By Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
OLYMPIA — Six years ago, Steven Gonzalez’s last name likely cost him votes in his first race for the Washington Supreme Court. He won nonetheless.
Now he’s hoping he can keep his seat as he runs for re-election in an under-the-radar, statewide race against an opponent, Nathan Choi, who has raised no money, has no bar ratings and has links on his website to YouTube videos about the “Deep State.” Though he’s the incumbent, Gonzalez fears that voters’ lack of familiarity with judicial races will be a strike against him.
“I suspect that most people don’t know either of us,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is the only one of three justices up for re-election this year who has opposition. Justices Susan Owens and Sheryl Gordon McCloud are running unopposed after their opponents were bounced from the ballot because they were disbarred lawyers.
In recent weeks, the Supreme Court has gotten lots of attention because of high profile rulings overturning the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles, as well as a ruling upholding the state’s reworked charter school law.
But the races for Supreme Court, like most judicial contests, have drawn scant attention. Gonzalez is concerned that voters won’t even know he’s the incumbent when they see his name and Choi’s together on the ballot.
“His name comes first (on the ballot) and mine comes second, so it takes a little bit more effort and work to learn about and to cast an informed vote on judges,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez may have cause for concern. A poll last May commissioned by the liberal Northwest Progressive Institute suggested that nearly three-quarters of voters didn’t know whom they would vote for. Among those who did, the majority appeared to favor Choi.
Gonzalez is haunted by what happened in 2012, when he first ran for the Supreme Court, a seat he had been appointed to earlier that year. He had spent a decade as a King County Superior Court judge.
Like now, Gonzalez faced a challenger who didn’t raise any money and didn’t actively campaign: Bruce Danielson of Kitsap County. Nonetheless, Danielson won 29 of 39 counties in the August primary. In Yakima County, where Hispanics account for nearly half the population, Danielson got 64 percent of the vote.
After the 2012 election, then-University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto and colleagues concluded — based on an analysis of voting patterns — that racially biased voting was at work in that race.
According to Barreto, who’s involved in voting rights cases across the country, non-Anglo-sounding last names are a potential liability for candidates — especially in nonpartisan races like a judgeship.
“We do see evidence of what the courts call racially polarized voting, meaning that the majority voters who are white are voting against candidates who they expect to be black, Latino or Asian American,” Barreto said.
Despite evidence of racially polarized voting in 2012, Gonzalez prevailed. He won 60 percent of the statewide vote with help from the vote-rich central Puget Sound region and advanced to the general election unopposed.
This year, however, Gonzalez and his opponent share something in common: Neither has an Anglo surname. Barreto said that makes this race different than in 2012. He predicts some voters may choose not to vote for either Choi or Gonzalez based on their last names.
“The most likely scenario is that we might see roll-off,” Barreto said. “They may choose to not vote in that election if they’re looking for a representative that they believe will represent the white community better.”
That’s little comfort to Gonzalez, who’s been rated “exceptionally well qualified” by several bar organizations and enjoys bipartisan support.
In a brief phone interview, Choi declined to answer most questions.
“Just look at my website and find out what’s really going on,” he said.
Choi’s website calls for an end to taxation and homelessness, frames the race for Supreme Court as a battle between “slavemasters” and “We the People,” and includes links to YouTube videos with titles like “Desperate Deep State” and “One Family Rules the World.”
In 2017, Choi ran for the Washington Court of Appeals and was admonished by the King County Bar Association for violating the bar’s guidelines on fair campaigns. The Washington Attorney General’s Office said it’s seeking a default judgment against Choi in a campaign finance lawsuit, also stemming from his 2017 race. In a recent endorsement of Gonzalez, the Yakima Herald said Choi “lacks any judicial experience and seemingly a modicum of ethical grounding.”
So far, Gonzalez has raised about $300,000 toward his reelection. But he said that doesn’t go very far in a statewide race. Gonzalez also said he’s concerned about the lack of attention given to judicial contests.
“It’s the responsibility of really all us and the greater community to focus on these races,” Gonzalez said.
Austin Jenkins is an Olympia reporter for Northwest News Network, a collaboration of public radio stations that broadcast in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. You can hear the audio version of this story here.