In January of 2017, the State of Washington will experience something that has not happened in two decades – the swearing in of a lieutenant governor who is not Brad Owen. Eleven candidates have filed for the office that some have called non-essential. Five states function without one.
The job description of the lieutenant governor as spelled out in the Washington Constitution is the shortest for any statewide elected office. The primary duty is to preside over the State Senate. As President of the Senate, the lieutenant governor makes the call on parliamentary procedures and keeps business moving. He or she also fills in for the governor in an official capacity, when necessary, and meets and greets visiting foreign dignitaries.
Senate Procedural Rulings Key To Job
Settling procedural issues that arise in Senate legislative debate may be the most essential aspect of the job, and rulings by the lieutenant governor are posted online. Owen is advised on the toughest questions by two attorneys, employed by the two Senate political caucuses. In one of his rulings during the 2016 session, Owen upheld a requirement for a 60 percent supermajority vote to amend Ways and Means Committee bills.
Owen, who is retiring, recently told TVW, “I put a lot of background, a lot of information into my rulings so that people could understand how I got there and how they could use that ruling and how a decision might be made in the future.”
A Stand-In For The Governor
The lieutenant governor’s second constitutional duty is to serve as acting governor when the governor is traveling or incapacitated. Acting Governor Owen has been in charge an average of 60 to 70 days per year during his 20 years in office, less under Governor Jay Inslee than during the preceding administration of Chris Gregoire.
It was Owen who signed the emergency declarations during flooding in southwest Washington, the wildfires in north central Washington, and the response and recovery after the Oso landslide. The lieutenant governor’s base salary of $101,889 is boosted by about 50 percent on days when he steps up to the position and the pay grade of governor.
Six-Figure Salary, 11 Candidates
Perhaps drawn by the six-figure salary, a remarkable 11 candidates are seeking to replace Owen. Under Washington’s “top two” primary election system, the two with the most votes on August 2 will advance to the November 8 general election contest, regardless of political party.
The Race Takes A Swerve
Candidates have been going through all the usual paces, including a recent forum in Spokane, but recently the race has taken a swerve. The collegial Owen himself is part of that. Owen issued a letter on June 28th in which he criticized one of the leading contenders to succeed him, fellow Democrat Sen. Cyrus Habib (D-48).
In the letter, Owen goes after Habib for saying as lieutenant governor he would not sign any budget bill he found non-compliant with the 2012 McCleary ruling of the State Supreme Court on funding K-12 education. Owen also contests what he characterizes as an assertion by Habib that as a lawyer Habib would be able to supplant the two caucus attorneys who advise the lieutenant governor on procedural rulings.
Lastly, in the letter, Owen also takes issue with Habib’s contention that the lieutenant governor can influence state policy through appointing hundreds of citizens to state boards and commissions. In fact, writes Owen, the number of such appointments is minimal.
In a series of texted statements to Lens, Habib took issue with Owen. Habib said, “The people of Washington state deserve a lieutenant governor who will… use the office to address the pressing challenges the state faces.”
Habib added he never claimed he would veto any bill, but said he “would use every tool” of the office “to oppose an unconstitutional budget that doesn’t meet the court’s order.” He added he would heed the counsel of caucus attorneys but does see his legal training as an asset. Habib said the lieutenant governor makes appointments to about 50 boards and commissions and in so doing he “would seek to reflect the diversity of our state.”
Downsize It, Says Sen. Schoesler
At times, the duties seem to be a hodge-podge. Owen’s website shows that recently he has given a speech on gambling addiction, met with visitors from Poland, Cambodia and South Korea and attended a retirement tribute to himself.
Over the last 20 years, executive branch committee oversight and economic development have been added to the lieutenant governor’s portfolio. Not everyone thinks this is an improvement. The office is due for a downsizing, according to Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9). “We need someone who will return to the Joel Pritchard and John Cherberg style of leadership,” Schoesler told Lens. “Both had smaller staffs and were committed to focusing on the constitutionally-mandated job.”
The position is one of only two statewide offices in Washington that can be eliminated without a constitutional amendment. Illinois considered eliminating the office this year primarily as a cost-saving measure. New Jersey added the office in 2010 after a series of gubernatorial succession crises caused instability in government.
Munro: Nonpartisan Approach Key
Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro told Lens Washington needs to have a lieutenant governor. A key reason is that the Senate does require a presiding officer, who should be elected statewide. Although he would not support making it a nonpartisan office, he said he would favor candidates who seek to bring a nonpartisan approach to the office.
First-term Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) agreed the lieutenant governor needs to be a person of a moderate temperament who knows how to calm things down. “Anybody can run the Senate floor when everything is going fine, which is 99 percent of the time, but knowing how to step in when emotions run high is the key.”
Candidates’ Elevator Pitches
Habib and seven other candidates introduced themselves to voters at a mid-June debate sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and Greater Spokane Inc., at Spokane’s historic Davenport Hotel.
Paul Addis is the Libertarian party candidate. Addis said that as President of the Senate, the lieutenant governor is better able to call the game when he is not on either team. “Too often good legislation does not see the light of day because of partisan gridlock,” Addis said. He pointed to his facilitation skills working with teams as a senior business analyst with Alaska Airlines on multiple continents working with complex systems.
Mayor Javier Figueroa of University Place, a Republican, said his professional experience makes him well-suited to serve as President of the Senate. He has been an arbitrator with the Better Business Bureau for 21 years, giving him a unique perspective on small business issues. “We need to address what matters most to small business,” he said. Figueroa is a Vietnam veteran who completed 12 years honorable service in the U.S. Army.
Sen. Karen Fraser (D-22) is a six-term senator and a former Thurston County Commissioner. She emphasized the importance of presiding fairly as President of the Senate. “I would preside in the Senate in an even-handed, objective manner that would promote civility, respect and uphold constitutional protections,” said Fraser. She also took aim at what she termed Habib’s hyper-partisan approach.
Habib emphasizes that as lieutenant governor he would continue working on his legislative agenda, which includes “addressing the opportunity gap, income inequality, and climate change…”
Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44) of Lake Stevens emphasized his experience as an officer in the National Guard. Hobbs said that would be a plus when he would have to step in for the governor during an emergency. Hobbs has served in the Senate for 10 years, traveling statewide and playing key roles in bipartisan negotiations on transportation bills.
Republican Marty McClendon is a realtor and currently the co-host of “Eyes on Washington,” a radio program dedicated to “providing social and political commentary from a Christian perspective. He accents the importance of The Golden Rule, as well as government accountability, and regulatory restraint paired with environmental stewardship.
Republican Bill Penor describes himself as a little different, “a man who went to the school of hard knocks and graduated with honors.” He was drawn to the race after observing increasing partisanship in the legislature. “I did not see the leadership I wanted to see,” he said. Penor has been working in airport administration for 20 years. He is currently the Maintenance Manager at Snohomish County’s Paine Field and is a past board member and officer of the Washington Airport Management Association.
Republican Phillip Yin, a Yakima native and graduate of the University of Washington, is a former anchor with the U.S. affiliate of Chinese state television, CCTV America. His background in finance and investment led him into economic journalism. Yin believes his first-hand experience with emerging Asian companies is a valuable background for the international economic development roles played by the current lieutenant governor.
Three candidates did not participate in the debate: Mark Greene (Citizens Party), Daniel B. Davies (no party preference) and Karen Wallace (Democratic Party).
Sen. Angel: Do Your Homework
For some voters, the decision will come down to who’s the most viable contender in their political party of choice. Sen. Jan Angel (R-26) recommends a different approach. She said that for lieutenant governor she is looking for someone who can make the difficult calls fairly and is approachable by all senators, regardless of party. “Experience over a lifetime will be critical, and I hope people do their homework,” said Angel.