By HUNTER GEORGE
OLYMPIA — Overshadowed by races at the top of the ticket, four Democrats who hold statewide offices are nevertheless favored for re-election in November.
Attorney General Christine Gregoire, Treasurer Mike Murphy, Auditor Brian Sonntag and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen face spirited challenges from political unknowns, for the most part.
A fifth incumbent, state School Superintendent Terry Bergeson, is unopposed for a second term in the nonpartisan office after handily defeating four challengers in the Sept. 19 primary.
Gregoire was thought to be the most vulnerable state incumbent this year after her office missed the deadline to appeal an $18.7 million jury verdict against the state. But she won nearly 55 percent of the total vote in the five-way primary, erasing concerns Democrats had about keeping the seat.
She has blamed the debacle on a combination of factors: a paperwork mix-up, possible misconduct by an assistant attorney general and "gamesmanship" by the attorney for the plaintiffs. She quickly moved to speed up implementation of new caseload management practices.
It’s the only blemish on what has been a high-profile career, capped by her role as leader of the negotiations with big tobacco that led to the $206 billion national settlement and changes in the way the cigarette makers market their products.
Gregoire also won praise from consumer activists when she aggressively lobbied state lawmakers last winter to consider her sweeping proposal to limit what companies do with personal information, only to see business lobbyists kill her bill. She’s now focusing her privacy crackdown on Congress.
Her main opponent, Republican Richard Pope, is making his second run for the office. The Shoreline attorney got just 35 percent of the vote against Gregoire in 1996.
Pope says he is within striking distance this year, even though he won only 39 percent of the vote in the September primary and has never caught on with GOP leaders and donors. He notes that he was one of the top vote-getters among Republican candidates in the September primary, and says his name-recognition should be higher.
He says Gregoire’s failure to appeal the case that could cost taxpayers more than $18 million backs up his claim that her office provides bad legal advice and "botched representation." He also says the national tobacco settlement is overrated since the industry jacked up the price of cigarettes, leaving consumers stuck with the bill.
Three candidates from minor parties also are running for Gregoire’s seat. Libertarian Richard Shepard, Luanne Coachman of the Natural Law Party and Stan Lippmann of the Natural Medicine Party combined to get about 7 percent of the vote in the primary.
Here is a look at the other races:
Democrat Murphy faces a challenge by a political unknown: Diane Rhoades, a certified public accountant and school board member from Orting.
Rhoades, who faced no opposition for the GOP nomination, won 41 percent of the overall vote in the primary. Murphy took 47 percent, while another Democrat took 7 percent.
Rhoades says Murphy is a career politician who lacks her financial qualifications.
"I’m running to bring my career experience to government, not to make government my career," she said. "I think we need to get back to citizen legislators. I have the background to tell the taxpayers how their money is being spent. That’s not being done now in an easy-to-understand format."
Murphy, who served as Thurston County treasurer for 10 years, is seeking a second term for what he calls the best job in state government. Last year, he even declared that he was the best treasurer in the nation.
He says he has been successful in using the state’s buying power to help families by lowering the cost of local school bond measures, assisting local governments with low-cost loans for such items as police cars and fire trucks, and backing a program that provides future college tuition at today’s prices.
Libertarian Tim Perman, who won 5 percent of the vote in the primary, is also on the ballot.
Incumbent Sonntag, bidding for a third four-year term, is under attack from a Republican who challenges Sonntag’s credentials and record.
Dick McEntee, a business consultant who lives in University Place, was a late entry into the race after no Republican signed up during filing week in July. He came out swinging in recent weeks.
McEntee says Sonntag has hidden the fact that he lacks a college degree and that he was able to become a "certified government finance officer" without taking a rigorous exam.
McEntee estimates that as much as 9 percent of the state’s $20 billion, two-year budget is wasted and says the $37 million in mishandled money that Sonntag’s auditors discovered last year is puny. He also says Sonntag has failed to push for permission from the Legislature to analyze the performance of state agencies, not just their handling of cash.
Sonntag, known in Olympia for his fondness for weightlifting and rock ‘n’ roll, says he has demonstrated his commitment to efficient and open government during his eight years as state auditor and 20 years as an elected clerk and auditor in Pierce County.
Sonntag, who won his second term in 1996 with 64 percent of the vote, says he has strengthened the state employee whistleblower program by expanding the rights and protections of government workers who report improper activities.
He has been lobbying the Legislature for approval of a so-called Alliance for Accountability, a citizen panel that would evaluate how state government provides services. He says voter approval last year of Initiative 695, which slashed taxes and required public approval of future tax and fee increases, shows that voters believe their voices are not being heard in Olympia.
Sonntag says he also is lobbying to strengthen the state Open Meetings Act.
Libertarian Chris Caputo, a former Microsoft software developer who got 6 percent of the vote in the primary, says he would save taxpayers’ money by making more government services available online.
Owen, another rock ‘n’ roller who plays in a band, is favored over Republican challenger Mike Elliott of Rainier and Libertarian Ruth Bennett of Seattle.
Owen, a conservative Democrat, is seeking a second term to a low-profile post that has two primary responsibilities: presiding over the Senate during the few months a year when the Legislature is in session, and serving as the state’s acting chief executive whenever the governor is out of the state.
The job is rarely in the limelight even though it is a heartbeat away from the governor’s office, a point driven home following the death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
Owen has spent much of the rest of the time promoting his longtime advocacy of encouraging children to avoid drugs, alcohol and violence. He also has been pushing to boost international trade and economic development.
Like Owen, Elliott says he would use the office to promote his own pet causes: tax reform, support for school vouchers and opening car-pool lanes during off-peak hours. Elliott, a retired Army helicopter pilot and Gulf War veteran, is an electrician serving his second term as mayor of Rainier.
Bennett, a Seattle travel agent, says she would push to abolish the lieutenant governor’s office, which she says is little more than a part-time job and a waste of taxpayers’ money. She also criticizes Owen for using his office to oppose the 1998 voter-approved initiative that authorized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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