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Running with Sharks 

by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hat's an election like without lawyers? It's not a setup to a lame joke, but a serious question -- one that we certainly won't answer this time around. Just look at recent days in the race for Washington governor. Both sides are shooting their litigious guns at whatever moves, while blaming the other side for not talking about real issues.





"It bothers me that we can't go through an election without everybody being sued," laments Curt Fackler, chair of Spokane County Republicans. "We have so many issues in this country right now ... let's talk about the important stuff!"





Yes, let's talk issues, say state Democrats, including Gov. Chris Gregoire's campaign press secretary, Aaron Toso. But there's a problem: "Every place we go, we have Republican activists calling in and complaining about whatever we do. ... We'd love to have a more substantive debate with our opponent. [But] it's unfortunate they came out of the gate so quickly with negative ads."





Regardless of who started it, the governor's race -- a rematch of Gregoire vs. Republican Dino Rossi -- has again underscored the role of lawyers in the electoral process.





Just last week, the state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in King County, asking a judge to force Secretary of State Sam Reed to change Rossi's designation on the ballot from "GOP Party" to "Republican Party." The GOP and the Republican Party are the same thing, but Democrats argue that many voters don't realize that and accuse Rossi of trying to distance himself from President Bush and other unpopular Republicans. A poll in June by independent pollster Stuart Elway found that 25 percent of voters didn't know that GOP meant Republican.





"Allowing Mr. Rossi to obscure his true party preference and affiliation directly violates the law, would mislead a substantial portion of the voting public and would breed cynicism and mistrust in our public institutions," the court filing reads.





The Rossi campaign countered, saying that if the judge ordered changes to the ballots, thousands serving in the military would be disenfranchised because their ballots had already been mailed out. "The timing of this lawsuit says it all," the Rossi campaign said.





Fackler, who ran an unsuccessful campaign this year for state Insurance Commissioner, stated no party affiliation on the primary ballot because, he says, he wanted to get his name out and "a lot of people in Seattle wouldn't vote for a Republican if they were the only ones on the ballot." He dismisses any confusion between GOP and Republican.





"If they're that uninformed, they should read the voter pamphlet. If they can't figure that out, I don't see what the problem is," he says. "I think it just shows that [Democrats] are scared of the Republican message."





The judge in King County acknowledged that some confusion might exist, but ultimately decided that changing the ballot now would only make the situation worse.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & lso last week, election-related lawsuits continued to play out in Thurston County. The conservative Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) -- a major supporter of Rossi and the ones behind the Rossi billboards saying, "Don't Let Seattle Steal This Election" -- is under fire after the Public Disclosure Commission uncovered evidence that the group and a second builders association apparently broke campaign finance laws. A staff report by the PDC found that the BIAW illegally solicited and received more than $500,000, though it never reported the money or registered as a political action committee.





State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, has filed suits against both builders groups, seeking civil penalties. Not surprisingly, the two parties interpret the case in strikingly different terms.


"It's unfortunate that there are people on the other side that are clearly trying to thwart election laws," says Toso, Gregoire's campaign spokesman.





Fackler thinks it's much ado about nothing. "BIAW has been accused of using fees to do some lobbying. What's the crime in that?"





Consider yet another episode from last week, which, while it hasn't involved lawyers yet, speaks to the combative, never-miss-a-shot tone that has often dominated the race. Gregoire went to visit a prominent barbershop owner in Kelso, south of Olympia, and unbeknownst to the campaign, the shop owner had invited a local high school band to greet the governor. The band played a couple of tunes, including the governor's favorite, "Louie, Louie," and then boarded a bus as Gregoire spoke.





That's it, but the incident set off a heated back and forth, each side claiming the children were being used for political ends.





"When it comes to politics, the kids need to stay in the classroom at every possible opportunity," Rossi organizer Shannon Barnett told the Daily News, the local paper. "If I were pulling kids out of the Kalama School District to campaign for Dino, people would object to that."





Toso stresses that the shop owner, not the campaign, arranged for the band. "He thought it'd be neat to get a band," he says. "It's unfortunate that they try to attack whatever they can and they have to drag the kids into it."





The Public Disclosure Commission was told of the incident, but didn't find any clear violation of state rules. "I don't know that [the band's] appearance was in any way supporting that particular candidate," a spokeswoman told the Daily News. "I think it would be a stretch to kind of get to that point."





Recent polls put the candidates neck and neck in what promises to be another tight election where lawyers, again, may be needed to determine the winner.





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