By Matt Nagle
The Primary Election race for Pierce County Council Pos. 6 was akin to a photo finish, with Jason Whalen (R) and Jani Hitchen (D) separated by just 358 votes after all ballots were counted. Both candidates will now square off in the General Election this November, with Whalen looking to appeal to voters across party lines, given his proven record of getting things done through active collaboration with residents and elected leaders alike.
Currently, Whalen is in his 11thyear serving on the Lakewood City Council, and his seventh year as deputy mayor. In his business life, he is an attorney and partner at Ledger Square Law, P.S. in Tacoma, serving individuals and small business owners in business and real estate related matters. Whalen also works as a mediator, hired by local parties to resolve their legal conflicts in his areas of expertise.
With many notable accomplishments while on the Lakewood City Council, and having served on a variety of local boards and commissions, Whalen believes he is well prepared to serve the broader community as a member of the Pierce County Council.
“In local government, experience matters. I look forward to building on my foundation of collaborative work in Lakewood, combined with the years of experience I’ve had on a number of local boards and commissions, to move Pierce County forward on issues of common concern,” he said. “Doing the public’s work is personally very satisfying – especially when good ideas come together to solve real problems.” According to Whalen, government works best when residents and their elected representatives work together to craft solutions.
Whalen is familiar with county government. Before being elected to the Lakewood City Council, voters chose Whalen in 2006 to serve on the Pierce County Charter Review Commission. He stayed involved in Lakewood as well through a volunteer position on the Lakewood Planning Advisory Board.
“I got a great taste for all things Lakewood while I was on the Planning Advisory Board,” he said. “I learned about key issues, the importance of public input in the decision-making process, and built great relationships with a variety of local leaders and community groups.”
Voters recognized his commitment as well, choosing him for a Lakewood Council seat in 2009. Whalen has won three four-year terms, gaining the trust of his fellow council members who have chosen him every two years since 2013 to serve as deputy mayor. Deputy Mayor Whalen represents Lakewood on the Pierce County Regional Council, the city’s Arts Commission, and recently served as chair of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, the organization responsible for much economic development activity and investment here in Pierce County.
Trust and confidence are important to Whalen, and he turns to his growing list of endorsements to illustrate his cross-over appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike. West Pierce Fire Fighters Local 1488, Pierce County Deputy Sheriff’s Independent Guild, the Pierce County Corrections Guild, Master Builders Association of Pierce County, Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors have all endorsed him, along with Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, Pierce County Council Chair Doug Richardson, Pierce County Council Member Dave Morell, the mayors of Lakewood and Steilacoom, as well as council members in Lakewood, Steilacoom, and DuPont, Port of Tacoma commissioners, Tacoma City Council members, and many other community members and elected leaders, listed on his campaign website, www.whalenforcouncil.com.
“It’s about trust and confidence – that you can get the job done. I would like to think that so many folks support me because they know I can work well with others to get the job done, regardless of party affiliation.”
THE ‘ELEPHANT’ IN THE ROOM
That Whalen has gained the respect of so many diverse political leaders as a non-partisan voice on the Lakewood City Council reflects his politics overall. Because the County Council races are, by Pierce County Code, partisan, he gets asked often about his political principles as a Republican, which he good-naturedly puns as the “elephant” in the room.
As a small business owner who serves other business owners, Whalen identifies his political philosophy as fiscally conservative but socially moderate.
“I am a common sense guy who gets along with people,” he said. “In Lakewood, we often say that there are no Republican potholes or Democrat potholes – there are simply potholes and we have to fill them as best we can. That’s the approach I take to local government. Many of the issues facing local government are not partisan issues—they are people issues. I’m willing to sit down and listen to people to coalesce the best ideas because good ideas are not necessarily Republican or Democrat – they are ideas that work for the majority of the people. That’s the approach I take and I don’t plan to change that approach to the way I do business on the County Council.”
His balanced outlook is a direct reflection of his legal training, Whalen’s skill set as an attorney will serve him well on the County Council where he will be the only attorney serving on the body that makes laws for the county. He is used to reviewing lots of data, and looking at both sides of an issue, in order to find consensus for a common path forward rather than engaging in partisan gridlock.
“I have a track record,” he said. “I am a community player who wants to do the right thing. If someone has a positive idea and it makes sense, whether they’re on the left or the right, we should look at it. It’s about getting good things done to improve lives in our community.”
Whalen has plenty of examples of engaging in issues in Lakewood that had little to do with partisan politics – issues that some might find interesting for a Republican to promote. For instance, Whalen is proud of the City Council’s work in improving public safety, while increasing investment in parks, recreation programs, public gathering facilities and public art, roads, sidewalks, and street lighting – all within a balanced budget with significant rainy day reserves. He is a strong supporter of the Council’s non-motorized transportation plan, reducing auto traffic and enhancing bike and pedestrian ways in Lakewood. He is a staunch believer in the value of art and culture in community, working with other Council members to create a dedicated arts fund in the Lakewood city budget. His law firm supports local artists by sponsoring quarterly art shows at their firm for artists, their patrons, and members of the community. He also is a defender of low- and middle-income renters, having fully supported the city’s Rental Housing Safety Program, and is an advocate for increasing housing supply through creative density, like Lakewood’s Cottage Housing and Accessory Dwelling Unit codes.
As he explained it, “Everyone deserves safe and affordable housing. Lakewood had a history of some absentee landlords who failed to adequately maintain their properties, creating hazardous conditions for their tenants and blight for the neighborhoods. It’s not good for anyone when properties become blighted and in disrepair. We passed a law that requires rental housing in Lakewood to be inspected every five years to meet basic health and safety standards. While not a popular decision with everyone, we are seeing very positive results for our housing supply. Investors are also taking note and are continuing to invest in Lakewood.”
Climate change is another of Whalen’s areas of interest. He said that he fully supports Pierce County’s draft 2030 Sustainability Plan, which includes attainable goals and actions plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across Pierce County.
“We all respect, appreciate and value a healthy environment here in Pierce County,” he said. “Climate change is real. We cannot afford to wait; our community demands that we take responsible action.”
NEXT STOP: COUNTY COUNCIL
As a County Council member, among Whalen’s priorities are public safety, economic development and opportunity, and improving mental health services.
Rather than de-funding the police, Whalen supports the County Council’s decision to fully fund the 24 vacancies in the Sheriff’s Department to enhance response times throughout the entire county. “There are some areas in the county that have not had their fair share,” he noted. “And we need to make sure our deputies are safe, superbly trained and have the best equipment so that we can provide 21stcentury community policing that values all members of our community.”
Whalen said that he is thoroughly dedicated to helping the county recover from the economic hits that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The big task coming out of COVID is to make sure we’re open for business and that the county comes out of this recession stronger than before, with an even more diversified economic base,” he said.
In addition to working with the EDB and other partners to attract new businesses and investment in Pierce County, Whalen wants to support Joint Base Lewis-McChord to maintain its viability as the largest single point employer in the state, with an economic impact on the region of more than $9 billion a year.
Another task is to build a better jobs/housing balance in the county. “Pierce County has advantages over King County. We have a beautiful environment, affordable housing, and a skilled work force, but we need our fair share of the region’s economic activity,” Whalen said. “Pierce County residents should not have to travel north on I-5 to obtain higher paying jobs. By creating more livable wage jobs here, we impact our climate positively with fewer cars on the road; we impact people’s lives positively because they’re not spending two hours of their life on I-5; we impact our community positively by keeping dollars in our local economy, supporting our many small businesses.”
To better address the county’s mental health needs, Whalen supports the one-tenth of one percent sales tax for behavioral health funding at the county level, provided the County Council finalizes its strategic plan for use of the additional resources.
“The county has a lot of behavioral and mental health needs and we would do well to put more resources toward the needs,” he said. “We have great social service agencies – they just need more help delivering needed services.”
As Whalen said, “The universal truth, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, is that everyone loves their family and wants to see their kids and family thrive and their community thrive. Our elected leaders have to work together, across the political aisle, to help our residents thrive.”
A FAMILY LEGACY
Whalen comes from a family steeped in hard work and service to community and country. Both of his parents were born in Montana and lived through the Great Depression. The Whalen family roots in the Pacific Northwest go back to Jason’s grandfather on his mother’s side, an immigrant from Sicily to Ft. Benton, Mont. in the early 1900s, and his Irish grandfather on his father’s side, who worked in the copper mines in Butte. His maternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army in WWI, after training at Camp Lewis in 1917, returning to Ft. Benton to raise his family. Whalen’s father was a Naval officer, who served in the Pacific during WWII, and later in Astoria, Ore., during the Korean War. Jason is also a veteran, having served on active duty in the U.S. Army as a Field Artillery Officer (1985-1989), and as a U.S. Army Reservist (1989-1992).
Although born in Whitefish, Whalen and his family were not destined to stay in Montana. Whalen’s father was a small town doctor and worked himself to the point that his blood pressure grew to life threatening levels.
“His doctor told him that if he didn’t quit what he was doing, he wouldn’t live another year,” Whalen recalled. “He was in his early-50s with four kids and I was the youngest. He had to make the decision with my mom to give everything up to save his health and his family.”
From there launched years of travel as his dad pursued his medical career in different states starting when Whalen was of kindergarten age – Oklahoma, Colorado, back to Montana, then to Oregon, Alaska and finally Spokane, Wash. Every two years, Whalen had to start a new school with new teachers and new friends. He handled it well, though, and got noticed for his gregarious nature. In other words, the kid liked to talk.
In eighth grade at Nine Mile Falls Elementary School near Spokane, Whalen’s teacher, who would become a great mentor and friend to him, said something that had a profound effect on his life. As Whalen tells it, “Mr. Burns was the superintendent, the principal, the bus driver and my eighth-grade teacher. Thankfully, he took a liking to me. I was the nerdy kid who talked a lot in class and he said, ‘Whalen, you need to think about doing debate in high school with that mouth of yours.’”
So that’s what Whalen did at Spokane’s North Central High School. He joined the debate team and became the Washington State Debate Champion in 1980, among many other debate awards. After attending the national competition in 1980 and again in 1981, he caught the attention of the debate coach at Gonzaga University and received a two-year scholarship to debate for the Zags.
Later, Whalen signed up with Gonzaga’s ROTC program, receiving a three-year scholarship, committing to serve in the Army for a period of seven years of active and reserve service. Upon graduation, Whalen was commissioned as a Regular Army Second Lieutenant, and was honored as a Distinguished Military Graduate; only the top 20 percent of Army ROTC graduates nationwide achieve this prestigious designation.
While at Gonzaga, Whalen started his political career in student government and was elected as the Academic Vice President for the student body. He created a popular speaker series, “Issues and Answers for Action in the ‘80’s,” which hosted a number of national speakers to the campus, attracting hundreds of students and community members to each forum.
Following graduation from Gonzaga, Whalen completed his initial officer training at Ft. Sill, Okla. followed by additional schooling in “special weapons,” otherwise known as battlefield nuclear weapons training. After a stint at Airborne School, jumping out of perfectly good planes, Whalen was stationed in Bamberg, Germany, assigned with a nuclear capable field artillery battalion. It was during this time that he married his wife Gael, now celebrating 33 years together with daughters Olivia, Clare and Alison (plus two dogs, a cat and “a bunch of fish,” Whalen laughed).
Upon completion of his active duty service, Whalen returned to Gonzaga University to study law, earning his Juris Doctor degree. There, he engaged in moot court activities with a former Gonzaga debate partner and fellow law student, Debra Stephens, who now serves as Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.
Fresh out of law school, Whalen landed a clerkship position in Olympia at the Washington State Supreme Court, with Justice Richard P. Guy, a major accomplishment for an up-and-coming attorney. Following his clerkship, he hired on with the Tacoma law firm Eisenhower Carlson PLLC, and was with them for the next 21 years as a young associate and then partner. Six years ago, Whalen and four of the partners opened Ledger Square Law in downtown Tacoma where Whalen practices today. The firm employs 12 attorneys and staff.
When asked why he chose to run for political office, he replied, “Service is in my DNA. I enjoy the challenge and the opportunity to make my community better.” The Jesuits at Gonzaga apparently inspired him as well.
“At Gonzaga, we were encouraged to pursue lives of leadership and service for the common good. I often say that none of us can do it all, but if we all do a little, we can accomplish a lot. Public service is my small way of making good on that commitment.”