Steve Tharinger speaks at the dedication of the Agnew Soccer Fields last November. Sequim Gazette photo by Michael Dashiell
Government, at its core, can be an instrument of good.
Sound like a line of dialogue from a "West Wing" script? It is.
But Steve Tharinger isn't acting when he says that government - properly run, good government - can make the world a better place.
Pie-in-the-sky thinking? Perhaps from a more junior public servant. But coming from someone who spent more than five years cutting his political teeth as part of the Clallam County Planning Commission, studying urban growth's effects on cities years before that and, for the past 11 years, as one of three of Clallam's commissioners, the sentiment somehow rings true.
"I think effective, efficient, cost-effective government can be a good tool for solving those problems," Tharinger says.
That good kind of government, he implies, happens when lawmakers can clearly communicate with those they represent.
"Fundamentally it's the place where we solve big problems," he says, "whether it be transportation and infrastructure, whether it be long-term conservation of our resources, whether it's how we care for how we keep our community healthy and strong."
The danger of what Tharinger faces now - running for the legislative seat to be left vacant by a retiring Rep. Lynn Kessler, the Olympic Peninsula's most powerful state legislator - is that winning that bid may take him away from the close connection with his constituents.
Keep his day job
"I've always felt that politics is local," Tharinger says.
"The further away you get from your local community, the harder that is. It's harder to find that common ground. I'm not unhappy with the time I've spent as a county commissioner - and that's one of the reasons why I'm reluctant to leave my day job for this job."
Nonetheless, that's exactly what he is eyeing after Kessler, the House of Representative's majority leader and 24th District representative for the past 18 years, announced last week she will not run for a 10th term.
Tharinger expressed "surprise" and "regret" after hearing Kessler's announcement.
"Lynn Kessler is my friend and is surely one of the most outstanding public officials to serve our communities during all my years of work on the peninsula," Tharinger said in a prepared statement.
Urged to run
He says he's been approached and encouraged by several political leaders at the state and local level to consider running for Kessler's seat.
In that same statement, Tharinger was quick to deflect any notion that he's intending to run. Cautiously interested is more like it.
"We need to have continuity of representation," Tharinger wrote. "We cannot afford to lose the momentum that Lynn's leadership has fostered in Olympia. Governing the state of Washington at this time of economic crisis requires competence and experience. If I decide to run it will be, in part, because I know Olympia and I know our district. I couldn't fill Lynn's place. No one can. But I could sure hit the ground running."
Grassroots all the way
Growing up in a suburb outside of Minneapolis, Tharinger's early rhetoric skills were put to the test.
"I've always had an interest in civics and government and history," he says.
"In my household there were a lot of magazines around - National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Life, The New Yorker - and I came from a large family; there were of nine of us. We were a pretty verbal group and we talked about issues. I guess I had that background and a proclivity for that."
Tharinger attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs - but not to study politics, at least not right away.
"They play Division I hockey and they have pretty good skiing in Colorado," Tharinger says, admitting that, "it wasn't really an academic choice. It wound up being a pretty good school."
Seattle, then Sequim
Tharinger graduated from Colorado College with a Bachelor of Science degree in political science in 1971. After some travel around the country and to Europe, he heeded advice from friends who touted the Northwest.
He moved to Seattle in 1976 to build houses and then moved to Sequim in 1978. He turned his efforts to Dungeness Woodworks, a small woodworking business he and his wife, Yvonne Yakota, started in the Sequim-Dungeness area in the late 1970s.
Tharinger's political career began in the 1990s as grassroots as they come, from the Dungeness Flood Control Advisory Committee, Clallam County Forest Mineral Lands Committee and county Agricultural Advisory Committee up to the county planning commission, a board he served on from 1992-1997.
Planning: 'An education'
"That was ... certainly an education," Tharinger says, as he learned "the need to protect and preserve those (resources) and also to protect growth."
As his growing political influence combined with an avid interest in the environment, Tharinger found himself at the center of the county's most critical issue: land use. He's served as the chairman of the Carlsborg Urban Growth Area Task Force, chairman of the Dungeness River Management Team, a member of the county Agricultural Lands Committee, a member of the Dungeness River Flood Control advisory board, a participant in the Shared Strategy for Salmon Recovery Forum and, in 2002, was appointed by then-Gov. Gary Locke to serve on the Salmon Recovery Funding Board that works on funding salmon recovery projects throughout the state.
"I've always felt that, in a place like the Olympic Peninsula, where we get up every morning and we're either looking at mountains or ... salt water and the forests, the natural beauty we have is literally in our face," Tharinger says.
"That's what brought me here. So the puzzle of how we live and prosper here without destroying that is real interesting. I think it's important to remember the finite nature of our resources."
Commissioner's seat and other seats
In the fall of 1998, Tharinger defeated Martha Ireland in a bid for the Clallam County Commissioner District 1 position, serving residents from Happy Valley and Bell Hill to Dungeness, from Blyn and Diamond Point on the county's east end and west toward Lost Mountain and Carlsborg.
Since that election, Tharinger has twice won re-election bids, forming with Mike Chapman and Mike Doherty an unusually cohesive board of commissioners, no doubt aided in part by Tharinger's experience as a state-certified, volunteer mediator with the Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center.
"The support the citizens have shown us shows we've done a pretty good job dealing with the budget," Tharinger says.
"In '04, '05, '06, when economic times were good, we were prudent enough to take those dollars and save them. Now during the downturn, we are able to use some of those reserves to sort of flatten out and sustain some of those government services we wouldn't have had."
Board after board
The commissioner position opened up more avenues for Tharinger. He's served on two legislative advisory committees, one for Watershed Planning Implementation and Biodiversity and the Washington Biodiversity Council.
He's also represented the county on several regional councils, from the Council of Governments for the Olympic Area Agency on Aging and the Olympic Consortium for Workforce Development to the Peninsula Regional Support Network for Mental Health.
Lodging Tax Advisory Committee? Check. Clallam Economic Development Council? Been there, done that. Clallam County Board of Health and Health Care Realization Committee? Tharinger is there. United Way board? Ditto.
Like grad school
"Being a commissioner, it's almost like going to graduate school," he says. "You are around some very sharp people, especially at the state level. Even a woodworking commissioner can learn working through osmosis."
As commissioner, Tharinger also helped pass a behavioral health tax, one of the first in Washington state.
"We've helped hundreds of clients over the years. That's an initiative at the county level I'm happy with."
Instead of proverbially jumping in with both feet at the House seat, Tharinger says he's going to wait until he sees what kind of candidate state Democrat leaders are looking for - and who else decides to run - before he commits.
"I think it's a real nice fit because I can bring local government awareness to Olympia and also help bring Olympia to local government and improve that dialogue," he says.
Key issues for the 24th District, he says, are managing natural resources, implementing the national health care plan locally, transportation issues and helping those in this rather rural area transition into the workforce of the future.
Another tricky part of the equation is that, even if elected, Tharinger would have another year left as county commissioner. The uber multi-tasker says he'd like to serve in the positions concurrently.
"I'm not interested in giving up my day job," Tharinger says. "I want to keep being a commissioner at least through this term (that ends in 2011). After being a commissioner for the past 11 years and around county government for the past 20 or so, I have a sense of how that works. The unknown is what the work schedule is like for a (state) legislator."
Health? It's good
And then there's his health. Tharinger was diagnosed in 2004 with an advanced lymphatic cancer that developed tumors in his abdomen. The cancer is in remission and he has been given clean slates of health since then, but he wants another check-up now.
"I feel great (but) it would be unfair to me and to the voters to not have (my health) checked out," he says.
Filings for Kessler's seat and other state and local offices begin with mail-in filings on May 21. Candidates may file in person on June 7. Filings close June 11.
The district primary is set for Aug. 17 while the general election is Nov. 2.
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.
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