Three statewide officeholders with more than 100 years of public service will step down this month. Chris Gregoire, Sam Reed and Brian Sonntag have crossed paths often, and achieved much, throughout their lengthy careers as state leaders.
In 1978, Reed won the first of five races for Thurston County auditor. In that same year, Sonntag became Pierce County clerk, and Gregoire, just out of Gonzaga University Law School, went to work for then-Attorney General Slade Gorton. In 1992, she would become the attorney general, while Reed and Sonntag would square off in an election for state auditor. Sonntag would win that race and hold the office until his retirement. Reed would go on to become the secretary of state in 2000, winning that office three times.
Reed’s loss to Sonntag ended up being the state’s gain, because each transformed their offices and state politics.
Reed was head of elections as the office went through the closest gubernatorial race in the nation’s history. Dino Rossi, the Republican, won the initial count, but Gregoire emerged the victor by a scant 133 votes after two recounts. The lengthy tussle was controversial, but it would’ve been much uglier had Reed not operated in an above-board fashion.
Reed, a graduate of Lewis and Clark High School and Washington State University, consistently defended the integrity of his office against political passions, most notably by shepherding in a new system of voting when the parties successfully challenged the blanket primary. Instead of adopting a more party-friendly system, he advocated for the top-two primary that put voters in charge. In addition, he led the transition to the popular vote-by-mail system. He accomplished all of this while remaining a paragon of civility.
Sonntag’s signal contribution was his successful advocacy of performance audits, which made the auditor’s office a respected – and sometimes feared – government watchdog. His work has made government more transparent and accountable. As a testament to the respect he’s earned, candidates in the crowded 2012 auditor’s field sought his endorsement regardless of party affiliation.
Gregoire was appointed director of the Ecology Department in 1988, and scored a significant victory with the Tri-Party Agreement under which the state and two federal agencies committed to a long-term cleanup of radioactive material. As attorney general, she spearheaded a national fight to hold tobacco companies accountable for the health-related ills of their products.
We’ve had our disagreements with her as governor, but we never doubted her work ethic and intelligence, and we’ve long admired her resolve when it came to making unpopular but necessary decisions. It’s no surprise that she is considered a candidate for various positions in the Obama administration.
To all three leaders, we say thanks for your dedication to public service. To their replacements we say good luck. Those are tough acts to follow.