When unexpected openings occur in the Washington Legislature, state law requires the political party that held the seat to decide the replacement. Typically, this is done rather rapidly, within weeks. The parties and the politicians will tell you expedience is necessary for the people to have their representation restored as soon as possible. But it’s also true that each party’s caucus wants the decision made expeditiously to retain that party’s voting clout in the Legislature.
This is what happened Wednesday, when Clark County commissioners appointed Sharon Wylie to replace Jim Jacks, the Democratic representative from the 49th District who resigned March 25. Wylie was immediately sworn in and already is serving the people of the 49th, less than three weeks after the vacancy occurred.
Although Wylie’s qualifications appear solid (she served two terms in the Oregon Legislature in the 1990s), her performance cannot be accurately assessed until after she establishes a track record in Olympia. Already, though, we know this replacement process, though not flawless, works reasonably well.
Yes, voters are left out of the initial appointment process, but state law soon brings them into a position where they can hold the appointee accountable. To keep the seat, Wylie (who emerged from the local Democratic party’s vetting that included seven applicants, three finalists and interviews by county commissioners) must go before voters on Nov. 8, one year sooner than other legislators must face re-election. And she’ll have to run again in 2012 in the Legislature’s regular election cycle. So to minimize the time when the seat is vacant, and then bring voters into the process as soon as possible, seems adequate under the circumstances, which happen to include the element of a surprise vacancy.
The same thing happened in 2007 when Republican state Rep. Richard Curtis resigned on Oct. 31. Jaime Herrera was appointed to replace him in the 18th District less than a month later. And that evening — on Nov. 29 — Herrera was in Olympia voting as a member of the Republican caucus in the Legislature’s special session. Later she married, changed her name to Jaime Herrera Beutler and now serves in Congress.
An interesting political peculiarity links Herrera Beutler and Wylie. Each was selected by a group dominated by the opposing political party. Wylie, a Democrat, was chosen by two Republican and one Democratic county commissioners. In 2007, Herrera Beutler, a Republican, was appointed by six county commissioners, five Democrats and one Republican. (The 18th District serves both Clark and Cowlitz counties, thus the six-commissioner vote).
Even in nonpartisan political positions, expedient appointments are common. In 2010, a position became open on the Vancouver City Council as Tim Leavitt was advanced by voters from councilor to mayor. Less than a month into the council’s new year, on Jan. 25, Bart Hansen was appointed to the council, emerging from a field of 15 and impressing councilors during the interview process. Less than 10 months later, Hansen went before voters and won election to the council.
Like many aspects of the American political system, this replacement process is imperfect. It would be great if every politician was serving at the will of voters.
But the quick transition assures continued (or rapidly resumed) representation, and to make the appointees accountable to voters as soon as possible effectively re-establishes the principles of a representative republic.