Competition feisty for largely ceremonial state office

A testy duel for lieutenant governor is bringing attention to one of the most important seats of power in Washington because its holder is literally a heartbeat away from running the state.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen of Shelton is seeking a fifth term and facing an energetic challenge from Republican Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland, a former state lawmaker.

Whoever wins will, for the next four years, fill in when the governor is out of state and be first in line to succeed him should he become incapacitated or die.

While the victor will carry out other tasks, including presiding over the state Senate and breaking ties with his vote, it is the succession which makes this $93,948-a-year position a unique and vital cog in the operations of state government.

“I don’t see a smoother, more transparent, more understandable way for voters when it comes to succession than a lieutenant governor,” said Julia Hurst, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

Washington’s founders created the lieutenant governor’s position in the state’s constitution, and Republican Charles Laughton was the first to hold the office.

Owen is the state’s 15th lieutenant governor and his 16 years in the job rank as the third longest in state history behind John Cherberg’s 32 years and Vic Meyers’ 20.

The 62-year-old Owen says his experience, knowledge and background prepare him better for presiding over an evolving state Senate and working with a new governor.

Finkbeiner, 43, says it’s time for new energy in the job and his 12-year tenure as a state senator gave him plenty of insight of how the place is run.

Today 43 states have lieutenant governors and seven, including Oregon, do not. Of those seven, Oregon, Arizona and Wyoming designate the secretary of state first in the line of succession while in Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia the responsibility falls to the president of the Senate.

In Arizona, when President Barack Obama chose the state’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, as his Homeland Security chief in 2009, it ignited debate about the need for a lieutenant governor, Hurst said.

Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, was elevated into office in accordance with the state’s rules for succession, much to the chagrin of Democrats in the Legislature. Ironically, according to news reports at the time, Brewer had previously endorsed a lieutenant governor position because she didn’t feel the secretary of state position qualified someone to be governor.

Succession aside, how lieutenant governors are elected and the responsibilities they have vary greatly across the country.

Washington is one of 18 states in which the office holder is independently elected, according to Hurst’s research.

Twenty-five states pair candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of the same political party on the same ticket as is done with a president and vice-president. Hurst noted some, like Massachusetts, put the pairs together based on the results of a primary creating a sort of arranged marriage on the November ballot.

The Washington Policy Center, a business-oriented think tank, has long advocated for switching to making the lieutenant governor part of a ticket.

Jason Mercier, director of the group’s Center for Government Reform, said voters usually pick governors for their policies and proposals and if a lieutenant governor is part of the cabinet they can push initiatives along.

As it is now, a lieutenant governor of a different political party or philosophy could actually undermine initiatives when they are in charge, he said.

“You don’t want to build in mischief or the ability to take advantage of when the governor is out of state or incapacitated,” he said.

Both Owen and Finkbeiner oppose switching to a two-person ticket approach. They said the current method ensures they can act independently when arbitrating conflict in the Senate chamber.

Both pledged to be good caretakers when filling in for the governor.

“There’s always a possibility that someone comes along and is a goofball, but the chances are pretty good it won’t happen,” Owen said.

Part of the reason is lawmakers, courtesy of the state’s founders, can assign duties to the position beyond serving as Senate president. They also can eliminate the office by passing a bill with a simple majority vote and getting it signed by the governor.

Lieutenant governors in Washington did enjoy more power in the early days of statehood. They served on the Senate Rules Committee and could assign senators to committees.

But that changed in the 1930s when the majority Democrats battled Vic Meyers, a Democratic lieutenant governor. Meyers made committee assignments opposed by Senate leaders and he tried unsuccessfully to call a special session when Gov. Clarence Martin was out of state.

Today, while some states put their lieutenant governors in charge of security and emergency preparedness, Washington’s office is pretty much without a portfolio. By statute, the lieutenant governor is chairman of the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations.

After that: “We carve out our own direction,” said Owen.

Owen said it was a “quiet office” when he arrived in 1997 but now does a lot of stuff and is the “go-to” office for international trade.

“I believe the governors have undervalued it,” he said. “Where I think governors are missing the boat is not looking at the lieutenant governor and say, ‘Hey they could be a partner’ without us running as a team.”

Finkbeiner called it “an under-utilized office.”

In his vision, he said it could become a force in changing the culture of politics. He said he wants to try to wring some of the partisanship out of the Senate chamber and coax in greater collaboration.

“What got me back into politics is I had become frustrated with the way our politics are right now,” he said. “I feel there is an opportunity to use this office to help them do better.”

This contest is gaining an increasingly personal tone as Owen fends off Finkbeiner’s allegations of ethical missteps and pays a $1,000 fine for failing to file campaign spending reports on time.

Owen has made reducing drug and alcohol abuse by young people a cornerstone of his tenure. He helped form a nonprofit, Strategies for Youth, to advance the effort in partnership with his office.

That group, which employed Owen’s wife, shut down last year. But those ties with Owen’s office are the subject of an ethics probe. He denies any wrongdoing, though admits one time a staff member did wrongly call potential donors on work time.

Other than that, he said, “I can’t think of anything I would have done differently. I am very proud of what we do.”

Meanwhile, last month Owen received a $1,000 fine from the state Public Disclosure Commission for failing to file a handful of 2011 campaign reports on time. Owen argued any violations were unintentional and he should not be fined.

Finkbeiner said the two situations are “very real reasons to be concerned” and hopes to get the word out to voters about them.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

What’s the job

The lieutenant governor is the president of the Senate and serves as acting governor in the absence of the governor. It is also first in line in succession if the governor becomes incapacitated or dies. The term is four years and the pay is $93,948 a year.

Brad Owen

Age: 62

Residence: Shelton

Party: Democrat

Experience: First elected lieutenant governor in 1996, Owen had previously served 14 years in the Senate and six years in the House.

Bill Finkbeiner

Age: 43

Residence: Kirkland

Party: Republican

Experience: Served two years in the state House and 12 years in the Senate before choosing not to run for re-election in 2006.

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