Local Democrats fracturing over future of lawmaker dogged by claims of misbehavior

A rift is growing among Democrats in Pierce County over what to do about state Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, who has been publicly accused of acting inappropriately toward women before and after taking office in 2013.

Two Democrats have launched campaigns to unseat Sawyer, splintering the party. The divide was revealed again Monday when the Democratic organization in Sawyer’s 29th Legislative District approved a resolution by a 9-8 vote that asks him to resign or at least not seek re-election.

In the “yes” camp was Melissa Dunbar, a member of the 29th District group’s executive board who proposed the resolution. Dunbar said her organization should side with the women making the accusations and that Sawyer’s alleged actions disqualify him from office.

“I feel as though we need to make a statement saying we’re not going to be silent when women come out and say that they have been sexually harassed,” Dunbar told the group.

The "no" camp included other committee members and some voters who believe an investigation into Sawyer's behavior should run its course before a decision is made about further supporting him.

“We do not condemn people without an investigation,” said Gayllynn Smiley, a Tacoma resident who lives in the 29th District, after the meeting. Others in Pierce County circles say they plan to keep on supporting Sawyer, regardless of the allegations.

For his part, Sawyer said he has no plans to step aside or abandon his re-election bid.

In a statement submitted to the 29th District Democrats, he denied acting inappropriately. He did not attend the meeting.

“I believe I have conducted myself professionally and lawfully,” Sawyer said in his statement. “This clearly requires an independent, neutral investigation outside of the Legislature to ensure this process is not politicized and so all parties are confident the investigation is thorough and fair.”

Sawyer is currently restricted from working with his staff in the House while the investigation is underway. The inquiry started in late February when House officials began reviewing an unspecified allegation made against Sawyer related to personal-boundary concerns.

It has since expanded and been outsourced to a third-party investigator, according to an email obtained by The News Tribune that was sent to House lawmakers and staff by Chief Clerk Bernard Dean.

Eight women also have accused Sawyer of engaging in inappropriate behavior toward them both before he was a legislator and after he was first elected in 2012.

Those accusations, detailed in a February story by The News Tribune, The Olympian and public radio’s Northwest News Network, include persistent or suggestive electronic messaging, unwanted attention and comments with sexual overtones.

Seven of the women are current and former lobbyists, legislative staffers and campaign volunteers who first crossed paths with Sawyer professionally. One woman was involved in Tacoma public affairs but knew Sawyer primarily through a mutual friend.

House officials won’t say if any of the allegations raised in the story are part of the investigation.

In light of the allegations and investigation, two Democratic candidates are looking to draw in enough voters to unseat Sawyer.

One with early support is Melanie Morgan, who launched her campaign last week and quickly rallied a handful of key politicians and organizers in Pierce County to her side. Among them are Tim Farrell, who chairs the Pierce County Democrats; state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, an influential Tacoma Democrat; and Tacoma City Councilwoman Catherine Ushka.

Farrell and others dropped support of Sawyer after the allegations of misconduct were raised and have looked for candidates to challenge him. They found hope in Morgan, who is a member of the Franklin Pierce School Board and was previously a commissioner on the board of the Pierce County Housing Authority.

Morgan told The News Tribune she is confident she can win and said creating a safe work environment and addressing sexual harassment in the Legislature are among her top priorities if elected.

“I want to get out there with my community members and let them know they have another option,” Morgan said in a phone interview last week. “I want to be that other option.”

Even with key endorsements, Morgan faces an uphill battle. Many people continue to support Sawyer, including Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg and Democratic Rep. Steve Kirby, who also represents the 29th District.

Sawyer works as a law clerk at Sadler Ladenburg and plans to take the bar exam in July. John Ladenburg Sr., the former county executive who also works at the firm run in part by his family, has vigorously defended Sawyer in Facebook posts, saying the allegations, even if true, aren’t serious enough for Sawyer to give up his post.

Sawyer also has raised more than $85,000 for his re-election campaign, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. More than $6,000 of that has come after the 2018 legislative session ended on March 8.

By contrast, Morgan has reported just $105 in campaign cash so far, including a $100 donation from former Tacoma mayoral candidate Evelyn Fielding Lopez.

Branden Durst, an independent Democrat, and Janis Clark, an independent, also are running for Sawyer’s seat in the 29th District, which includes parts of Tacoma, Lakewood, Parkland, Spanaway and Frederickson.

The 29th District Democrats did not take a stance on any of the other House candidates on Monday, but their resolution illustrates the widening debate over Sawyer’s candidacy.

Dunbar, the committee officer, counted the vote on her resolution as a success.

“I wanted to make sure that the public understood that our district was backing away,” she told The News Tribune on Monday.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826 @walkerorenstein

Alaa Alshaibani