OLYMPIA, Nov. 20.—Some folks were sure there was a grand scheme involved when Mark Mullet won his race for state Senate two weeks ago. And yes, there certainly was. But maybe not the stuff of conspiracy theories. It’s the story of a high-level banking executive who decided to chuck it all, move back home, and put into motion a plan that next week will make him the Senate’s newest member.
Mullet is the Democrat who has Olympia guessing. Like many who represent the swing districts of the Seattle suburbs, he’s not easy to label. His background is in business, both big and small, from the top echelons of Wall Street to, of all things, selling ice cream in Issaquah. And if that wasn’t unusual enough, as a member of the Issaquah city council, he was the prime mover behind the city’s ban on plastic bags. So is he a business vote? Is he green? In a place like the Legislature, these are important questions indeed. But maybe not so much in the 5th Legislative District, Mullet says, where voters are inclined to go both ways. If Olympia isn’t sure whether he’s on one side or the other, he says maybe that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes it’s good to be a fresh face,” he tells Washington State Wire. “When I got on the city council, you had the Chamber of Commerce community and you had the environmental community, and they hated each other. They were totally at odds. So I have solar panels on my house and I’m driving an electric car, and people were saying, oh, this guy’s an environmentalist – but wait a minute, he’s a member of the chamber, he owns businesses in the town – clearly a business guy.”
Confusion is fine with him. Mullet says he’s a reflection of the moderate tendencies of the purple-tinted suburbs. And he has a story to tell – perhaps a little different than the one everyone heard during the course of the campaign.
A Grand Design
Mullet scored a decisive victory Nov. 6, beating Republican Brad Toft 54-46. He will be sworn in Nov. 30 practically at the head of his freshman class, because he is filling a position that was left vacant by the controversial resignation last June of state Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley. The seat has been filled on a temporary basis by Republican Dino Rossi. There’s one freshman senator ahead of him – Ann Rivers took the oath over the summer when she was appointed to fill the seat of state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who resigned; Rivers then won the seat in the election with little trouble. And in the House Matt Manweller of Ellensburg will be sworn in on the 29th, replacing Bill Hinkle, who resigned from his House seat in the 13th Legislative District. All other members of the incoming class will be sworn in Jan. 14, when the terms of current lawmakers expire.
Now here’s the twist to Mullet’s tale. Critics have been muttering darkly about shenanigans in the 5th District race, dark schemes to ensure the seat went to a Democrat, some even claiming that the plan was years in the making. Certainly nothing can be proved, and even if it could be it might just as easily be chalked up to clever political gamesmanship. Yet whatever the reality, even if Mullet was the beneficiary, there has never been anything to connect him to it. There was a long-term plan involved in his race, yes – but it is one of a rather different sort.
Doesn’t Adore a Penthouse View
Mullet, 40, was born and raised in Tukwila, where his father was mayor from 1999 to 2007. He attended the University of Redlands in California and ultimately graduated from Indiana University with a degree in finance. From there he found himself on the fast track in the banking business, working for the United Bank of Switzerland in London, and then as the global head of foreign currency options trading for Bank of America in New York. Yet after a dozen years in high finance he says he was homesick.
“You know, my heart and soul never left Seattle,” he says. “I honestly believe we live in the best part of the entire world. I certainly believe that. I feel more patriotic toward America after living overseas. Being away made me appreciate it that much more.”
The banking job – assuredly something more than a minimum-wage position – gave him the freedom to think about what he wanted to do in life. With his father’s example in mind, Mullet said he liked the idea of public service, running for elective office. Six months before he left the bank in 2006 he put the game plan to work, buying the franchise rights for Ben & Jerry’s in Seattle, Bellevue and Issaquah. Already he was thinking about the Legislature. “I thought it would be nice if I had my own business because then I would have a little more flexibility going to Olympia for those few months of the year, which I wouldn’t have with a regular job,” he said.
Living the Dream
Why ice cream? He’d always had a taste for it, he explains; his senior class project at Foster High School in Tukwila was to write a business plan for an ice cream parlor. “I guess I always had ice cream in the back of my mind,” he said. He and his wife Sabath moved to Issaquah and began laying plans for the store. (About his wife’s name, Mullet notes that it had nothing to do with religion; he says his father-in-law was the world’s biggest Ozzy Osbourne fan.) When the cancellation of a movie theater project delayed the opening of his store, he noticed that a neighborhood pizza restaurant had recently closed. He thought that might be a good line, too. So he opened his own Zeek’s Pizza franchise as well. And as he reinvented himself as a small-town burgher, he enrolled at the Evans School at the University of Washington to learn about public policy and earned a master’s in public administration. In 2008 he ran for Issaquah city council and won.
It’s always been about living the dream, he says. He has given back the Seattle Ben & Jerry’s territory, and he says he doubts he’ll do anything with the Bellevue territory. “It’s about quality of life,” he says. “I don’t want to be driving all over town troubleshooting. If there are problems, I can literally walk to the pizza restaurant and the ice cream store from my house. This is my neighborhood, this is where my kids live – and so chances are I’m going to be content with these two businesses.”
About That Conspiracy
Mullet entered the race in January, and the campaign was as twisted as they come. At first he was running against Pflug; Toft was a third entrant on the Republican side. But right after filing week last May came Pflug’s eyebrow-raising exit for a high-paying job on the state Growth Management Hearings Board. Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire announced the appointment exactly one business day after filing week had ended, after Pflug had filed for re-election, on the very last day when it was possible for candidates to withdraw from the ballot. So Republicans had to back Toft if they were going to back anyone at all. Democrats had plenty of ammo against him, from court records and other sources, and they kept up the attacks all campaign long. Control of the Senate was at stake and nearly $1.2 million was spent on both sides, directly and through independent campaigns. In the end Mullet won handily.
Some in GOP ranks smelled a rat – a scheme to leave them with a easily-wounded candidate. The fact that Republican Pflug endorsed Democrat Mullet and campaigned against Toft still rankles many. But Mullet says there was no orchestration as far as he can tell. He says he didn’t have a clue Pflug would exit the race until it was announced May 21. Early in the race, he arranged a meeting between the three of them, “to remind them that there are real people here, and real families,” and he says he sensed antagonism between Pflug and Toft. “They didn’t like each other; there was no love lost between those two, so I knew once she pulled out of the race I had a real shot at getting her endorsement. I pushed her hard on it. It wasn’t something I got easily – I think, literally she sent an email at 3:55 p.m., five minutes before I needed it [for the voters’ pamphlet]. I think Cheryl endorsed me because she honestly thought I was going to be the better candidate. It was that simple.”
Some lawmakers say the Senate ought to revisit the matter next session. State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, says he’ll push a bill that would prevent future governors from offering high-paying jobs to sitting lawmakers during election season. Mullet says he isn’t bothered. “I think that’s fine. Let’s investigate it. There is nothing there, so let’s check it out.”
Back to the Question
But as far as the future is concerned, there’s a more important question: Where will Mullet stand? Will he be a business vote in the Democratic caucus or will he be more in line with party leadership? Business trade association officials say they were skeptical of some of his answers on campaign questionnaires, particularly his opposition to I-1185, the two-thirds for taxes measure that imposes a tough two-thirds voting requirement for tax increases on the House and Senate. Certainly things like plastic-bag bans give ‘em the willies. For now, until a voting record can be compiled, Mullet has learned to offer the politically astute answer. On front-and-center business-versus-labor issues like workers’ comp and unemployment insurance he says he hasn’t developed a position. “My thing right now, being new, is to just do a lot of listening,” he said. “My goal is to go down there and listen, because there are obviously a lot of arguments on both sides, and I’m not going down there with a bunch of preconceived ideas. There’s a lot I need to learn. So my goal in these next few months is to learn as much as I can so that I feel I can make the right decisions on the issues to best represent the 5th District.”
People tell Mullet all the time the Capitol can be a nasty and combative place, but he says he isn’t buying a word of it. “The thing is, I love the statehouse! I know what people say, but I know I’m really going to enjoy it. I think it’s important stuff that really matters. I realized when my dad was mayor of Tukwila that local public service is a great place to invest your time and energy. It makes a huge positive impact. And I’m really happy about the major lifestyle change that I made, from being a finance guy in New York to being a pizza politician back in Washington.”