by George Howland Jr.

It's only May and already the governor's race has gotten ugly. By the time most voters start paying attention -- usually after Labor Day -- the blood on the floor will be knee-deep.

The current flare-up is between the Democratic front-runner, three-term Attorney General Christine Gregoire, and her primary opponent for the nomination, two-term King County Executive Ron Sims. Former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, the other major Democrat in the race, recently dropped out due to health and campaign difficulties. Meanwhile, former state Sen. Dino Rossi of Issaquah, the only serious Republican candidate for governor, is licking his lips as the Democrats tear into one another with great ferocity.

The conflict is mostly over hardball campaign tactics successfully used by Sims' campaign against Gregoire, although the two candidates are also tangling over issues such as gay marriage, a state income tax and education funding. Sims' electioneering shenanigans have angered other Democrats, including Washington State Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt.

"Ron Sims should know better than to throw this mud around," says Berendt.

The mud that Berendt is referring to is a stack of public documents from an ongoing lawsuit brought by Janet Capps, a former employee of the attorney general's office, provided by the Sims campaign to The Seattle Times. Capps was forced to resign in the wake of the controversy surrounding a missed deadline for appealing a record $17.8 million personal-injury verdict against the state. The missed deadline is generally accepted as the low point of Gregoire's tenure as attorney general. Capps says she was wrongly terminated after Gregoire commissioned a report from an outside attorney, Susan Barnes, to determine why the deadline was missed. The documents show Gregoire's deputies tried to shape Barnes' report on who was responsible for the missed deadline. Gregoire's opponents characterize those efforts as a cover-up. Gregoire says the dialogue was normal give-and-take.

After the Times ran an in-depth piece on Sunday, April 18, the state's largest newspaper followed up with more than seven articles or columns on the subject in April. Meanwhile, the state Senate's Judiciary Committee chair, Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane), announced he would hold hearings on the controversy. Other media outlets picked up the story, and suddenly Gregoire encountered her first real problem in her race for governor. In other words, Sims' leak of documents worked, as negative campaigning so often does. It remains to be seen if the story will have legs into the summer and fall.

Since Gregoire announced her candidacy last summer, she has been running away with the race. She has raised more money than her Democratic opponents, despite being unable to solicit contributions for four months due to restrictions on the fund-raising activity of sitting state officials. She has received key endorsements from important labor and education groups. She leads handily in all the polls. And she has done all this just by being Christine Gregoire, a moderate, female, Democratic attorney general who made a name for herself nationally by being a key negotiator in the landmark 1998 lawsuit settlement between tobacco companies and many states. She even has roots into Eastern Washington, as she graduated from the Gonzaga School of Law.

The Gregoire campaign is furious about Sims' decision to go negative. Asks Gregoire's campaign manager, Tim Zenk: "What happened to the minister in Ron Sims?" Zenk adds, "Ron Sims has no hope of winning. He is 38 points behind in the polls. He has not won any significant endorsements. I am personally disappointed that Ron Sims would allow the mudslinging to continue."

Washington State Democratic Party Chair Berendt says, "There has been an unwritten rule in our party -- one of unity." Berendt and others note that Democrats have had competitive primaries in recent years -- the race for governor among Gov. Gary Locke, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice in 1996, and the battle for U.S. Senate between Sen. Maria Cantwell and former state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn in 2000 -- that at no point became as nasty as this one has more than four months before the primary election. Democrats are clearly worried that although Sims will not hurt Gregoire badly enough to win the primary, he will weaken her for a tough general-election campaign.

Washington State Republican Party Chair Chris Vance is excited at the prospect. "Go, Ron, go!" he says. "The Democrats are tearing each other up. It's exactly what we hoped."

Vance, who worked very hard to make sure Rossi did not have any serious primary opposition, notes that a tough primary fight means a party ends up with a nominee for the general election who is "bruised, limping, and broke."

Sims' campaign manager Tim Hatley, known for being a street fighter, makes no apologies. He admits giving the documents to The Seattle Times that set off the brouhaha, commenting that "They are public documents." He says the Gregoire campaign is trying to create the perception that giving court documents to a newspaper is unethical -- the real issue being Gregoire's attempt to cover up her poor management of the attorney general's office. Hatley characterizes the Gregoire campaign's strategy as "'Let's dirty up Hatley a little bit. Let him be a distraction.'"

Hatley says, "There is a fair amount of hubris in the notion that the attorney general is the Democratic nominee," noting that Sims had a terrific fund-raising month in March and significantly narrowed the gap between him and Gregoire. Hatley says Talmadge's recent poll shows only a 16-point lead for Gregoire over Sims. In a recent campaign memo, Hatley writes: "However, after voters are educated about the AG (especially with issues related to the missed appeal deadline), her number drops..." As far as endorsements go, Hatley cites support for Sims among certain unions and county labor organizations.

Despite Hatley's optimism, the electioneering case he presents is weak, though not hopeless. Campaigns, after all, are always full of surprises. Front-runners often falter. Just ask Howard Dean.

When it comes to issues, Sims, who grew up in Spokane, appears to have a stronger hand. Gregoire has taken very few clear positions, none of them controversial, so that during a recent interview when Zenk, Gregoire's campaign manager, was asked to spell out the central issues of Gregoire's campaign, he stressed jobs, education and health care but did not offer a single specific proposal. Zenk did say the campaign will issue "comprehensive and detailed plans" but would do so on its own timetable.

In the past month, by contrast, Sims has lurched sharply to the left. He has come out in favor of a state income tax -- long considered the third rail of Washington politics. The King County executive also has highlighted his support for gay marriage and Initiative 884, which would raise a billion dollars annually for education through a state sales-tax increase.

Gregoire is flatly opposed to a state income tax. "The citizens of Washington believe other forms of taxation are more fair," Zenk says. She also is not in favor of I-884. "It's a billion-dollar tax increase at a time when the Washington economy is in trouble," Zenk explains. While Gregoire supports "full civil rights" for all Washingtonians, Zenk claims she is unable to support gay marriage because it is currently illegal under Washington state law, and because she is, after all, the state's attorney general.

It's no wonder that Gregoire has earned the nickname "Locke Lite" for her ability to seem even blander than the current governor.

Sims' impassioned liberalism, however, presents problems of its own. His is an appeal to the party's base in Seattle, but it runs into the reality of nearly seven years of Sims leadership here. We know from experience that Sims is no liberal stalwart like former Gov. Mike Lowry or U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle. The guy has governed as a moderate, centrist Democrat. In fact, Sims is a darling of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the national organization of moderate, centrist Democrats founded by the likes of U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida.

So why has Sims tacked so hard left? And why has he gone negative so early? University of Washington political science professor David Olson says it is our new partisan primary. This September, for the first time in 69 years, Washingtonians will have to choose between a Republican, Democratic or Libertarian ballot in the primary election. The political parties and Gov. Locke killed off the blanket primary, in which citizens could vote for candidates from any party. Olson says he predicted negative campaigning and an appeal to the left wing of the Democratic Party as a consequence of the new system.

"When I saw Ron Sims doing that," says Olson, "I sighed and said, 'I told you so.' "

George Howland Jr. is the political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.

Publication date: 05/20/04

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