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UPDATE: Sen. Zarelli will resign effective Thursday

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published: May 28, 2012, 5:00pm

In a stunning political announcement made Tuesday, state Sen. Joseph Zarelli said he will resign on Thursday rather than serve the remainder of his term.

Shortly after 5 p.m. May 18, the final day of candidate filing week, the senator said he would not seek re-election to his 18th District job.

Zarelli’s resignation will set in motion an appointment process to pick someone to replace him until December, when the senator selected by voters in November’s general election will take the helm.

Zarelli said by phone Tuesday that state Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who earlier filed for the Senate job, is the obvious choice for the interim appointment. Choosing someone else to fill the position for just a few months “would make no sense, and it wouldn’t serve the constituents well,” Zarelli said.

Zarelli informed Rivers on the final day of filing week that he would not run for re-election and encouraged her to file for the Senate.

Democratic National Committeeman Ed Cote, of Vancouver, said the timing of Zarelli’s resignation appears to be a well-devised plan for the Republicans to secure legislative seats in the 18th District.

“It actually smells to me like a well-planned plot,” Cote said. “It gives a tactical advantage to Ann Rivers to be an appointed incumbent. This is not some spur-of-the-moment decision.”

It’s certainly within the party’s right to orchestrate this type of plan, Cote said, but “it’s not the best way to conduct business in a democracy. This to me sort of robs the public of that opportunity.”

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Zarelli was amused at Cote’s words, saying the Democrats didn’t seem to have a strong 18th District Senate candidate, even before he announced he would step down. Rivers’ Senate challenger, Democrat Ralph Schmidt, like Rivers, filed for candidacy on the last day of filing week, and no Democratic candidate came forward to run for the representative seat held by Rivers. If Rivers receives the interim appointment, the Legislature will have another vacancy on its hands because it would need to replace her in the House.

If she doesn’t receive the appointment, the person who is selected for the job could not run for re-election in November because the deadline to file for candidacy has passed, Clark County Elections Supervisor Tim Likness said.

If Rivers is selected, possible picks to fill her vacated House seat until December could include the two Republicans vying for the job in the upcoming election: Republican Battle Ground City Councilman Adrian Cortes and Clark County Republican Party Chairman Brandon Vick.

Rivers said Zarelli’s announcement on Tuesday that he’ll leave office early came as a surprise.

“We’ve not had any discussions about that,” she said.

Vick seemed similarly shocked.

“It’s keeping us on our toes,” he said, “This whole situation from Day One has been pretty unexpected.”

The process to appoint Zarelli’s replacement is expected to work like this:

o Republican precinct committee officers in Clark and Cowlitz counties will vote on potential replacements and submit at least three candidate names to the six county commissioners in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

o County commissioners have 60 days from the date of Zarelli’s resignation to pick someone from the submitted list of candidates.

o If commissioners cannot reach a decision within the 60-day window, the governor then has 30 days to make the appointment from the submitted list of Republicans.

Vick described the selection process as a “mini-campaign” in which candidates will make speeches and phone calls to the committee officers in each voter precinct to try to get on the list that goes before the county commissioners.

Zarelli said by phone on Tuesday that he does not know what he will do next, but he didn’t think it was right to continue serving as a lawmaker while his focus had shifted to finding a new career path.

“I thought about whether I should hang around with one foot in the door, and I believe in trying to focus on where I’m going next,” he said, adding that even though the legislative session has concluded, some lawmaker responsibilities remain. “I’d be best positioned by being completely free.”

Zarelli has represented the 18th District for the past 17 years, and he has been the Senate Republicans’ budget leader since 2004.

Zarelli, 50, also works as a business consultant. He said leaving the Senate will give him a chance to support his wife’s endeavors and devote more time to his firm, JP Zarelli Inc. He also said that he’s young enough to “take another bite at the apple doing something else.”

Rivers and Vick took time on Tuesday to applaud the work Zarelli has done in the Legislature.

“The senator has his priorities and his life, and we wish him the best and thank him for his service,” Vick said.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics

Columbian Assistant Metro Editor