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Nowels and Nelson to face off in sheriff's race; prosecutor's race tight on Tuesday night

Rebecca White/SPR
Pictured, the Spokane County Jail in spring of 2021. Candidates for prosecutor, as well as sheriff, are divided on the counties approach to repeat offenders as well as culture, and the perception of their offices.

Spokane County Sheriff

John Nowels, Spokane County's current undersheriff for intelligence and investigations, had 54 percent of the vote reported Tuesday night. Wade Nelson had 27.61 percent, and Michael Zollars had 15.27 percent.

This year's race is seen in some circles as a referendum on Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Though Knezovich decided not to run for a fifth term, his brusque style and management of the department played a direct role in shaping the race to succeed him.

Nelson and Zollars, both longtime veterans of the Sheriff's Office, decided to run in part because of their dissatisfaction with the department under Knezovich, and the worried that electing Nowels would result in an extension of Knezovich's policies and approach.

Montage by Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News

Nowels garnered more than half the votes reported as Tuesday night, which may underscore that being associated with Knezovich may not be the liability Nelson and Zollars hoped it would be.

In a conversation with Spokane Public Radio in July, Nowels said he would try to work with people in a less confrontational manner, but he also pointed out that Knezovich had been re-elected every time he ran to keep his job, which signaled popularity among voters.

In addition to offering a change in style, Nelson wants the sheriff's department to be more transparent, even when the agency makes mistakes or is under scrutiny.

Nelson and Nowels agree that recidivism is a problem, that a new jail needs to be built. They also agree that the sheriff's office is understaffed, but disagree on the magnitude of the problem.

Nowels is confident the problem can be addressed in 18 months, but Nelson is doubtful. Nelson also says the low staffing and Knezovich's style have caused a morale problem within the department, as assessment Nowels rejects.

Nelson, 50, worked for the SCSO for 21 years before taking a leave of absence last year over his dissatisfaction with Knezovich's leadership. A graduate of Creston High School, Nelson served in the Navy for six years, and in his years with SCSO has held many roles, including patrolman, search and rescue, sexual assault investigator and emergency operations.

Nowels, 49, has worked for SCSO for nearly a quarter-century. A graduate of Central Valley High, Eastern Washington University and the University of Oklahoma, Nowels is currently Undersheriff for Intelligence and Investigations within the sheriff's office. His SCSO history includes patrol, traffic, property crimes and narcotics work.

Spokane County Prosecutor

Early election results point to incumbent prosecutor Larry Haskell and reform-minded candidate Deb Conklin moving on to the general election.

This election, Haskell faced three opponents: a current and former employee both ran against him, and Conklin, a pastor, renewed her law license to challenge him.

In the first count of votes Conklin came in first with nearly 28%. Haskell followed close behind with about 27%. Results are preliminary and there are about 35,000 votes left to count, according to the Spokane County Auditor's Office. That means as more votes are counted, the ranking could change.

During the campaign, Conklin as well as other opponents, argued Haskell’s administration had lost the public’s trust after his wife’s racist comments on social media came to light.

Haskell has been county prosecutor since 2014 and previously was an Airway Heights City Council member. He said criticism against him over the last year has been from people who disliked him before recent controversies.

Conklin is a pastor in Spokane and previously was a prosecutor in Clallam County. She is running as an independent and won the endorsement of racial justice advocates.

Stefanie Collins came in third with about 24%. She has worked in the prosecutor’s office for 28 years and is ran as a Republican.

Stephanie Olsen came in fourth with about 20.3% of votes. She worked in the county prosecutor’s office for 12 years and now works in the Washington Attorney General’s Office as an Assistant Attorney General. She ran as a Republican.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.
Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.