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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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July 18, 2008 7:29 AM

Sutherland, horsesass, the Times and Mike Lowry, too

Posted by David Postman

As you likely know by now, the Times ran a story Wednesday about Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and his admittedly inappropriate behavior toward a new female employee. If you read it, you’ll see that the paper had documents relating to the case for months, and interviewed Sutherland in April.

But the story wasn’t published until after posted details of the incident. So why did The Times publish now, but not when it had the story first? The shortest answer is that the horsesass post prompted the paper to reconsider its decision. And I’m glad that happened.

This is not a case of sliding standards, but rather the result of a wider discussion than what preceded the initial decision in the Times newsroom. And it is an instance where a blog can influence coverage in the old media.

Warren Cornwall’s piece in the Times was solid and straight-forward, and anyone interested in the lands commissioner race - on either side - should be thankful it was written by one of The Times’ best reporters.

The documents were provided to The Times, the P-I, horsesass and apparently others, by backers of Peter Goldmark, the Democrat running against Sutherland. The reason is obvious: They hope that the story will stain Sutherland’s reputation enough that Goldmark can unseat him after two terms as lands commissioner.

Democrats were quick to try to leverage the horsesass post to help Goldmark. Party spokesman Kelly Steele said in a press release:

These documents speak for themselves, and the facts as presented strongly suggest Republican Doug Sutherland has compromised the public trust, and owes Washingtonians an explanation for his abhorrent behavior.

There’s no doubt the Sutherland story deserved a place in the newspaper. But the Democrats have established a double standard for this behavior that rises above run of the mill campaign hypocrisy.

This is the same Democratic Party that in 2000 financed former Gov. Mike Lowry’s run against Sutherland. Lowry served one term as governor and left without running for re-election after a sexual harassment scandal.

Lowry agreed to pay $97,500 to a former press aide, who left her job after what she said was inappropriate touching and comments from Lowry. Two former Lowry aides from his years in Congress also came forward and talked to an investigator about their own experiences. The scandal began after a female State Patrol employee said Lowry inappropriately touched her.

The investigator said Lowry had acted inappropriately, but that his actions would likely not be found by a judge or jury to meet the legal test for sexual harassment. Democratic leaders did not express any concerns when Lowry entered the lands commissioner race in 2000. And, in fact, the party was Lowry’s major backer, donating about $218,000 to his campaign. Other major backers of Goldmark this year were Lowry supporters in 2000, including environmental philanthropists Peter Goldman, Paul Brainerd and Harriet Bullitt, and the PAC of the Washington Conservation Voters.

Here’s more of what Democrats said about Sutherland:

For decades, zero tolerance has been the norm in Washington state when it comes to sexual harassment, and a 72-year-old man who has spent decades in state and county government should be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct - in this case, he’s failed miserably.

Lowry was 61 at the time he ran for lands commissioner, and had spent decades in government.

Democrats called Sutherland’s defense - that he didn’t intend to harass the woman and that there was a “disconnect” between what he did and “how she felt” - a “lame excuse.” But it sounds a lot like what Lowry said when confronted with allegations that he harassed female aides.

He has grudgingly said he may have made people uncomfortable with his "comradeship stuff" of hugging employees and patting them on the back.

"Everybody knows I'm that way," Lowry said last week. "I'm not that way more than an awful lot of other people. There are a lot of people when they haven't seen someone for a while, they hug.

"I want people to feel comfortable with me. I don't want people to think that I think I'm a big shot."

It doesn’t serve Sutherland well that his defense echoes that of Lowry. Democrats are right that any veteran politician should know what’s appropriate. Lowry should have known that, too. There’s no excuse for a politician to think its OK to rub body parts of a subordinates, make lewd or suggestive comments and then claim they were just trying to be friendly and deliver “atta-boy” pats.

I’ll be interested to see how the party, Goldmark and his backers continue to use this new Sutherland case as a disqualifier for high office. If this is to be a part of the campaign for lands commissioner, Democrats should explain to voters the sliding scale of abhorrent behavior.

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