Who’d have thought that of the two campaign forums I moderated last week the face-off between the candidates for state auditor would be the less contentious.
Not that there was much love on stage when James Watkins and Troy Kelley met at the Association of Washington Business fall conference. Watkins, the Republican, continues to hit the Democrat over allegations made in a trio of civil suits involving his businesses. Kelley is firing back, trying to raise ethical issues against Watkins as well, but with less success, and the AWB decided against endorsing either one.
Still, after getting through the auditors with only a minor amount of blood, I figured the conversation between the candidates for lieutenant governor would be easy. First, incumbent Brad Owen and challenger Bill Finkbeiner are a congenial pair. And besides, it’s the lieutenant governor.
The late Joel Pritchard used to joke that many of his friends lost track of him after he was elected lieutenant governor in 1988 after 12 years in Congress.
“What are you doing these days, Joel?” they’d ask. After he told them, he’d explain, “It’s not a high-profile office, and I’ve done nothing to change that.”
So what could possibly be contentious about a campaign for such a position, one with only a few constitutional duties – preside over the state Senate and fill in, technically at least, for the governor when she leaves the state. The job description is so thin it requires an office holder to create tasks to stay busy once the Legislature adjourns. Owen, for example, has championed international trade and his work with the Washington Mentors program.
But Finkbeiner touched a nerve, apparently, with a pair of news releases sent out earlier in the summer criticizing Owen’s use of so-called surplus funds – leftover campaign dollars – for purchases of liquor, costs of receptions, meals for staff and friends, and donations to a charity from which his wife takes a small stipend.
Owen reacted before Finkbeiner even raised the issue, complaining – at great length – that he and his family had been insulted. Better, he said – again at great length – to pay for such things with private contributions than tax dollars.
But Finkbeiner said the money usually comes from lobbyists and he’s made elimination of surplus funds a part of his reform agenda. Frankly, it’s probably a better issue than his other position: that senators shouldn’t sit by party but instead by alphabetical order. Such intermingling would promote bipartisanship, says the guy who has been elected under both party banners.
Being bipartisan, even nonpartisan, is one of the requirements of this odd job. While some states elect the lieutenant governor on a ticket with the governor, Washington elects them separately.
That means a Washington lieutenant governor can, and has been, of a different party than the governor. That could be awkward as the lieutenant governor fills in when the governor’s office is considered “vacant,” something that happens way more often than it should due to a never-challenged Supreme Court decision from 1910. That horse-and-buggy-days court decided the office of governor was vacant whenever the governor was out of the state.
So the president is still the president when he’s halfway around the globe, but the governor must hand over the keys when she’s in Portland.
Both Owen and Finkbeiner pledged to be good caretakers when the next governor leaves the state and do nothing untoward such as call a special session or appoint me to the liquor board.
I don’t wonder why Owen wants to keep the job and Finkbeiner wants to take it from him. Sure, it is the lowest-paid among the nine statewide elected offices at $93,948 a year. But the lieutenant governor enjoys the perks of both the executive branch and the legislative branch. He gets a state car like the statewide elected officials (and an extra $200 a day whenever he is acting governor, something Owen’s been for all or parts of 56 days this year). He also gets per diem of $90 during legislative sessions just like legislators.
And unlike those other office holders, there is little chance anyone will say anything critical of the lieutenant governor, or anything much at all. Unless, that is, the unthinkable happens and the state’s most obscure state office holder becomes its most email@example.com 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @CallaghanPeter