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Friday, November 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:25 A.M.

State workers worry election will mean a job search

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times staff reporter

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OLYMPIA — The prospect of a Republican governor taking control for the first time in 20 years has hundreds of state workers wondering if they'll be hunting for new jobs.

In the closest statewide election in Washington state history, Republican Dino Rossi came out ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by a mere 261 votes. A recount will begin this weekend and finish Wednesday.

"At this moment, everyone in state government is shaking in his or her boots," said Leslie Breitner, a lecturer who teaches public management at the University of Washington.

Top 5 agencies with exempt employees


The state has about 880 workers, ranging from confidential secretaries to the heads of agencies, who are exempt from civil-service restrictions on political hiring and firing. Technically they could be replaced by a new governor, although the most recent transitions in administrations have apparently left most employees untouched. Here are the five agencies with the most exempt workers:

• Social and Health Services: 176
• Corrections: 125
• Gambling Commission: 94
• Washington State Lottery: 34
• Labor and Industries: 33

Source: State Department of Personnel

If Rossi prevails in the recount, his administration could replace about 880 state workers in posts exempt from civil-service restrictions on political hiring and firing. They range from confidential secretaries to the heads of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Social and Health Services. On average, those employees have worked for the state about 14 years.

Both Rossi and Gregoire talked about shaking things up in Olympia. But more people would be expected to be replaced under a GOP administration because Democrats have held power for so long.

Rossi was at the Republican Governors Association meeting in New Orleans yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

A Rossi administration would replace more exempt workers than a new Democratic governor would, but the changes wouldn't happen overnight, said J. Vander Stoep, Rossi's chief of staff for his transition team.

"The Rossi administration will be prudent and deliberate, and 800 people are not going to be out of a job on Jan. 12. But no one in an exempt position is guaranteed a ... position," Vander Stoep said.

Job applicants


People who want to work for Dino Rossi, if he becomes governor, can apply at www.dinorossi.com/ upload_resume/

"Dino Rossi was very clear in this campaign that he was going to change the culture of Olympia. I think every voter in the state understood that."

That thought cheers Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

"I think the most refreshing thing that's going to happen is you're going to clear out a bunch of bureaucrats who have been hanging around Olympia for 20 years. He told our group that if he was elected, he was going to clean out those agencies, so I assume he's going to reach pretty deep."

There's a risk in such a move, however, said Joe Dear, who served as Gov. Gary Locke's chief of staff during his first term.

"Done poorly, getting rid of people they really need could end up decapitating the government," he said. "If you just totally clean house, they'd lose a tremendous depth of knowledge. ...

"To ignore that, or devalue it, is to expose yourself to serious risk of getting it wrong," he said. "It doesn't take many problems to create an aura of incompetence."

In past turnovers in the governor's office, mostly the top management changed and the majority of exempt workers remained, according to current and former government officials who have been through transitions.

Some observers wonder, given how long the GOP has been out of power, if Rossi would find enough qualified Republicans to fill all the top-level executive positions, which include 45 agency heads.

Members of Rossi's staff contend that shouldn't be a problem. "There is a tendency to forget how many people who are around who worked for Slade Gorton, who worked for Dan Evans, Rod Chandler and Jennifer Dunn," said John Giese, who was chief of staff for former Republican Congressman Rod Chandler. Gorton served in the U.S. Senate and Dunn in the U.S. House, and Evans was a three-term governor in the 1960s and '70s.

Giese, one of the people in charge of personnel for Rossi's transition team, said it's possible that some executives brought on board by Locke would be asked to stay, but there will be change.

Still, Giese had some words of comfort for exempt state workers. "There will be no litmus test for party affiliation," he said. "I doubt there would be anything like a carte blanche, 'We want everybody's resignation immediately.' "

Locke's budget chief, Marty Brown, says he has no illusions about staying on but hopes his staff at the Office of Financial Management will keep their jobs. "They are hard at work," he said, "and apprehensive."

Sharon Whitehead holds a job that the incoming administration could replace. The 26-year veteran doesn't want to leave.

"For me personally, there is anxiety," said Whitehead, deputy director of the state Department of Personnel. "You're wondering what you're going to be doing next."

Rossi has often stressed the need for change. "For the past 20 years the leaders of our state agencies have acted as though government is more important than people," his campaign materials state. "As a result, state government has grown arrogant and out of touch. ... Dino Rossi will change this attitude."

In reality, his ability to affect the workings of state government is limited. Before the 1950s, almost every job in state government was essentially under the governor's control.

But by the 1960s, that system was largely tossed out because it was considered a waste of money to retrain a new crop of workers every election.

Most state jobs today are subject to civil-service regulations and people are hired based on skills, not political affiliation.

The roughly 880 jobs under control of the governor's office represent about one-tenth of 1 percent of the 60,000 people who work in state government.

"Governors can come in and make their appointments and they can talk about their philosophy. But this is a big operation. It's a little bit like the battleship. You make that 14-degree turn to the port and a half-hour later the ship begins to move," said Dennis Karris, who was head of the state Department of Personnel from 1993 to 2001. "Government is very much like that. It's not like you step in and make immediate change."

Dear, Locke's former chief of staff and now executive director of the Washington State Investment Board, said it's possible for a governor to change the course of state agencies, but it can take years.

Dear recalled working at a state agency when a new administration called for changes. "One of the senior bureaucrats came to me and said, 'You know, Joe, we call this kidney-stone management — this too shall pass,' " he said.

"Part of this is, I was here before the governor got here and I'll be here after he goes, and unless I'm given a really good reason to change, I'm not. That's the reality."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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