Secretary of state decries political polarization

Same Reed, who is retiring, makes Vancouver visit

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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When Secretary of State Sam Reed first became involved in politics decades ago, he sat in the wings of the Legislature, watching with dismay as politicians hurled rhetorical stones at each other.

"Oh my God, these guys hate one another," Reed recalled thinking. But then "they would walk off the floor and say, 'Let's go have a beer.' They would have a beer and be friends and talk about sports and their kids."

They didn't take the art of politicking personally. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore, Reed said Wednesday in Vancouver -- one of many stops he's making around the state as a champion of levelheadedness and respect in politics.

"The politics in America, the politics in our state, have deteriorated in many respects," said Reed, who is retiring after 45 years of public service."It has been really frustrating to me, because I've been a part of this for so long, to see things deteriorate into strident party politics at times, where they feel it's more important to seize partisan advantage than it is to actually deal with the real issues."

Reed, 71, acknowledged that examples of such political polarization can be seen throughout American history, "but I think it is something that we really don't need to put up with as citizens."

Reed said one of the best recent examples of civility occurred this year during the debate in the Senate over the same-sex marriage bill. The two opponents leading the debate "both expressed in their remarks how much they respected one another … and they realized this person was operating out of sincerity," Reed said. "It really set a tone, so the rest of the legislators who commented were also very gracious."

During his farewell-tour stop in Vancouver, he encouraged members of the Rotary Club of Vancouver to make sure the candidates they support won't be divisive political figures. When candidates come to community leaders asking for an endorsement or campaign money, Reed said, "What I ask you to do is say: 'First, I want to have a little talk with you about civility, bipartisanship and moderation.' … It can really have an impact and get people moving in the right direction."

Reed also visited the Clark County Elections Department on the eve of it launching recounts in the two tightest legislative races in the state. Reed said the voter boundaries have been redrawn partly in an effort to encourage swing districts and a healthy democracy.

"In the state of Washington, we have very competitive situations politically," he said. "We like the idea of being able to change the direction of the Legislature, and you can't do that if there's these partisan districts."

Reed is one of the few Republicans holding statewide office in recent years. Before becoming secretary of state, he served as Thurston County's auditor and as the assistant secretary of state.

During his 12 years as secretary of state, he successfully fought for the state's top-two primary system, in which the top two candidates, regardless of political party, advance to the general election. He also protected the state library from closure, reformed the election system following the thrice-counted gubernatorial race in 2004, was a catalyst behind the state's vote-by-mail system, and created the country's first digital archives to preserve electronic records.

He said he wishes he completed his Heritage Center project, which was put on hold for financial reasons. The center would be a tourist destination at the Capitol Campus designed to teach visitors all about Washington history.

Reed said he is hopeful, however, that his successor, Republican Kim Wyman, will work to finish that goal because she advocated for the Heritage Center on the campaign trail.

During his Vancouver visit, Reed praised Clark County Elections Supervisor Tim Likness and called Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey the best county auditor in the state. Kimsey also had kind words to say about Reed.

Kimsey said his favorite memory of Reed is from "one dreary day in Olympia" during the debate over the state's primary voting system.

"At one table, we had the chair of the Washington State Republican Party, and sitting right next to him was the chair of the Washington State Democratic Party," Kimsey recalled. "These two people were actually arm-in-arm on this issue. At the other table was Sam. And Sam's testimony was basically: 'We run elections for the benefit of the people, not the political parties.'"

Reed said he's been asked many times why he's leaving public service behind.

"Thirty-five years as an elected official, 45 years in the middle of the political maelstrom, and seven campaigns? That's enough," Reed said. "I leave with mixed feelings. … I really love my job."