Monday, February 7

Finally, a recall for a "questionable" Secretary of State

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Starting at 9 a.m. in Olympia, Wash., Monday, a Thurston County Superior Court judge hears arguments on whether a petition to recall Secretary of State Sam Reed can move forward.

Some Republicans accuse him of wrongly certifying the election of Democrat Governor Gregoire, but Reed says he was simply following the state constitution.

For a happy-go-lucky guy who hates conflict, Reed finds himself the lightning rod for Washington’s endless Election from Hell.

Reed is the state’s chief elections officer—and the screwiest election in state history happened on his watch. So he’s been sued in the courts, vilified by longtime friends in his own party, and made the subject of a recall attempt.

His office got so many nasty and threatening phone calls and e-mail during the three vote tallies for governor that security guards were posted and caller ID was ordered for all of the office phone lines. Death threats—both political and physical—were received.

At one time or another, both major parties have publicly skinned the moderate Republican alive for supposed boneheadedness and mishandling of the election.

Reed’s not looking for sympathy, but says it’s grueling to be in the hotseat: “I admit I am getting weary of it.”

And the roiling controversy over the election for governor could stretch on into the summer.

In Wenatchee—Reed’s hometown—a Chelan County judge is hearing an unprecedented legal contest in which Republican Dino Rossi seeks to set aside the 2004 election for governor and authorize a revote. The judge said Friday that he had no authority to order a new election.

The main guy in the cross-hairs: Sam Sumner Reed.

And back across the mountains in his adopted home of Olympia, a Thurston County judge on Monday will decide whether a citizen effort to oust him can proceed.

Recounting the recount

Reed, a mild-mannered centrist, shakes his head at being caught up in a political whirlwind—for the past year really.

“By temperament, I am not a preacher of controversy. I’m not one who enjoys conflict,” he says.

But Reed has found it impossible to dodge all the bullets. One year ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused Reed’s last-gasp effort to save the state’s popular “blanket” primary that allowed voters to pick their favorite for every office, regardless of the candidate’s party label.

Reed became the foremost advocate for the closest thing he could find to the blanket primary, a “Top 2” system that advances the two top vote-getters to the general election, possibly representing the same party.

Since that dilutes the parties’ power, both Democrats and Republicans blasted Reed, and advocated a system of separate party primaries where voters must restrict themselves to one party’s action.

Through creative use of his veto pen, Gov. Gary Locke gave the parties what they wanted, and Reed lost the battle. Reed had to implement a widely criticized new primary last September, and ironically drew flak from those who thought it was his bright idea.

But Reed had the last laugh—and drew more brickbats from party activists—when the voters approved a Reed-backed initiative to create a Top 2 primary.

Meanwhile, Reed weathered a tough re-election challenge and, together with Land Commissioner Doug Sutherland, became the state’s senior GOP statewide elected official.

He had no time to celebrate either his own victory or that of the Top 2 initiative, since he was immediately sucked into the vortex of the gubernatorial tally that stretched until just before Christmas.

Rossi won the first count by 261 votes out of 2.9 million cast, and a machine recount was mandatory under state law. Rossi won again, by an astonishingly close 42 votes. Democrats then ordered up a hand recount and Christine Gregoire pulled ahead for the first time.

Throughout this, Reed was assailed at various times by both sides—and hauled to court, twice clear to the state Supreme Court.

Democrats were furious when he refused to order all counties to recanvass their rejected ballots and when he criticized party efforts to chase down voters with problem ballots. Republicans were irate when he agreed with Democrats that hundreds of previously uncounted ballots should be tallied in Gregoire-leaning King County but that other counties couldn’t reopen the tallies they had already certified.

Reed won both court challenges.

But what really frosted Republicans was when he certified Gregoire’s victory on Dec. 23. The Rossi camp said there were hundreds of late-breaking examples of illegal votes by felons and dead people, and provisional ballots that were illegally tallied without being properly checked.

Reed certified the returns from the 39 counties, setting in motion Gregoire’s inauguration, giving her an important psychological edge in the election contest that Rossi eventually filed.

By now, Reed was the Democrats’ darling and the Republicans’ goat. He was excoriated on talk radio, denounced at a public rally at the Capitol, and snubbed by some GOP legislators.

Eventually, the angst blossomed into a rare recall movement.

Mixed reaction

Few seem to be on the fence where Reed is concerned. He has drawn high praise from the state’s newspapers, who call him evenhanded and cool-headed, scrupulously apolitical.

His party has always had mixed feelings about Reed. A charter member of the small moderate-to-liberal Dan Evans wing of the party, he has been a pro-choice progressive leader of Mainstream Republicans, chiding his party for veering too far to the right.

Couple that with his position on the Top 2 primary and he already had baggage heading into the election mess, says state GOP Chairman Chris Vance, who at times was furious with Reed. Some legislative Republicans say Reed might not even win the GOP nomination if the election were held today. (Reed says he’s already mending fences.)

Democrats, ironically, are his most vocal defenders these days.

“He is one of the few heroes in this whole thing,” says Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “We all had fears of him being Katherine Harris, but he’s been doing great.”

Independent pollster Stuart Elway says Reed is getting “constant cannonade from inside the fort” of his own party, but seems well-liked by the general public.

But Reed also has heard from longtime supporters who think he deliberately sold the party down the river, giving Gregoire every break while certifying an election that is too flawed to definitively produce a winner. Some say they’ll never support him again.

With the megaphone of talk radio, web sites and blogs, critic Martin Ringhofer is launching the recall effort. Ringhofer, who works for Boeing and has homes in Seattle and Soap Lake, says Reed failed in myriad ways to conduct a legitimate election and should be ousted.

“It’s not a personal thing,” Ringhofer says. “I like him. I voted for him. But what happened here is inexcusable.”

If the court allows the recall to proceed, Ringhofer will need well over 600,000 voter signatures to force a new vote on Reed’s election.

Reed doesn’t seem worried. “Obviously, people have a right to do this,” he says. “I feel in many ways that our system worked well, considering that this was an absolutely unprecedented race that ended up with the closest margin in the history of the nation. But it also provided us lessons about where the warts and shortcoming are.”

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