Pend Oreille County prosecutor Dolly Hunt wins over voters
NEWPORT, Wash. (AP) — A ball of contradictions is the way the 42-year-old Pend Oreille County prosecuting attorney describes herself; a black woman in a traditionally white-male profession living in a rural, conservative county. She just ran unopposed as a Republican for a second term in the predominantly white community she grew up in.
Dolly Hunt is good at what she does, a rising star in the Washington criminal justice system according to her peers around the state.
Hunt said there are two things people ask her when she attends many criminal justice related meetings on the west side of the state.
″‘Why are you in Pend Oreille County?’ they ask. If you look at me from the outside you think I should be from a West Side city,” Hunt said with a smile during a recent interview in her Newport office. Her mother is black and father white.
“Then I laugh and say I grew up there, my family is there and I’ve been a rural county prosecutor for 15 years,” she said. “Next, I’ll get the question: How old are you?”
After a midterm election that saw women, minorities and a younger generation elected at a record pace, many would assume Hunt would be talking about that wave. But like she has for 15 years, continues to toss America political stereotypes out the window. When on the West Side, she says it isn’t women or people of color she represents first but rural northeast Washington.
“I think coming from a rural county makes me represent that at the state level - it is necessary,” Hunt said. “I ask: ‘Is our voice being heard on the West Side?’ Rural areas don’t have the same resources. I think it is important that we have a voice coming from smaller, poorer areas so our voice doesn’t get drowned out.”
Those who know her say she was a tough but fair deputy prosecutor in Okanogan, Lincoln and Pend Oreille counties. Among her criminal cases was the murder trial of a young man who stabbed his mother to death.
Hardened drug dealers, child sexual abusers and violent assault cases filled her career in criminal court. They were handled with small staffs and budgets. She was elected prosecutor in 2014 after her boss, Tom Metzger, retired after 30 years. She defeated Robin McCroskey who was just elected Pend Oreille County Superior Court judge.
“I see her becoming a federal judge, if that’s what she wants,” said Metzger pointing out that she had often talked about her goal of someday becoming a judge.
“She’s articulate and knowledgeable,” he said. “She treats people the same respectful way regardless of who they are.”
Deputies told her that criminals in jail called her “The Lady, not the blank-blank Lady.”
“People know her around the state,” said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecutors. “She is solid. She is known as a person who is very thorough and gets the work done.”
McBride has known her for her entire career. He will retire from the association in December after 25 years and had been a prosecuting attorney in King and Spokane counties.
McBride confirmed the rising star label by pointing out that Hunt was elected treasurer of the board by her peers this summer which traditionally leads to the president’s chair. Four of the 39 counties will have elected women as prosecutors next year. Although about half the deputy prosecutors in Washington counties are women.
The judicial system has similar statistics. A 2016 report by the American Constitution Society found that fewer than one-third of state judges in the country were women and fewer than one-fifth were people of color.
Hunt’s professional recognition began a decade ago. Washington State Bar Association leaders selected her for a new program designed to train young attorneys for leadership roles.
The Washington Leadership Institute is a leadership development program that recruits, trains and develops traditionally underrepresented attorneys for future leadership positions in the legal community. Hunt was selected in 2008 and now serves on its advisory board.
She said it gave her many opportunities to personally interact with legal, judicial and political leaders. She still uses them as resources in her work.
Her father’s family has lived in Pend Oreille County since the 1950s. With just over 10,000 residents, the county is one of the smallest and poorest in the state.
Jim Hunt graduated from Newport High School. He moved away and worked at one time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where he met his wife, Regina, who was 20.
They moved back to the United States where Regina became a citizen. Eventually moving to Pend Oreille County when Dolly was in the first grade.
Her father worked for the Army Corp of Engineers at Albeni Falls Dam, retiring after 29 years, and staying in the county. Dolly was the oldest of their three children. Her brother, James, and sister, Lori, live in Spokane.
“Race is always an interesting conversation for me,” Hunt said. “I don’t think growing up I really thought about it. I knew outwardly I looked different.”
She can’t recall any racial issues at Newport schools and said she made great friends.
“I never really focused on that - you liked me for who I am or you didn’t,” Hunt said.
Her mother and father raised their family during the white supremacists’ movement in northeast Washington and neighboring North Idaho.
“I had a friend from Guam I wanted to come up here and they were concerned, they said, because I lived near northern Idaho,” Hunt said.
They had heard about the Richard Butler compound in Hayden Lake and the racist rhetoric via the national media.
Hunt asked her friends: “Why are you concerned about that? I’m not concerned about that and I grew up there?”
“If you met me I would never start with what I do,” Hunt said when explaining how race, gender or her job aren’t her focus. “If they ask what I do, I say attorney, and if they ask what type, I say prosecutor, but never say elected prosecutor.”
It wasn’t until undergraduate school at Gonzaga University that race became a conversation topic, Hunt said. But it was primarily with other people of color who hoped to connect with a common experience.
“I never discount what people in the South experience, but it was not my background - they dealt with different things,” she said.
At the Santa Clara University in Northern California, where she graduated from law school, there was a lot more diversity, she said. But all she can remember is being in the library all the time.
Hunt said she registered as a Republican before running in 2014 for the first time, but is not active in the party. Metzger was a registered Democrat for the 30 years he worked here and his boss, Jim McNally, was also a Democrat. After this election, all the Pend Oreille County officials will be Republicans.
“I have some conservative views and some liberal,” Hunt said. “I don’t want to put people in boxes with all these categories, so we miss who they really are.”
When asked about her opinion of the politically-charged process that confirmed conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she said it’s sad that the process became such a “circus.”
She is familiar with the judicial review process having done it for the bar association for state judges.
“You want the best of the best people. That’s what I would hope,” she said. “If there is something flawed in a judge’s background. They should step away.”
When asked if she ever thought she would return to Pend Oreille County, she said yes.
After graduating from law school, she worked for district court judges in rural Nevada.
Then she worked three years as a deputy prosecutor in Okanogan County.
Metzger and then Lincoln County Prosecutor Ron Shepard hired her for a special joint drug task force they formed.
“After we interviewed her and she left we looked at each other and said what are we waiting for, she is the one and ran out into the parking lot before she left and offered her the job,” Metzger said.
Hunt said she was happy to return to where she grew up because she is very family-oriented and she also liked the rural lifestyle with open space. But she added she likes being close to a city like Spokane.
She is single and keeps active in local and state professional organizations.
One of the local groups she is proud of is the Newport Soroptimist Club, a professional women’s group that does fundraising for local improvement projects and internationally for improving the lives of women and girls.
“Empowering women and girls is an important theme for me,” Hunt said. “My parents made education important for me, my brother and sister. It is one thing you can’t take away from us.”
She said she loves being part of Soroptimists because of the history of some amazing women doing amazing things for the community.
As her job as prosecutor has evolved she has been in the courtroom much less, she said.
She is the adviser to the county commissioners on legal issues, serves as county coroner, and oversees a million-dollar annual budget.
When asked about his department’s relationship with Hunt, Pend Oreille County Sheriff Alan Botzheim, who is retiring at the end of the year, said: “We always know where we stand and she is direct.”
Deputies and prosecutors can often disagree about how to handle their jobs.
“I tell my new attorneys that I don’t mind spirited debate on how to do a case as long as everybody is respectful,” Hunt said.
She said she takes this attitude with those she prosecutes as well.
“The way I approach it is I’m here to do a job it’s not me against the defendant.”
Influenced the most
“At the end of the day the greatest influence is my parents, Hunt said. “They raised three good kids. They taught us to work hard, do your best, don’t get discouraged, life isn’t easy, it was never meant to be.”
Hunt said they were two very different parents coming from two very different backgrounds.
It helped her shape her view of the world which is probably different from many.
“I’m also lucky and grateful and blessed for the Tom Metzgers and others in my professional life that reminded me why we are here,” Hunt said.