OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday chose state Sen. Steve Hobbs — a moderate Lake Stevens Democrat with whom he’s feuded on climate change and transportation policies — as secretary of state.
Hobbs succeeds Kim Wyman, a Republican who is resigning for a job in the Biden administration.
Wyman leaves office Nov. 22 to work as the election security lead for the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
“This is a tremendous honor and responsibility,” Hobbs, a lieutenant colonel in the Washington National Guard, said in a statement. “There is nothing more sacred than the right to vote. I’ve fought for that right overseas and will do everything in my power to protect that right here in Washington.”
Speaking with reporters a short time later, he said he was “deeply humbled by being asked to go into this office” and praised Wyman for leaving him a strong staff and foundation.
The appointment lasts until the certification of next year’s general election results. The office of secretary of state will be on that ballot, and the winner will complete the final two years of Wyman’s term. Hobbs said he will run for the seat.
Hobbs, a state senator since 2007, is Asian American and will be the first person of color to serve as Washington’s secretary of state.
Hobbs was first elected to the state Senate in 2006 and has been re-elected three times in the 44th Legislative District, which includes Lake Stevens, Mill Creek and Snohomish. His current term expires next year. He has also run unsuccessfully for the Snohomish County Council and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2020, Hobbs briefly campaigned for lieutenant governor.
He has carved out a reputation as a middle-of-the-road member of his party. In 2006, when he unseated Dave Schmidt, a Republican, the statewide teacher’s union and environmental organizations backed the GOP incumbent. Four years later, progressive groups and some statewide unions opposed Hobbs again.
“I made enemies because I stood up to a couple groups and said, ‘No.’ They want to put in people who will say, ‘Yes,’” Hobbs said at the time.
In his first term, Hobbs helped unite centrist Democrats in the House and Senate into the Roadkill Caucus to give moderates a measure of political leverage in the legislating process.
On Wednesday, Inslee highlighted Hobbs’ political independence and military service as exemplary traits.
“Steve is a dedicated public servant,” Inslee said in a statement. “He has a strong national security perspective from his work in the Army and National Guard. His experience in cyber-security will be crucial as election systems around the country continue to face threats.”
“Importantly, Steve has demonstrated political independence. That is crucial during this time of political polarization and distrust,” Inslee said. “He is a moderate who has worked effectively with people of all political perspectives. He is not afraid to challenge both Democrats and Republicans. Steve has worked to protect democracy and will continue that noble pursuit as secretary of state.”
Inslee announced the appointment by video from Scotland, where he is attending the United Nations summit on climate change. By doing so, he avoided a potentially awkward news conference at which he and Hobbs could have faced questions about the number of times the two were at loggerheads during the governor’s two-plus terms.
Most notably, Hobbs, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, blocked through several sessions adoption of a low carbon fuel standard sought by Inslee.
When a bill finally passed this year, implementation was tied to passage of a new multi-year transportation package, a deal Hobbs helped negotiate. But Inslee vetoed the linkage, angering many lawmakers, including Hobbs.
Wyman won re-election to a third term in November. She is the only Republican holding an elected statewide office on the West Coast. State Republican Party leaders wanted Inslee to appoint someone from the GOP as her replacement.
“This is a crass political move by Governor Inslee to help pass his radical liberal agenda by removing an obstacle from the state Senate,” said Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich in a statement Wednesday.
Hobbs brushed aside the assertion, insisting his ability to navigate among Republicans and Democrats demonstrates he will be able to represent the needs of all residents. It would be “horrible,” he said, had the governor chosen someone from the far left or far right.
House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said in a statement: “From a legislative standpoint, Senator Hobbs provided needed political balance in the state Senate. Governor Inslee has ended that balance and removed one of the most effective roadblocks in the state Senate to his controversial policies. That may be good for the governor, but it is bad for our state.”
Wyman praised Hobbs’s selection.
“Senator Hobbs is a proven leader and dedicated public servant. As a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard, I am confident Steve will bring that same commitment to service and integrity to the Office of the Secretary of State,” she said in a statement.
Hobbs arrives with no experience in elections. But he cited skills gained from his bipartisan work as a lawmaker and his experience managing large groups. He oversaw the National Guard’s 750-person task force which, early in pandemic, supported the operation of food banks and distribution of food.
He said he will reach out to auditors of Washington’s 39 counties to learn their concerns. One goal, he said, is to strengthen the ability of the office to counter the spread of electoral disinformation as it happens, especially near Election Day.
“Senator Hobbs has an impressive record of public service. I look forward to working with him in his new role and I stand ready to lend any expertise that I can,” Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said.
Precinct committee officers of the 44th District will nominate three people to replace Hobbs. A meeting to make the selection could be held by the end of the month, a Democratic official said Wednesday.
State Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, wants the job and started calling precinct leaders Wednesday. State Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, said she supports her district mate in that pursuit.
The Snohomish County Council will choose one of the three nominees to serve until the November 2022 election.