The hikes, lakes and sunset viewing spots on Chuckanut and Blanchard Mountains, south of Bellingham, are places that nurtured this Washingtonian’s love for nature and experiences of long-ago teenage misbehavior.
I found myself, years later, using my position at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to promote creation of a 1,600 acre preserve atop Blanchard Mountain.
The project was promoted and nurtured by conservation champion Hilary Franz, Washington State’s charismatic Commissioner of Public Lands.
It worked, although skies opened up on the victory celebration.
Our Department of Natural Resources was once known as the “Department of Nothing Remaining” because of the vast clearcuts it authorized.
Logging debris clogged streams, and trashed riparian zones in such places as the Clearwater River on the Olympic Peninsula.
The presence of a proactive Franz, combined with Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s multiple legal victories over Donald Trump, deliver a basic point about civics in Washington: Downballot races have a direct impact on our lives.
There’s a flip side, too.
Troy Kelley won election as Washington State Auditor in 2012 despite legal controversies over his business background. (He had the ability to self-finance a television ad campaign.) Kelley was indicted and convicted while serving in statewide office. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just upheld his conviction.
Kelley was not subjected to much vetting by the press before the deadline arrived for voters to cast ballots in the August 2012 Top Two election. (Kelley secured one of the top two spots and went on to win in the November general election.)
That wasn’t the case when former Insurance Commissioner Karl Hermann sought to regain his old office a few decades ago after having lost a reelection bid.
Don McGaffin of KING TV broke the news that, in litigation following an accident, Hermann claimed to have suffered brain damage. Our lawyers at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer vetoed an editorial headline: “Hermann has half a mind to run.”
Downballot offices hold great authority – or potential authority – with voters doing the hiring and firing. Friends in British Columbia rib me about the multitude of positions we elect around here, including our nine statewide executive department offices (the governorship and eight lower profile positions). I counter: Voters here have a direct say over state-owned lands. When you protest the clearcutting of old growth forests in B.C., you must challenge the full provincial government.
As Attorney General, Rob McKenna signed Washington up for a Republican lawsuit intended to overturn the Patient Protection Act. No matter that Washington was rapidly reducing its rolls of uninsured. McKenna did not bother to consult with then-Governor Chris Gregoire, a strong supporter of Barack Obama.
Under Bob Ferguson, Washington took on and blocked Donald Trump’s first attempt at a so-called Muslim travel ban. The state took the Grocery Manufacturers Association to court for laundering money in a campaign to defeat an initiative that sought to require the labeling of genetically modified foods.
Ferguson has also created new civil rights and environmental law divisions in the Washington State Attorney General’s office. If you leave a listing, oil-leaking boat in one of our harbors, you can be assured that Ferguson will come after you.
A look at this year’s set of executive department races shows models and potential models of new or returning downballot officeholders:
The sinecure: Outgoing Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen sharply criticized would-be successor Cyrus Habib in 2016, arguing that Habib didn’t understand the limitations and scope of the job. Habib wanted to do too much. Owen had served as an informal trade ambassador, fought teenage drug use with rock music, and presided over the State Senate. He was a capital fixture.
“Lite governor” has often been a post-stress job, for Republican Joel Pritchard after Congress and John Cherberg after his rocky tenure as University of Washington football coach. U.S. Representative Denny Heck is running for Lieutenant Governor as a back-home job after eight productive years in Congress. State Senator Marko Liias, meanwhile, is running as someone on the way up.
Progressive voters have a judgment call to make on these two.
Rites of succession: Republicans have held the Secretary of State’s job since ex-bandleader Vic Meyers was tossed out in 1964. They have groomed successors, and assumed something akin to a right of ownership.
Case in point: In 2016, retired Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed sent a how-dare-you email to a reporter giving space to Tina Podlodowski’s challenge to Kim Wyman, Reed’s successor, whom Reed is very protective of.
Wyman is one of the few Republicans still serving in office in Washington State who belongs to the party’s vaunted Dan Evans wing. Trump’s takeover of the party has put Wyman in a quandary, particularly given his frequent broadsides against voting at home. Wyman has remained active in Republican politics while declining, as much as possible, to either endorse or repudiate Trump’s positions.
The advocacy and energy for expanding voting rights and access to the ballot has come from Democrats in the Legislature, with Wyman occasionally pushing back. She is a frequent guest on National Public Radio, where she periodically comments on Washington’s experience with voting at home.
Wyman claims support from county auditors in both parties, though she has fewer Democratic backers than she did in 2016. NPI boardmember Gael Tarleton, who is giving up her seat in the House to challenge Wyman, has taken on the task of making a case for change where other high-profile Democrats have failed.
Upward bound: State Representative Mike Pellicciotti is an up-and-comer in the Washington Legislature with a background in the Attorney General’s office. Pellicciotti is seeking the important but largely invisible job of State Treasurer, not often a haven of activism in state government. (Retired Treasurer Jim McIntire, who served two terms, did talk candidate Jay Inslee out of half-baked proposal to invest state-managed pension money in technology startups.)
Incumbent Republican Duane Davidson won the Top Two contest in 2016 in which Democrats splintered their votes in the August election and both finalists for the November runoff were Republicans. That will not happen this year, as Pellicciotti is Davidson’s only challenger, having united Democrats behind his candidacy.
Davidson was a longtime Benton County Treasurer, is active in the National Association of State Treasurers, and is past president of the Washington State Association of County Treasurers.
Davidson is backed by two Democratic predecessors, Dan Grimm and Mike Murphy (the latter known mainly for welcoming Democratic presidential candidates on visits.) Davidson, a Trump backer, is an affable presence at the Mainstream Republicans of Washington’s annual Cascadia Conference.
Pellicciotti is going after Davidson for missing state pension board meetings. The incumbent has an attendance record equivalent to Frank Sinatra’s in high school.
The bottom line: You can be comfortable in a downballot office. You can be part of an old guard network of incumbents. You can take on low-risk projects, like going after car dealerships that mess with odometers, or sternly warning the good people of Washington not to accidentally start brushfires.
Or you can be make something of the job… and try (as Hilary Franz has) to get money to quickly respond to wildfires, or sue Monsanto for the toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that still contaminate our waterways.
The eight statewide downballot executive races before voters this year are:
- Lieutenant Governor: Presides over the State Senate, fills in for the governor when out of state, and serves as link between Pacific Northwest based consuls and Washington State government.
- Secretary of State: Administers elections at the state level, along with corporations, the address confidentiality program, the state library, and the state archives. Also the custodian of the state’s seal.
- Attorney General: The state’s chief legal officer, responsible for overseeing what is essentially Washington’s largest law firm, which represents the state in cases at every level of the judicial system.
- State Treasurer: The office responsible for the management of the state’s funds, including its cashflow (more than $288 billion in Fiscal Year 2019) and its debts, or accounts payable, to bondholders and creditors.
- State Auditor: Charged under the Constitution and state statute with conducting financial and performance audits of state agencies and local governments to ensure they are operating responsibly.
- Commissioner of Public Lands: Heads the Department of Natural Resources, tasked with the management of the state’s forests and aquatic lands, the suppression of wildfires, and geologic hazards mapping.
- Insurance Commissioner: Regulates the insurance industry in Washington State, serving as a vitally needed check on the power of the firms that sell auto, home, life, long term care, and healthcare policies.
- Superintendent of Public Instruction: The administrator of the state’s public schools system, responsible for allocating funding to school districts and assisting them with their curriculum and technology needs.
Washingtonians, when you vote, make sure you vote for each and every one of these positions. The deadline to return a ballot is Tuesday, August 4th, at 8 PM.