Republican Party Veteran Picked To Replace Mielke Two Fresh-Faced Conservatives Praised, But Sommers Chosen By Commissioners

The two fresh-faced conservatives were impressive, but in the end, Spokane County commissioners picked a veteran politician and Republican activist to succeed state Rep. Todd Mielke.

Charged with filling the last year of a term Mielke vacated two weeks ago for a lobbyist’s job, commissioners Tuesday appointed former state Rep. Duane Sommers.

But they also praised bank executive Brad Benson and legislative aide Dan Steele and wished aloud they could create a triumvirate.

“We did not present three flakes to you,” Charlotte Karling, acting county GOP chairwoman, told Commissioner Steve Hasson.

All three nominees, selected the night before by 6th District Republican precinct committee officers, met one at a time with Hasson and board Chairman Phil Harris. Commissioner George Marlton was absent.

The silver-haired Sommers, 62, calmly gnawed a wad of gum while giving one-word answers to a series of pointed questions from Hasson.

Sommers said “yes” to prayer in schools, library censorship of explicit books and government compensation when private property rights are usurped.

He said “no” to abortion, gun control, government condom giveaways and affirmative action. Of the latter, Sommers said: “I believe in merit. Minorities can become qualified and go after jobs.”

Sommers’ experience was the deciding factor. He was a member of the state House of Representatives between 1987 and 1992, when redistricting eliminated his constituency. He lost a 1992 congressional race to former House Speaker Tom Foley and has chaired the Spokane County Republican Party since May 1994.

“I certainly do appreciate your confidence,” Sommers told commissioners before lauding Benson and Steele as “young shining stars in the Republican Party.”

While all three nominees dropped Ronald Reagan’s name, it was the 36-year-old Benson who did the “Great Communicator” proud.

Benson’s answers to Hasson’s direct questions were as heartfelt as a confession and as slick as a freshly polished brass doorknob.

On the condom question, he quoted studies that show up to 20 percent of AIDS patients’ partners contract the HIV virus despite the use of prophylactics.

“To me, we’re telling our kids to play Russian roulette” by advocating condoms, said Benson, an assistant vice president for Seafirst Bank. “I don’t think providing condoms is the right thing to do unless we provide them with the truth.”

On the right-to-life question, Benson said he favors women’s choice on whether to have sex in the first place and whether to use birth control.

Beyond that, he said, the right to choose ends.

“I’m a Christian,” said Benson, a former B-52 navigator who also moonlights as an ice cream maker at his wife’s shop. “The Bible says, ‘I knew you when you were in your mother’s womb.’ They’re little humans.”

Steele, 25, legislative assistant to state Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, was equally thoughtful, although his answers often were vague and laced with caveats.

“You need to compromise on everything except your principles,” said the baby-faced staffer, who once campaigned for Sommers.

Sommers will fill the last year of Mielke’s two-year term.

Himself a Republican wunderkind at age 31, Mielke stunned his party Oct. 28 when he quit to spend more time at home with his daughter.

He is under fire for joining Johnson & Johnson, a Fortune 500 health care company, after helping derail the state’s landmark 1993 health care reform package.

Mielke’s departure marked the fourth time this year that county commissioners had to appoint political replacements. They also named state Rep. Mike Padden to county District Court judge, city police Sgt. Mark Sterk to replace Padden, and lawyer George Marlton to replace county Commissioner Skip Chilberg.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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