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Pierce County Wave Sweeps Out Incumbent Mayors

Courtesy of the City of Puyallup, the City of Milton, and the City of Fircrest
From left: Puyallup Mayor John Hopkins, Milton Mayor Debra Perry, and former Fircrest Mayor Matthew Jolibois lost their bids for reelection in November 2017

Cities across Pierce County are getting new leadership after this month’s election, as voters sweep five incumbent mayors out of office.

Mayors lost their reelection bids in Puyallup, Gig Harbor, Milton, Orting, and Fircrest. 

In Buckley, Mayor Pat Johnson was hanging onto her job by just nine votes Monday. Johnson serves as president of the Association of Washington Cities, a group that lobbies for city interests before the the State Legislature. 

Neighboring King and Thurston counties saw no such wave.

Puyallup Mayor John Hopkins said he knew he faced an uphill battle against former State Sen. Jim Kastama. But he didn't expect so many other South Sound mayors, whom he considers his friends, to join him in defeat.

Hopkins said he and his fellow mayors would meet about once a month to talk shop at Fife's longtime diner The Poodle Dog.

"I thought I was the lone ranger in the room, that I was the one that was going to get beaten and I was the poor sorry sucker," Hopkins said. "I didn't realize that everyone had their heads on the chopping block."

He said Johnson's near-loss in Buckley was particularly startling. "She's an absolute star," he said.

Hopkins was trailing Kastama by more than 550 votes Monday in the race of Puyallup's First City Council District. In Puyallup's "weak mayor" system, council members select one of their own to serve as mayor, a largely ceremonial position, while a hired city manager runs day-to-day government operations.

Orting Mayor Joe Pestinger, who lost his bid for a second term to challenger Joshua Penner, said he believes voters across the region were expressing a general dissatisfaction with government. 

"Rightly or wrongly, I believe some of the voters don't necessarily understand what the incumbents are doing or have accomplished," Pestinger said. "But rather, they're just look at it, 'Let's just make a big change and hope that that will be better.'" 

Each race in Pierce County had its own local dynamics but, in several of them, a theme was the county's rapid population growth. In some cities, that’s meant worsening traffic congestion, higher housing costs, and increasingly visible homelessness.

In Gig Harbor, traffic and development were the dominant issues. Mayor Jill Guernsey got less than 30 percent of the vote in her bid for a second term, losing to local businessperson Kit Kuhn.

"It's been an interesting term," Guernsey said in remarks at a City Council meeting shortly after the election. "I lost my mother, I lost my husband. It's been a busy four years for me, and I am very, very much looking forward to getting my life back." 

Milton Mayor Debra Perry, who was appointed to her position in 2011 and elected in 2011 and 2013, lost to challenger Shanna Styron Sherrell. 

Fircrest Mayor Matthew Jolibois resigned his City Council seat on Nov. 14, while trailing his challenger, ex-mayor David Viafore. Fircrest's mayor is selected from among the council members and presides over meetings. 

In Puyallup, Hopkins’s race was largely about how the city should manage a growing homelessness problem. Hopkins was more sympathetic to a drop-in center providing resources for homeless people, which has drawn complaints from neighbors. 

Hopkins says the trouble with being a mayor is that, even when you don’t have a lot of power to solve regional problems, it’s still your name at the top of the ticket when voters get angry.

"People think that homelessness is only a problem in their city," he said. "Mayors are considered to be the all-controlling person in the city."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.