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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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With Inslee out, candidates are lining up for Washington governor

Among those exploring bids for the 2024 election are Bob Ferguson, Hilary Franz, Raul Garcia and Semi Bird.

By Joseph O’Sullivan, Crosscut
Published:

With Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declining to run for a fourth term in 2024, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz have announced tentative bids to replace him. Other elected officials are lining up to declare their interest for the two statewide seats they would leave empty. The long-anticipated great reshuffle in Washington politics has begun.

Next year’s governor race will be the first contest for an open seat since 2012, and a lot has happened in America, in politics and in Washington in the past decade.

The election of former President Donald Trump – and the armed attack on the U.S. Capitol four years later – turned progressive parts of Washington state into “the resistance”’ while stirring up a populist, hard-right conservative base. Moderate Republicans, once a hallmark of Washington politics, have melted away, Democrats have consolidated political power. Most – but not all – Washingtonians have weathered the pandemic as well as a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd.

The rising polarizations and deepening divisions in the nation have come to make elections feel more consequential, said Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who works on Democratic and progressive campaigns.

“There’s just a lot more at stake, it feels like,” she said. “For the Republican side, as a counterweight to Biden, and for the Democratic side, a counterweight to Trump and other Republicans.”

The stakes may feel high, but the field for now is not necessarily a surprise. Both Ferguson and Franz, whose office oversees the state Department of Natural Resources, expressed interest in the 2020 governor’s race, before Inslee declared for a third term.

Also back is a moderate Republican, Raul Garcia, an emergency physician from the Tri-Cities area. He entered the primary late in 2020, losing out to Inslee and Loren Culp. He joins another Republican, Richland School Board member Semi Bird, in announcing a bid.

The list is likely to grow over the next year plus.

“I would say, we are likely to see a lot more people enter this race,” said Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant.

Fincher and Hays note other potential candidates, such as Tiffany Smiley, the Republican who last year challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. Eyes are also on state Sen. Mark Mullet, a moderate Democrat from Issaquah who has now been challenged by his own party as it moves further to the left.

Washington’s top-two primary could spice the intrigue up another notch or two. The August 2024 primary allows the two top vote-getters to advance, regardless of party. In recent years, that dynamic has already led to a pair of Democrats competing for lieutenant governor in 2020. And there’s precedent in the other direction too, with the 2016 race for state treasurer. In that contest, a fractured Democratic primary field allowed for a face-off between two Republicans that November.

Hays said he believes the most likely outcome is a Democrat and a Republican competing in November 2024. But he envisions scenarios where the race could boil down to two Democrats at the top of the ticket, or even possibly two Republicans. “The math gets weird,” said Hays.

Governor

Before any candidates get through the top-two primary in August 2024, they first have to navigate the shifts within both Democratic and Republican politics.

The races come after Inslee used unprecedented powers during the pandemic, and as progressive Democrats harness their power in Olympia to use government more forcefully to tackle issues like homelessness and on business regulations, Fincher said. Meanwhile, Republicans recoiled from Inslee’s strict pandemic health measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. And conservatives more broadly around the nation are advocating to use government to advance their own agenda.

“There’s certainly more angst and division within the parties,” said Fincher. “Which could create interesting primaries on both sides.”

First elected attorney general in 2012 after serving on the King County Metropolitan Council, Ferguson rose to some prominence for his scores of successful legal challenges of Trump administration action, and more recently, his legal efforts to protect access to the abortion medication known as mifepristone.

He has already gathered $2.1 million in contributions, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. That includes $1.2 million in surplus campaign funds from previous campaigns that he  transferred to the new campaign ahead of a state rule change, according to The Seattle Times.

A spokesperson for Ferguson said that right now he is focused on a listening tour across the state.

“Bob is traveling the state listening to Washingtonians to hear their concerns and priorities,” wrote Wellesley Daniels in a text message. “In the last week he’s been to Usk, Chewelah, Bellingham, and Spokane, and plans to visit all 39 counties during this exploratory phase.”

An announcement video of Ferguson’s exploratory campaign includes testimonies from Inslee, Planned Parenthood, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and others. The video also touts his advocacy for stricter firearms regulations that have been passed in recent years that he pushed for, such as bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and prohibitions on the sale of assault-style weapons.

Before first winning statewide office in 2016 and reelection in 2020, Franz served as executive director of the environmental organization Futurewise.

In an interview, she touted her work building the Department of Natural Resource’s wildfire-fighting capabilities, which included figuring out ways to respond more quickly and getting the Legislature to fund more equipment and firefighters. Earlier this year, Franz launched a statewide tree-equity program, to build the tree canopy in places where they are needed most.

She would focus on working to address the housing shortage, strengthening the economy and tackling income inequality, and doing more to respond to climate change.

“I think Washington voters are wanting a strong, ambitious vision for the future,” said Franz.

On the Republican side, Garcia is the medical director of Astria Toppenish Hospital on the Yakama Indian Reservation and still works as an emergency physician.

In an interview, Garcia touted work this year at the Legislature advocating successfully for a GOP bill that increases funding for rural health care. He proposes an exemption to the business & occupation tax that would benefit small business owners, and said he wants to welcome both immigrants and new businesses to the state.

In 2020, Garcia had the endorsement of former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and he is running on a platform to work across the political spectrum: “We will unite Washington and we’ll concentrate on issues instead.”

“I think that my opponents will certainly represent a subsection of their own ideology, their own party ideology,” added Garcia, who has so far raised about $28,000.

Also running is Semi Bird, a member of the Richland School Board. The military veteran faces an August recall vote along with two other board members on assertions that they violated Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act among other things, according to the Tri-City Herald. Proponents of the recall contend the board members acted recklessly in February 2022 by voting to make masks optional in schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s indoor mask requirement at the time. Opponents of the recall have called it frivolous, according to the report.

An email to the Bird campaign seeking comment was not returned. His website calls for a return to “rule of law,” promoting tax relief and a pledge to audit state government agencies across the board. Bird has so far raised about $65,000, according to campaign finance records.

Downballot races

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler has already announced he won’t seek election again in 2024, a move that comes after he apologized for using racist slurs while interacting with employees. That means if Ferguson and Franz ultimately file for governor, at least three of Washington’s nine statewide elected offices will be up for grabs.

State Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, has announced interest in the office of insurance commissioner, Fincher said.

Meanwhile, King County Metropolitan Council Chair Dave Upthegrove has announced he is “seriously considering” running for public lands commissioner, which oversees the state Department of Natural Resources. Upthegrove, a three-term council member, spent years before that in the Legislature – including as chair of the House Environment Committee.

‘I think I would be an environmental champion in that role,” he said in an interview.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Washington Nick Brown, and Noah Purcell of the state Attorney General’s Office have all declared interest in the attorney general job, according to Fincher.

Dhingra – along with Ferguson – is already facing attacks from the Washington State Republican Party.

But a primary might first set up a choice among Democrats on whether and how to reshape the legal system further, said Fincher.

“Manka has a long record that people can examine, it’s not the same with Nick,” said Fincher. “I would think he would be more moderate than Manka.”

Brown declined to comment, Dhingra didn’t respond to a request for comment and Purcell – who is solicitor general at the Attorney General’s Office – couldn’t be reached for comment.

Hays contends that the right kind of Republican might have a shot at the attorney general’s race, given concerns among some about crime, and other issues. He points to the election in 2021 of Republican Ann Davison to Seattle city attorney. The GOP has struggled to win state office in recent years in part by performing poorly in Seattle and King County, a huge chunk of the state’s voters.

“I think that a moderate Republican candidate for attorney general would find more friends in Seattle than they might expect,” Hays said. But, “Because of the Trump presidency, it is harder to persuade people to get involved in public life.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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