Callaghan: It's ignorant to assume votes against judge are ignorant

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 

Maybe they didn't like Ben Harper.

While a huge hidden bias against the musician is unlikely, his radio endorsement of his cousin, Washington state Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez, might have turned off a voter or two. But that's hardly explanation enough for the odd vote for the court's position No. 8.

Gonzalez easily won election to the seat he was appointed to in January, winning more than 60 percent of the vote statewide. Technically, Gonzalez will be elected at the general election but his majority vote in the primary means he will appear unopposed.

Rather than celebrate the election of just the second Hispanic to the top court (Charles Z. Smith was the first), many have focused on the votes Gonzalez didn't get. His little-known opponent Bruce O. Danielson won more than 400,000 votes despite raising $0 and running no campaign. Especially intriguing is that Danielson won 30 of 39 counties — all of Eastern Washington and Southwest Washington. In most cases, he outperformed Republican gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna and Shahram Hadian.

"The only way to explain this is prejudice," wrote Eli Sanders of Seattle's The Stranger.

No one knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man and woman. And it's very likely that many voters passed by Gonzalez because they won't vote for Hispanics. Especially in Central Washington, Hispanic-surnamed candidates do far worse than the underlying politics of the areas would predict. But to say that most votes for Danielson were a manifestation of prejudice is, well, prejudiced.

First, it is based on the assumption that voters in much of the state had no information on which to judge the candidates except surnames. That's because the state did not produce a printed voters pamphlet and only some big counties printed one. (For the record, the lack of a voters' pamphlet was not due to budget cuts. Only twice has the state sent out a primary pamphlet, in 2000 when the secretary of state had surplus funds and again in 2008 to explain the then-new top two primary). The state does produce an excellent online voters' pamphlet as do many newspapers. There also was coverage of the race in those same papers and on their websites.

Were pro-Danielson votes really anti-Gonzalez votes? Probably, since he was the incumbent.

Gonzalez is from Seattle, which carries its own negatives in many counties. He was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, never the state's most popular executive. And he raised money from special interests that connote a political persuasion — labor unions, Indian tribes, Planned Parenthood. I voted for Gonzalez but found the level of support from groups that will certainly come before the court discomfiting.

In comparison

Another Supreme Court race on the ballot saw 12-year incumbent Susan Owens essentially reelected against two candidates, neither of whom raised a dollar or campaigned much. Together, the challengers got nearly as many votes as Danielson. Gender bias? For some, probably. But it also reflects the 60-40 ratio common to races of incumbent justices versus less-than-vigorous opponents.

Gonzalez spent $263,000 with the most obvious of his efforts on the radio. That's where his cousin asked for votes. But his campaign purchased air time only in Seattle and Spokane, and spent nothing in Yakima, Tri-Cities or the expensive Portland market that reaches Southwest Washington.

And in Spokane, where the Republican candidates for governor carried 54.5 percent of the vote, Danielson had one of his poorest performances in Eastern Washington at just 51 percent. Is Spokane less prejudiced than other counties east of the Cascades? Or did that radio campaign make a difference?

Some Washingtonians may have voted against Gonzalez for bigoted reasons, which is not OK. Others might have opposed him for political reasons, which is. Knowing the difference is worth knowing.