The News Tribune: We endorse Melanie Morgan to replace embattled House incumbent David Sawyer

Tacoma Rep. David Sawyer is well aware that by running for a fourth term, he’s put voters of the hardscrabble 29th Legislative District in a tough spot. He also knows his political career hangs by a thread.

Since election season started, no candidate has been discussed, debated and deconstructed more than Sawyer. Reports of unwanted advances toward women have soiled the reputation of a capable state Democratic lawmaker.

Fortunately, there’s another candidate we believe will fight hard for the people of South Tacoma, East Lakewood and Parkland.

Melanie Morgan, a Franklin Pierce School Board member and former Pierce County Housing Authority commissioner, has potential to do a fine job if elected to House Position 1. Though we typically endorse two candidates in each primary contest, she’s our sole choice to proceed to the general election.

An Army veteran and 20-year resident of the 29th, Morgan knows her way around local issues such as domestic violence – she’s worked as a county DV advocate – and affordable housing. In 2016, Franklin Pierce leaders oversaw passage of a $157 million bond, a remarkable feat in a chronically low-income school district.

Morgan, 50, has the blessing of many prominent South Sound Democrats and much of the party base in this deep-blue district – a base whose leadership is increasingly turning its back on the incumbent, sapping his credibility

Two Republicans are also on the Aug. 7 ballot, but neither matches the core needs and values of the 29th. Janis Clark and Terry Harder, both perennial candidates, are unlikely to generate excitement in a district that hasn’t elected a Republican in more than 50 years.

Sawyer, meanwhile, is weighed down by allegations of inappropriate behavior from at least eight women, many of whom said he badgered them with persistent inappropriate contact and pressure to see him socially. The women told the TNT about suggestive electronic messaging and comments laced with sexual nuance, both before and after the law clerk first won office in 2012.

A legislative inquiry into his behavior has been needlessly opaque. We agree with Sawyer that the process should be de-politicized and that the full record be brought into the open for him, his accusers and the public to see.

But supporting Sawyer in that effort is much different than endorsing his reelection bid.

At a minimum, the conduct of the 35-year-old unmarried lawmaker was tone-deaf and boorish, as is clear in a five-page investigation summary –plus a one-page addendum, which said Sawyer drunk-dialed multiple women. In today’s age of #MeToo enlightenment, such behavior will not stand.

Sawyer acknowledged it’s “clear that I messed up” and “made people who work with me uncomfortable.” In a meeting with us, however, he insisted he didn’t abuse his power and that his actions didn’t meet the legal standard of sexual harassment.

Even if you buy his defense, there’s a big question of whether Sawyer can be an effective voice for the 29th. His access to staff was restricted. He resigned his committee chairmanship. Democrats from local government to the statehouse all the way up to Congress have called for him to step aside.

“I believe I would have more influence than ever if I go back,” Sawyer told us, saying he’d organize people around shared values such as ending intergenerational poverty.

We don’t see it that way. The damage is serious, the distractions many.

Voters get the final word. Perhaps they’ll stick with an incumbent who fights for them and doesn’t fear challenging Democratic leaders when they’re wrong. Sawyer sensibly supports charter schools and opposed a sneak attack by the Legislature last session to exempt itself from the Public Records Act.

But it’s a safe bet Morgan will also be committed to openness, accountability, hard work and advocacy for people on the margins – with none of the baggage Sawyer is carrying.

-The News Tribune Editorial Board