Endorsements: trust but verify

In the coming weeks, the Herald editorial board will interview and recommend candidates for Washington’s August 5 primary. It’s a short-hair-pulling, subjective process.

Over the years, the board has pushed a few character-challenged failures (not intentionally, mind you), a reminder that judgment is a tested value, not a campaign slogan.

There’s no substitute for individual-voter research, especially with a primary smack in the middle of road-trip and gas-barbeque season. Congressional primaries are particularly critical. “Journalists mostly ignore them, except when a scandal-ridden incumbent is defeated,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck.

In Washington, the evaluation gold standard is the Municipal League of King County, which has no Snohomish County equivalent. Volunteer-candidate investigators dedicate weeks to answer character-related unknowns such as “Is the candidate trustworthy, reliable and candid?”

The Herald editorial board’s recommendations are closer to silver. We ask tough questions and attempt to disentangle the campaigner from the elected poobah.

In 1984, future Washington Gov. Booth Gardner lamented that he couldn’t just apply for office. Except for the money raising — an obscene, soul-deadening exercise in cold-calling strangers — campaigns are a useful gauge of patience, stamina and listening skills, all essential qualities to serve in public life.

To every interest group, and print media is an interest group, there’s an agenda. A legislative candidate will be greeted with shock and awe if she declares that her first priority will be to zero-out tax breaks that benefit Washington’s anemic newspaper industry.

“Candidate X is a spirited and backbone-ish type,” we’ll write. “We encourage her to avoid the Legislature and dedicate her time to local politics, which better aligns with her priorities.”

While we aim to be fair, we are not a representative cross-section of a demographically evolving Puget Sound area. We are all white, privileged and college educated. Still, we slouch toward balance, and prioritize candidates who work hard and think for themselves.

The editorial board appreciates imagination, truth tellers and those who tamp down clichés. However much we embrace “working families” and Northwest values, we long for specifics. Poll-tested applause lines will be met with marginalia, “X can’t put it in his own words” followed by hangman doodles.

Public life is thankless, process-heavy work, but it remains a noble calling. To paraphrase theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, we prefer idealists without illusions over realists without a conscience. But judge for yourself and then vote.

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