional land use planner, a professional engineer and a professional journalist,” he said. “We complement each other. It’s not just lip service. We’re getting things done because we’re making decisions that cross political boundaries. What a dynamic board.”
Bakke and Rose are the only Republicans to formally announce their candidacy for the position thus far. If Bakke gets past the latter in the primary, he will at least face Democrat Helen Price Johnson, a member of the South Whidbey School Board, who announced in January that she would vie for the District 1 seat.
Rose, also a South Whidbey resident, once ran for county commissioner unsuccessfully, in addition to her recent bid for Shelton’s vacated spot.
Price Johnson described in a January interview her background in the small, Langley business community, and in education and community involvement. She and her husband Dave own Price/Johnson Construction and they have four children. In addition, she formerly owned Jones Department Store, at one time a Langley institution that her mother started.
She said during the interview that Island County government needs a change. “It’s time for a change in the culture, to be more responsive and more transparent,” she intimated, adding that residents are “frustrated … and want to know their voice is heard.”
Price Johnson would also like to see the county take a more active role in encouraging small businesses while carefully monitoring growth. “Growth threatens our fragile environment and natural beauty,” she said. “Be smart about how we grow; be in compliance with state policies and not adversarial.”
Haddon drew a large crowd of supporters for her kickoff breakfast. Oak Harbor elected officials and business leaders were confident that she would unseat Haugen and set up camp in Olympia. Haugen is waiting until after the Legislature adjourns this month to formally announce her plans to run again.