Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, right, a Democrat, and Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, left, running as a nonpartisan, take part in a debate, on Aug. 17, in Olympia, with Melissa Santos, center, of Axios Local, moderating. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, right, a Democrat, and Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, left, running as a nonpartisan, take part in a debate, on Aug. 17, in Olympia, with Melissa Santos, center, of Axios Local, moderating. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Should state’s top election official run under party banner?

Democrat Steve Hobbs and Julie Anderson, a nonpartisan candidate, are vying to be Washington’s secretary of state.

If you struggle to name both candidates for secretary of state in next month’s election, you’ve got plenty of company.

Even those who know Steve Hobbs and Julie Anderson are competing for the job are largely undecided on who will get their vote come Nov. 8.

Nearly half those surveyed in a recent statewide poll didn’t recognize one or both candidates. And a second poll found the two in a statistical dead heat, with a greater number, 40%, undecided.

Hobbs, a moderate Democrat from Lake Stevens, is in the post now by way of appointment. He was in his fourth term in the state Senate when Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee tapped him last November to take over when Kim Wyman, a Republican, left to work in the Biden administration. She had been the fifth consecutive Republican to hold the office in Washington dating back to 1965.

Anderson, of Tacoma, is the Pierce County auditor, which is a nonpartisan position. She was elected to a partial term in 2009, won a full four-year term in 2010, and then got re-elected twice without opposition. She’s also a former Tacoma City Council member. In this campaign she’s running as a nonpartisan.

Hobbs won the August primary with 40% of the vote, followed by Anderson with just under 13%. Republicans got shut out because their four candidates divided the GOP vote in the primary, clearing the way for Anderson to advance.

The winner next month will serve the remaining two years of Wyman’s term. They will be Washington’s chief elections officer and oversee several other entities, including the state archives and the state library. The job pays $136,996 a year.

Hobbs and Anderson share a passion for public service. They both are confident in the integrity of Washington’s vote-by-mail election process, open to moving the primary to an earlier date and very concerned about ongoing threats posed by ill-intentioned cyber agents and purveyors of false information.

In fundraising, Hobbs had raised nearly $640,000 as of Oct. 14. That sum includes $165,000 from the Democratic Party and more than $130,000 transferred from his surplus account from prior campaigns. Anderson had reported just under $300,000 in contributions.

Both have secured endorsements from recognized names from both political parties.

Hobbs has backing of big-name Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Among the multitude of state legislators supporting him are Republicans Curtis King and Brad Hawkins.

Anderson, not surprisingly, garnered the greater number of Republican backers. Her list of endorsers include Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, former Gov. Dan Evans, former Secretary of State Sam Reed and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna. Her Democratic supporters include Rep. Emily Wicks of Everett.

Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, takes part in a debate with Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan on Aug. 17, in Olympia. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, takes part in a debate with Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan on Aug. 17, in Olympia. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A ‘perfect’ fit

Hobbs didn’t dwell long on ceding his seat in the state Senate to become secretary of state.

He said he knew it would be “the right place” as it brought his life’s passions together, like a Venn diagram.

He has defended democracy since entering the military reserves at 17. And he has participated in it almost as long, as party volunteer, precinct officer, candidate and lawmaker since 2007 in the 44th Legislative District.

“It felt perfect,” he said.

Hobbs, a native of Everett, is looking to become the first Democrat directly elected to the office in half a century. As an Asian-American man, he is the first person of color to hold this job.

He’s been in it for 11 months. To keep it, Hobbs must fend off Anderson’s critique that he’s an inexperienced political appointee and his Democratic Party ties make him susceptible to partisan influence in the office.

On the latter point, he said his decision-making won’t be swayed by his party’s leaders, many of whom he’s found himself at odds with in the past, most notably Inslee, with whom he feuded on climate change and transportation policies.

And party labels don’t matter in carrying out the day-to-day duties, he said. What matters is “what person you have in the office,” he said.

On that point, he said his military service — both active and now as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard — has equipped him with skills and knowledge to deal with potential threats from bad actors. Sometimes it’s in person, like when he commanded teams of soldiers that provided security for elections in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2004.

More often these days, it’s online. As secretary of state, Hobbs said, he got a couple of elections under his belt in which he’s dealt with attempted hacks, cyber break-ins and ongoing misinformation campaigns.

“The office of Secretary of State has evolved beyond that of simply overseeing elections and supporting our 39 counties to one where we’re protecting our democracy from cyberthreats and misinformation campaigns,” he said. “You need someone with that experience to do that. It’s me.”

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan, takes part in a debate with Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, on Aug. 17, in Olympia. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan, takes part in a debate with Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat, on Aug. 17, in Olympia. Hobbs and Anderson are seeking to fill the remaining two years of the term of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who left to take a key election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

‘Of no party’

Anderson took a circuitous route to public service.

A native of Illinois, her dad was in the military and her family moved around, a lot. By high school, he had retired in Yelm in Thurston County.

She enrolled at Yelm High School, then dropped out. It wasn’t challenging. She said she tried other schools, same outcome. So she set off to Texas, then North Carolina — working odd jobs along the way. While waitressing at a restaurant in North Carolina, the owner encouraged her to go to college, not wait tables.

She took the advice, returned to Yelm, got her GED and enrolled in Evergreen State College where she earned a bachelor’s. She would add a master’s in criminal justice administration before getting on a career path that included stints with the state departments of commerce and social and health services, and as executive director of YWCA of Tacoma-Pierce County.

Anderson was serving on the Tacoma City Council when Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy, a Democrat, stepped down after becoming county executive. Anderson said she tried unsuccessfully to be one of three people nominated by the Democratic Party to fill the seat.

So she ran for the office and won the job, which at that point had been made nonpartisan. Anderson won three more times.

“I did not love the legislating process. I loved executive management,” she said. “And the subject matter of county auditors is really addictive.”

She said she has conducted hundreds of elections in her career. That experience makes her better able to effectively counter claims of fraud and take action to bolster voter confidence.

But Anderson recognizes the nonpartisan label confounds some voters. Maybe enough to hurt her chances.

“We still have a lot of reflexive voting in Washington and people are looking for that decoder ring,” she said. “Nonpartisan to me means ‘of no party.’ It’s an important distinction to make. I want people to hire the experienced administrator that doesn’t have political strings attached.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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