A brief mid-debate exchange during Thursday night’s League of Women Voters forum for Bainbridge Island political candidates ended with the incumbent for a seat on the board of the park district reaching out to grab his opponent, promoting her to respond, “Please don’t hurt me.”
The forum was held at city hall, and featured candidates vying for positions on the school board, fire department board and park district board.
Incumbent John T. (Tom) Swolgaard was seated next to his opponent, former Kitsap Sun journalist Rachel Pritchett, and was responding to a statement she had just made when she interrupted Swolgaard after he began to speak.
Swolgaard pushed back.
“It’s my turn,” Swolgaard said as he reached over and, as Pritchett described it, grabbed her shoulder.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she quickly said.
Swolgaard replied she should turn off her microphone so that he could speak, and then reached over to do it for her.
Pritchett said Friday she had been not so much scared by the interaction as surprised.
“I was scared — not scared, I was startled,” she said. “I would call it a grasp. It wasn’t a shove and it wasn’t a clawing, it was a firm grasp. It was firm grasp on my shoulder.”
Pritchett said she received an apology from Swolgaard via email Friday afternoon.
“I appreciate the apology very much and I hope it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We all make mistakes and so I fully accept Tom’s apology.”
Late Friday, Swolgaard said he regretted his actions and was surprised by Pritchett’s response.
“I was surprised by her reaction because all I did was just touch her and ask her to stop interrupting me,” he said.
Swolgaard said he had been repeatedly interrupted and spoken over by Pritchett throughout the forum.
“To be honest with you, she was bullying me most of the night,” he said. “I was trying to be very calm, but even the moderator told her to stop interrupting and she didn’t. It’s unfortunate.
“You had to be there to understand; it was just very frustrating.”
Swolgaard supplied the Review with a copy of the apology. It reads: “I’m sorry for how I reacted last night. It’s obvious that we both feel strongly about our common concern for the parks and the citizens of Bainbridge Island. It’s for them we serve. Here’s to preserving the parks on Bainbridge Island.”
He also forwarded a supplemental statement, which he wrote in response to a previous query about the incident. It reads:
“It was never my intention to try and ‘hurt’ Rachel at any point during the forum last night. When I reached out and touched her shoulder and asked her to ‘Stop it,’ I was merely trying to get her attention. More than once she had interrupted me over the course of the question-and-answer session. She would over step me while I was trying to answer questions from the audience. While we were each allotted 1.5 minute responses, she would start to speak before my turn was over. It was evident that even the moderator and timer were also frustrated as she went over her time limits. I have apologized to Rachel for how I reacted last night. It is clear that we are both passionate about our parks and the citizens of Bainbridge Island. It is for them we serve to help preserve our beautiful parks.”
Of the possible political ramifications of the incident, Pritchett said: “I don’t think it did Tom any favors in his campaign to keep the seat, and that’s something he did for himself.”