OLYMPIA – Lame-duck Gov. Gary Locke may not be limping off into the sunset on schedule.
If the slugfest between Dino Rossi and Christine Gregoire doesn’t produce a new governor by the scheduled Jan. 12 inauguration, Locke may have to stick around. He’s not thrilled.
A provision of the state constitution that says the governor’s term of office is four years “and until his successor is elected and qualified.”
That provision has never had a practical effect. But now the state is in uncharted territory with a governor’s race that is headed into an unprecedented third count.
Republican Rossi was certified Tuesday as the winner of the first recount by just 42 votes out of 2.8 million cast, a tiny fraction of 1 percent. The political parties announce their plans for a manual recount on Friday.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, the chief elections officer, said a simple recount could be completed by Dec. 23, but that worrisome developments could easily extend the count into the new year.
If the parties choose only a partial recount in selected counties and the tally shifts to a Gregoire advantage, state law mandates a hand recount in the remainder of the state. That, too, could be done by inauguration.
But Reed said all bets are off if the matter goes to court. The Rossi camp has talked about battalions of lawyers getting involved on both sides, and state Democrats already have identified examples of possible court challenges.
“Clearly, the Democrats are already planning on dragging this election into court,” state Republican Chairman Chris Vance said Wednesday. “I thought they just wanted to ‘count every vote.’ “
Legal battles could push the tally past inauguration day.
Republican Reed’s view is that Democrat Locke would have to stay on until his successor is elected and installed.
Reed acknowledged that this isn’t 100 percent certain, though, since the constitution also provides for the lieutenant governor to fill in for an absent governor. The provision isn’t exactly on point, since it talks about the “death, disability, failure or refusal of the person regularly elected to the office of governor to qualify at the time provided by law.”
If court cases and recounts are raging, Rossi can’t really be considered “regularly elected” or there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a newly elected Democrat, has regularly served as acting governor whenever Locke is outside state airspace. He said Wednesday that he’s not sure whether he or Locke would draw the fill-in assignment.
“After taking a cruise to Mexico with my wife, I’ll be backed tanned, rested and ready to serve,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not going to do anything radical. I’d look at handling it very professionally. My role would be to be a caretaker and make sure things go smoothly.”
He said state attorneys should settle the question and avoid litigation.
Locke makes it clear he’s not interesting in hanging around.
“I’m prepared to leave office,” he told reporters. “I’m expecting to leave office that Wednesday, Jan. 12. It’s time to move on.
“We’re moving back to Seattle, enrolling the kids in Seattle public schools. I’ll be commuting back and forth from Seattle that last week and a half. Mona and I made that difficult decision not to seek a third term, and we’re ready to move on.”
The Lockes are moving out of the Governor’s Mansion at the end of the month, returning to the Seattle residence they’ve maintained and used most weekends.
Sharon Wallace, the governor’s communications director, said lawyers are trying to clarify the situation.
“If it turns out to be the case that he needs to remain serving as governor beyond Jan. 12, the people of Washington elected him to this office and he would serve as long as he is needed,” she said.
Todd Donovan, political scientist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, said the possibility of a temp for governor is an amazing coda to the longest, closest governor’s race in state history.
“That’s pretty weird,” he said.
The public would probably accept the strange twist if the parties and the candidates don’t inflame the situation, Donovan said.
“If Locke just sits there and dusts the desk and acts as a true caretaker, I don’t think it would get people fired up,” he said. “How the public responds to this is pretty much in the hands of the party leaders and how much they want to make a stink out of this election.”