OLYMPIA — Seated on a couch in a reception room of the state Capitol, Miwa Morita video-recorded a moment on Monday neither she nor her son, Steve Hobbs, ever imagined.
“I’m excited and I’m nervous,” she said after watching him take the oath of office as Washington’s 16th secretary of state. “I’m very proud of him.”
Hobbs, 51, of Lake Stevens, had served as a state senator in the 44th Legislative District since 2007.
Just after 10 a.m. Monday, he shed that title and became the first person of color to head the office and the first Democrat to hold the position in 56 years. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Hobbs — with whom he has often feuded — to replace a Republican, Kim Wyman, who is taking an election security job in the Biden administration.
“This is pretty surreal,” Hobbs said in a short speech to family, friends and agency employees gathered in the state reception room, where he was sworn in by state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu. His wife, Pam, and one of his three sons, Truman, looked on from the couch with his mom.
Hobbs grew up in Lake Stevens where, he said, racial epithets were spray painted on the road outside his house. His mom worked two jobs — in a factory during the day and at a Mexican restaurant at night — to generate income to raise Hobbs and his sister. She asked him to chip in some of his earnings when he worked at a Sears in high school, he said.
He was first elected to the state Senate in 2006 and re-elected three times in the district that includes Lake Stevens, Mill Creek and Snohomish. Until this week, he had been chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. In that post he blocked adoption of a low-carbon-fuel standard sought by Inslee for several sessions.
His current Senate term expires next year. Local Democrats will gather early next month to nominate potential replacements. State Rep. John Lovick of Mill Creek is a heavy favorite to get the post. Hobbs said he is supporting him.
Hobbs has carved out a reputation as a middle-of-the-road member of his party. He has also served in the military for 32 years and is a lieutenant colonel in the Washington National Guard.
When Wyman resigned, he said, he decided to pursue the appointment because he felt her successor needed to be a centrist who could work across the aisle and could understand the new arena of security challenges to the election process.
“Elections have changed. National security is of prime importance,” he said. “If our elections are threatened, our democracy is threatened.”
He thanked Wyman, who attended the swearing-in, saying she understood and dealt with the threats of cyber and information warfare in the elections sphere.
“I’m going to build upon that,” he said. “And I’m glad that we’ll have a partner in Washington, D.C., to build upon that.”
Hobbs said he wants to bolster the office’s cybersecurity efforts and create a plan to respond rapidly to misinformation and disinformation that hits in the days leading up to elections.
“The last thing we need is to have our democracy eroded by people believing that their election system is not secure, when it is secure,” he said. “It is not just the Russians or Chinese or terrorist groups. Sometimes it is extremists in our own midst, our own homes.”
Unlike Wyman and secretaries of state before her, Hobbs arrives with no experience conducting elections. That concerns some county auditors and even a few of the agency’s employees. He acknowledged their trepidation in his speech.“I know I don’t come with the institutional knowledge of election,” he said. “I will make mistakes. I promise you I will learn from them and I will learn from you. I promise I will have your back if you have my back.”
In an interview, Hobbs said one of his first chores will be filling the vacant state elections director job.
The lack of new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts is a looming challenge. The commission tasked with drawing them missed a deadline Nov. 15. Now the state Supreme Court is doing the work. Its deadline is April 30. The longer it takes, the less time is available to make sure the state election management system is updated with voter registration information.
“I am worried a little about the timeline,” he said.
Hobbs will serve until the general election in November 2022, which will determine who will serve the remaining two years of Wyman’s four-year term. He said he will run.
He is not planning to relocate to Olympia. He said he has a place to stay during the week or will make the long commute.
In addition to being the state’s chief elections officer, the secretary of state also serves as chief corporations officer and supervisor of the state archives and state library.
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.