Large Pay Raises for Washington’s Rural Prosecutors Spur Speculation on Candidates

It is not too often that you hear about public officials getting a 60 or 70 percent raise in a given year; but that is exactly what happened to many of Washington’s prosecutors last year.   The biggest beneficiaries were the elected prosecuting attorneys in Washington’s most rural counties. Many of the small town prosecutors toiled away for years making 45 or 50 thousand. Until July of 2008. In that hot summer month it wasn’t the heat that was making the small-town prosecutors of Washington swoon. It was the heady feeling of new found economic largess. That July in Garfield County, for example, the elected prosecuting attorney went from making 52 thousand per year to a 100,000. In a rural county closer to my home, the elected prosecutor went from 62 thousand to 106 thousand per year. The rationale of the pay raise was explained by the executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. As covered by a blog of the News Tribune, McBride explained that small counties often have trouble finding people to run for prosecutor because it pays so little. And when they do find someone, they stay only one 4-year term and then go back to private practice so they can make more money. Well, McBride was right.  Prosecutors are now hoping to stay in office alright, but their new found glee was short-lived as they quickly realized they would have a target on their back in the next election of 2010.

Is it just me, or am I the only traveling lawyer who has gotten sick of all the speculation as to who is running for prosecutor in such counties as Ferry, Garfield, Okanogan, Stevens, Columbia, Asotin etc.?  It seems like small town defense lawyers, divorce lawyers, etc are already trying to recast themselves as potential candidates for prosecutor.  I am a former prosecuting attorney myself, and maybe that is why a defense lawyer recently approached me for advice on how they can work his image for a 2010 candidacy. Defense lawyers who have for years opposed the death penalty and have publicly supported the legalization of drugs are now working to garner a conservative, law-and-order vote.   Will these defense lawyers still have the same zing to their cross examinations of law enforcement officers?

It seems like incumbent prosecutors are also feeling the pressure from potential new arrivals escaping the economic downturn.  It is no secret that there have been considerable lay-offs at the larger public defense agencies in this state, as well as larger firms laying off newly hired associates. Some of these attorneys are filtering down to smaller counties. Transplants are discovering the liberal residency requirement for candidates in this state. Under State law, a candidate must only live in the county in question for 30 days before he declares his candidacy. Many of these small towns are quite a bit off the beaten path, and don’t see too many new lawyers in town. When I am on the road for court, or even here in town, I am regularly asked if I am planning to run for prosecutor.   How do you tell people “no” and have them accept that?  When I say “no, I am not running for prosecutor” it seems like people always study my face for a minute to see if I am being coy.   There are already three- and four-way races discussed.   The year 2010 should be interesting for those of us sitting on the sidelines.  What do you think?  How much will these pay raises change the 2010 prosecutorial election races?

(Steve Graham was elected Prosecuting Attorney for Ferry County in 1998 when he was 28. He did not run again.)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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