Independence, pragmatism guide board’s endorsements

By Bob Bolerjack

Some readers were scratching their heads last week over what they perceived as a rather serious contradiction by The Herald’s editorial board.

I’m quite sure it wasn’t the first time.

Last Sunday, we published our endorsement of Republican John Koster over incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. Two days later, we endorsed incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee over his challenger, first-time candidate and Republican James Watkins, in the 1st District congressional race.

In both editorials explaining our choices, a chief reason we cited was leadership. After 10 years in Congress, we wrote, Larsen had worked on issues of local importance, as he should, but hadn’t developed a reputation as an assertive leader who has a major impact on national legislation. Inslee, in contrast, has had such an effect.

In endorsing Koster, we noted his experience in both the public and private sectors, his assertive, straight-forward style, and the advantage he offers the district if, as many analysts predict, Republicans retake control of the House in November.

Still, some readers wondered, what gives? As one thoughtful reader put it, “Your chosen candidates are at opposite ends of national and local political platforms. If both of these candidates would get elected, their votes would just cancel each other, resulting in stalemate and leaving the old status quo … something this country and region is desperate to change.”

First, the four people who comprise the editorial board (their names appear in the column at left) are very independent thinkers. That’s in line with many pragmatic Washingtonians, who despise being categorized by political party or ideology.

This is an electorate, after all, that valued its independence enough to establish a primary election system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party preference. That reinstituted key elements of the old blanket primary, which for decades allowed voters to go back and forth on their primary ballot, choosing a Republican in one race, a Democrat in another, and even a third-party candidate in another.

Similarly, the editorial board bases its decisions on a variety of factors, not just party affiliation. Speaking only for myself, I think representative democracy works best when both parties have leverage — when each has enough numbers in Congress to give meaningful compromise a chance. By and large, I don’t think having one party in control of all the levers produces the best, most long-lasting decisions.

Times change. Issues evolve. A candidate who seems well-suited for office under one set of circumstances might not in another.

Since I joined the editorial board eight years ago, we’ve endorsed Larsen four times out of five. Some years it was a closer call than others. We’ve endorsed Inslee three times in that span — we favored current Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine over Inslee in 2002. In other partisan races, we’ve endorsed a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

Endorsements are an extension of the editorial board’s ongoing role, to comment on current issues and events, to bring context to news coverage, to help set a tone for civil discussion in the community we all live in and care about.

Like other editorials, endorsements are offered as food for thought, as points to consider. That’s how they should be taken. They are not, nor are they ever intended to be, the last word.

At their best, they spark thought and generate discussion — in letters to the editor, online comments, or over the kitchen table. The goal is to help citizens understand important issues, to help voters make informed choices on their own.

I’m often asked whether The Washington Post Co., which owns The Herald, dictates editorial policy here. The answer is no. Those folks are a continent away, and are smart enough to leave The Herald’s role in the community to those who live here.

I did, however, once have a brief discussion on the topic with Chuck Lyons, the corporate division head at the Post Co. whose responsibilities include The Herald. It was in 2002, when I became editorial page editor. It lasted all of 10 seconds. He said simply, “Be independent.”

That’ll work, I thought. I already am.

Bob Bolerjack is The Herald’s editorial page editor.