Culwell seeks re-election as prosecutor; Lewis offers challenge

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DAYTON -- A county prosecutor and public defender recently squared off not in the courtroom, but at a crowded candidates' forum at the Liberty Theater. Incumbent Rea Culwell faces challenger Randy Lewis in her bid for re-election as the Columbia County prosecuting attorney.

Culwell, 37, an Eastern Washington native, has nearly eight years of prosecutorial experience: first as chief civil deputy prosecutor for Benton County, after which she ran unopposed for her current position in 2006.

After moving from St. Charles Parish, La., to Dayton in 2006, Lewis, 59, is seeking his first elected position. Lewis has 33 years of legal experience as a trial lawyer, 15 years of which he served as a public defender and eight years as appointed director of legal services for St. Charles Parish.

If Lewis is elected, he will be the only county prosecutor who has not passed the Washington State Bar Examination, according to Culwell, who has contacted prosecutors around the state during the campaign. Louisiana and Washington do not have a reciprocity agreement, which would allow a licensed lawyer of good standing to practice in the other state.

Lewis obtained a license in North Dakota, a state that has reciprocity with Louisiana and Washington.

"We don't have reciprocity with Louisiana because it is a French-based law," said Culwell. "All of the other 49 states are based on English common law.

"He would basically have to learn everything, or in civil matters, he would have to hire outside counsel which is extraordinarily expensive for the county."

"I won't have to hire outside counsel," Lewis responded. "(Culwell) studied in Georgia. She was able to pass the bar exam here, but she studied Georgia law. She didn't go back to college here in Washington and study Washington law."

"I spent about eight months studying Washington law in an intensive review course to prepare for the bar exam," countered Culwell. "I learned Washington law before I became licensed."

Lewis said he had originally intended to work with friend Edward Nichols's consulting firm, which advises defendants on allegations of child sexual abuse, and would have required a law license that would be recognized nationally.

"But when I got here, I loved this place so much, I told my friend that I really don't want to travel nationally. All I did was get my license here," said Lewis. "North Dakota was the path."

Lewis has been licensed to practice law in Washington since 2007.

Culwell, who has been endorsed by the Columbia County Sheriff's Deputy Guild and 17 county prosecutors in the state, trailed Lewis in the August primaries. Lewis, who lists the Columbia County Republican Party as an endorsement, received 52.2 percent of votes to Culwell's 47.8 percent. Lewis finished 73 votes ahead of Culwell.

"There are too many cases brought to trial that were not winnable," Lewis said of Culwell's record. "Something else should have been done with them, either plea bargained or dismissed."

If elected, Lewis said he would intensively screen all of the cases that come before him and would eliminate those cases that do not deserve to go to trial.

"And those that do deserve to go to trial, I will thoroughly prepare them so that there is a reasonable certainty of winning," said Lewis.

Culwell responded by pointing to her record in office. She said she has performed under budget, completed hundreds of hours of extra training and maintained a verdict record that rivals or betters the state average.

"Now I told you that my record was better than the state average, but I want to promise you something," Culwell said, closing her speech at Liberty Theater.

"If you were the victim of a crime or one of your loved ones is, I will not be afraid to go to trial and lose a case. I won't dismiss that case to protect my record."

Katrina Barlow can be reached at katrinabarlow@wwub.com.

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