Spokane County commissioners unanimously passed over state Rep. Matt Shea on Friday and appointed Spokane Valley businessman Jeff Baxter to a state Senate vacancy.
Baxter will immediately take over the position longtime Sen. Bob McCaslin abandoned last month because of poor health.
Commissioner Todd Mielke liked the fact that Baxter earns a living from small businesses. Baxter has three companies that provide credit-card and teller-machine services to other small businesses.
Shea is an attorney while the third candidate, 26-year-old Roy Murry, supplements a military pension with a security business.
Mielke also noted that Baxter was the only parent among three candidates presented by the Spokane County Republican Party. State law required commissioners to choose one of the party nominees or pass the decision to Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Baxter emphasized his support for education and his work as a Sunday school teacher in his interview with commissioners. Shea pointed to his experience in the House and his legal training, and Murry billed himself a quick study.
Commissioners pointed out that going with Shea would have created another 4th District vacancy during the current legislative session. Also, Chairman Al French said, Shea would give up leadership positions to become the most junior senator.
“I want to make sure we do no additional harm to the 4th District,” Mielke said.
Murry drew praise for what Commissioner Mark Richard described as “grace” in the face of embarrassing police records that surfaced as a result of his nomination.
All three candidates advocated reducing the scope of government through strict adherence to the state and federal constitutions.
Budget cuts were high on their list of priorities, but Baxter said he probably wouldn’t support a proposed $150 million cut in services that keep mental patients out of the county jail.
Baxter said he would “do my best to work with each and every one of you,” and would not view himself as a “gatekeeper” for county-proposed legislation.
He was responding to a question apparently based on an encounter between Mielke and Shea. Mielke said in a sworn statement that Shea angrily told him, “You need to learn that, if you want anything through this process, you need to talk to me first.”
Although local Republican officials urged commissioners to choose Shea, Chairman Matt Pederson said he was “very excited to have the 4th District back to full representation.”
He said the party will decide later whether to support Shea if he runs for the position in November.
“I look forward to supporting Mr. Baxter as he makes the transition from citizen to senator,” Pederson said. “…Mr. Baxter is a quality candidate.”
A shifting crowd of 30 to 45 people attended Friday’s interviews, which began at 9 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m.
Commissioners deliberated in closed session and returned to their hearing room at 4:30 to make their decision.
Baxter was the first to be interviewed, and the first to refuse commissioners’ request for an oath to be truthful. Baxter said he should have been subpoenaed if an oath were necessary.
He noted that commissioners hadn’t previously required oaths when interviewing candidates for political appointments.
Richard said even though state law gives commissioners the power to require an oath, he favored going ahead without one.
French said he also would “like to draw this process to a close,” and Mielke acquiesced reluctantly.
“If there is no obligation to be truthful, then I’m not sure there is any value in continuing this interview process,” Mielke said.
Commissioners decided Wednesday to require oaths after Shea’s legislative assistant asked whether the interviews would be public and under oath. However, French said he came up with the idea earlier in the week, based on his experience as a Spokane city councilman.
“I’d rather let my yeses be yes and my no’s be no,” Murry said.
Shea said his oath of office as a state representative wouldn’t allow him to be sworn by commissioners because legislators are exempt from civil procedures. Mielke said he could do so voluntarily, but Shea disagreed and the issue was dropped – as it was for Baxter and Murry.
Mielke didn’t get a yes-or-no answer when he asked Shea whether his ex-wife correctly stated in divorce papers that Shea was disarmed in Iraq because of an anger problem while serving as an Army National Guard captain.
Instead, Shea said officers can’t be relieved of weapons unless they are arrested and an officer who has been arrested can’t get a bronze star as he did.
All three candidates are veterans. Murry earned a bronze star for valor as an Army National Guard sergeant in Iraq.
His commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Heslin Jr. told commissioners in a letter that Murry, despite being wounded, returned fire in a “complex ambush” and played a “critical” role in the safe escape of a “VIP” Murry’s unit was protecting.
Richard choked with emotion when he said Murry didn’t deserve “what you have been put through from both sides of this.”
He declared that anyone who thought Murry was unqualified for the nomination hadn’t met him.
Murry’s nomination to replace McCaslin drew public attention to a recent arrest in Las Vegas on a firearms charge and a previous conviction in Spokane County for possessing a switchblade knife.
French called Murry “a very engaging young man” when he answered questions with poise, candor and wit.
“Just one?” Murry asked when invited to list a shortcoming he would like to overcome.
Murry told The Spokesman-Review on Thursday that he regretted participating in a plan by pro-Shea Republican precinct officers to make sure Mike Padden wasn’t nominated.
Padden is a former legislator and District Court judge who had McCaslin’s support.
Like Shea, Murry said he would defend the Senate seat in the November general election. Baxter said he hadn’t decided.
“I won’t change my answer,” he said when commissioners pressed for a commitment. “I don’t know what tomorrow holds.”