Callaghan: Choices are designed to circumvent state constitution

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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It's a dance performed around the state a couple of times each year. A member of the Legislature or county government resigns — to take on a different office or to "spend more time with my family." The local party apparatus begins a process that gives them relevance: the constitutional duty to nominate three people for the vacant post. Then, the county legislative authority — county councils or county commissions — appoints one of the three.

Giving local party committees that much of a role was probably always more power than they should have had. Precinct committee officers often run unopposed; many are themselves appointed. And accountability to the voters who will be represented by the new appointee is less than zero. But at least the final decision is made by the elected county council members or commissioners.

Except, of course, when it isn't. According to the dance steps, local parties try to manipulate the system to limit the choice of county elected officials to just one name.

In Seattle last week, the 43rd District Democratic Party committee decided state Rep. Jamie Pedersen should replace Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray in the state Senate. Then, to pretend to follow the constitution, they added two candidates who refused to serve if selected by the council.

There is little question that Pedersen will, and should, get the Senate appointment. But then the party committee members tried the same scheme for Pedersen's House seat. The "winner" was chosen from three seemingly qualified applicants, with the "losers" made to promise not to serve if appointed.

The party, and the reporters who covered the event, acted as though the process were complete, that Pedersen was the new senator and that Brady Walkinshaw was the new House member. The eventual appointment by the county council was described as just a formality.

Other counties do it differently. Benton County commissioners, for example, appointed Sharon Brown to a Senate opening this year even though she wasn't the first choice of the party. The Pierce County Council overlooked the party's choice, as well, when it appointed Steve O'Ban to replace the late Mike Carrell.

Overlooking the top choice always brings cries of protest from party types. But the concept of ranking the three names is a party affectation. The 1956 amendment to the constitution that governs appointments says nothing about ranking. It also says the county legislative body decides, not the party.

Yet local party leaders keep dancing. In Grays Harbor County, a vacant county prosecutor's office remains vacant because the commissioners chose the third name on a list of three — a former county party chairwoman has now refused to take the oath of office, insisting that the commission appoint the top choice.

Parties want to have say

All this partisan manipulation leads to the bigger question — why do we still give parties an official role when we switched to the top-two primary system in 2008? The parties' attempt to take control of the state primary system was thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court, after all. The result is, we no longer pretend that general election candidates have been "nominated" by party primaries. Winners say which party they prefer only to give voters a clue as to their philosophy.

The simple answer for maintaining the parties' outsized role is because the Legislature hasn't triggered a constitutional amendment to sync the top-two primary system with the appointment process. The good reason for that oversight is that voters still expect an appointee to be close philosophically to the office-holder being replaced. The bad reason is, lawmakers don't want to take away one of the last vestiges of power from their local parties.

We're left with a system under which it is bad enough that local party officers have a role in appointments. But then it is made even worse when they insist on manipulating the process so they have the only role — and county commissions and county councils let them get away with it.