Washington state's 26th Legislative District is the singlemost swing district in the state. It's a slightly Republican-leaning district (R+0) in which two of our three state legislators - the state Senator and one of the two state Representatives - are Democratic. Our state Senator just won election to Washington's 6th Congressional District, replacing the retiring Norm Dicks. This diary series will chronicle the process to replace him from the insider's viewpoint of an elected Precinct Committee Officer who will be voting by signed official ballot on the selection of his replacement in the state Senate.
I'm the elected Precinct Committee Officer, the lowest rank of Democratic Party elected official in Washington state, for a precinct in south Kitsap County, half of Washington's 26th Legislative District (LD), the most swing district in the state. The state is entirely vote-by-mail, and elections aren't certified as final this year until December 6, two days from now. Since our current state Senator, Derek Kilmer, won his bid to be elected to the US House of Representatives from Washington's 6th Congressional Distrct last month to replace retiring longterm Congressman Norm Dicks, he is widely expected to resign his seat on the 6th or shortly thereafter.
When a sitting legislator or elected government official at any level resigns his or her seat or otherwise cannot serve the remainder of his or her term, there is a defined process to replace that person. If more than a short period of time will pass before the term expires, there will, at some point, be a special election, but before that happens, a person will be appointed to fill that seat. In this series, I propose to present an inside view of the process as it occurs.
Soon-to-be former state Senator and newly-elected Congressman Derek Kilmer is a Democrat, which, according to state law, means that a Democrat must be appointed to fill his seat once he resigns. This is a responsibility which the law initially gives to the elected Precinct Committee Officers (PCOs) from both the relevant political party and relevant jurisdiction, for offices up to and including state Senate. (I believe that statewide offices in which a vacancy occurs during an unexpired term are, at least initially, handled by the relevant party's state committee.) The PCOs vote on signed, public-record ballots as representatives of their precincts and choose a set of three candidates, ranking them in order of how early they were chosen and the number of votes each received. The party organization then submits these three candidates to the appropriate body of elected officials, requesting, in most cases, that the body of electeds choose the PCOs' first-choice candidate. These electeds must choose one of the three submitted candidates but are not bound to choose the highest-ranked candidate. They may appoint any one of the three.
If the body of electeds is unable to reach a decision on a candidate, the choice of appointee falls to the governor. Again, he or she must choose from among the three candidates the PCOs have selected. Neither the body of electeds nor the governor is permitted to choose anyone except one of the three candidates the PCOs have submitted.
In the four prior selections in which I have been involved in my more than eight years as a PCO, the positions have been Kitsap County positions and the meeting has been called by the chair of the Kitsap County Democrats. In all cases, the body of electeds to whom the PCOs' chosen candidates were submitted was the Kitsap County Commissioners, including both times in which the vacancy was on the County Commissioners. Great selections by the PCOs resulted in the County Commissioners choosing each time to appoint the highest ranked candidate, which has resulted in each appointee winning elections and holding onto the seat.
This time the scope is larger in quite a few ways. Our district is unusual in that it is composed of parts of two counties, Kitsap County and Pierce County. The meeting will therefore be called by the chair of the Washington State Democrats, Dwight Pelz, and all the elected PCOs in the legislative district will have a vote. The candidates list is then submitted to a specially convened combined body of the Pierce County Council and the Kitsap County Commissioners. There are seven members of the Pierce County Council, a majority of them Republicans, and three members of the Kitsap County Commissioners, all of them Democrats. Each county's body of elected officials has an equal weight in the vote. As in other selection processes, if this combined body of electeds is unable to reach a decision, in this case after 60 days, the governor will make the appointment. Both the outgoing governor, Christine Gregoire, and the newly elected governor, Jay Inslee, are Democrats.
Another way in which our district is unusual is that we have a candidate search committee, a non-elected body comprised of members selected by the 26th LD Democrats' chair. All candidates must answer and submit a detailed questionnaire; they are then interviewed by the committee. In most cases, the committee will make a recommendation as to which candidate is best qualified. Anyone seeking the party's endorsement must also answer the questionnaire, and all candidates running for re-election in the district must submit the questionnaire and re-undergo the interview process.
When it comes to the candidates for appointment to the state Senate, however, the candidate search committee will present the pros and cons of each candidate without ranking them, allowing the PCOs to make their selections based on their own criteria. Each candidate will be rated with one of three ratings: highly qualified, qualified, and not ready. There are multiple candidates in each category.
It has been proposed that the meeting to select the candidates for appointment be closed to the public and the press, with only elected PCOs, candidates, and convening officials permitted to be present. As the pros and cons of each candidate will be presented, as was determined by the 26th LD Democrats' executive board, some feel that the opportunity for Republicans and outside interests to do opposition research is too great if members of the public or the press are included. I believe that the entire process must be as transparent as possible; the more sunshine, the better the citizens of the legislative district are served. This exclusion of the press and the public is one of my motivations in writing this series.
Tonight I will stand for re-election as our LD's state committeewoman at our biennial reorganization meeting. All Democratic party organizations in the state hold a reorganization meeting every two years, at which time every office in the party organization is up for election. Changes in the party's officers may affect how the selection process is conducted with respect to such things as openness to the press and members of the public.
Part 2, coming soon, will address what happens after someone is appointed. Also expect to see the inner workings of the candidate selection meeting itself in another part, including commentary on the candidates.
Wed Dec 05, 2012 at 12:42 AM PT: There are also appointed PCOs. An appointed PCO considers him or herself to be a member of the appropriate party and either lives in a precinct with no elected PCO but didn't seek election, or lives in a precinct which already has an elected PCO but agrees to serve as non-resident PCO for a district that has no PCO (of which there are many here). There are times when all PCOs may vote, but this selection process is not one of them; this is restricted to elected PCOs, who must all, by law, reside within their precincts.