State auditor doesn’t have much choice: Tough it out or quit

No one but Troy Xavier Kelley knows how long he will be the state auditor of Washington.

But for those who roam the corridors of power on the Capitol campus in Olympia, the first-term Democrat can’t leave soon enough.

Kelley, whose post puts him fourth in line to succeed the governor, has become a pariah in just two weeks.

He’s been abandoned by his Democratic Party. None of his former colleagues in the Legislature have offered public support. Some Republican lawmakers think he should take a leave of absence, while state GOP leaders want him to resign immediately.

That’s what happens when employees of the federal Department of Justice search your home, subpoena your work records and investigate the intersection of your personal, professional and political lives.

The feds aren’t saying a word about their motivations. They aren’t saying Kelley is the target of a probe. But because federal authorities don’t typically search the home of a statewide elected official on a whim, it’s evoked public shunning of Kelley.

Kelley faces the choice of trying to ride out the storm or leave on his terms.

His salvation, if you can call it that, is that he’s pretty much unknown to the public. While 1.5 million voters elected him in 2012, few would recognize him if he passed them on the street, and most are unaware of what the fuss is about.

For now, Kelley seems resolved to serve a term which runs through the end of 2016. As unlikely as that seems, it could happen if he manages to ignore the noise and nothing comes of the investigation in the next year or so.

But Kelley can’t win a second term. Neither political party would embrace him, nor could he raise enough money to conduct an effective statewide campaign.

Should Kelley resign, Gov. Jay Inslee, a fellow Democrat, will appoint a successor. While the governor will be under pressure to replace him with another party member, the state Constitution doesn’t require the successor to be a Democrat, said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

Whom the governor might choose could depend on when Kelley departs.

If he leaves office before May 11, the first day of candidate filing for the November election, the position of state auditor would be on the ballot this year. Thus Inslee’s appointee would serve until a choice of voters is sworn in this fall.

If Kelley were to resign after May 11, Inslee’s appointee would serve the rest of the term through 2016.

Under the first scenario, Inslee might be inclined to install a caretaker who won’t run this fall, someone like the previous state auditor, Brian Sonntag, or the former secretary of state, Sam Reed. Both are experienced at guiding state agencies and maneuvering Olympia politics — handy skills if the Legislature is still in session.

There are obvious drawbacks to both men, though.

Though Sonntag won five terms as auditor as a Democrat, his party credentials were revoked when he joined the conservative anti-union Freedom Foundation as a senior fellow. Reed, meanwhile, is a moderate Republican who has been trying to drum up support for a challenger to Inslee in 2016.

If the appointee needs to serve through next year, Inslee is more likely to seek a Democrat who could win a statewide election.

That could ace out Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, who is said to be interested in the gig if it opens up. He ran unsuccessfully for state auditor in 2012 as a Democrat, then switched parties to win his Senate seat.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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