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Originally published Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 10:16 AM

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Ex-Seattle TV anchor stresses 'nonpartisan' label

How does a conservative get elected in famously liberal Seattle? Stripping party labels off the ballot and declining to call yourself a Republican is a good place to start. Having great name recognition as a longtime television news anchor doesn't hurt, either.

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

How does a conservative get elected in famously liberal Seattle? Stripping party labels off the ballot and declining to call yourself a Republican is a good place to start. Having great name recognition as a longtime television news anchor doesn't hurt, either.

That's the playbook so far for Susan Hutchison, former KIRO-TV anchor and current director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, as she takes the lead in the race for King County executive, the top elected official in the state's most populous county.

"I am not any member of a political party," Hutchison declared in an appearance on Seattle public radio station KUOW this week. She simultaneously agreed that people could judge her by the more than $15,000 she's given to Republican candidates and causes in the last several years - and by the absence of any to Democratic ones.

Hutchison declined interview requests from The Associated Press.

Recent polling has shown Hutchison to have a commanding lead heading into the Aug. 18 primary, with 39 percent supporting her and 35 percent splitting their support among her four main Democratic rivals. The top two vote-getters advance to the November general election.

Thanks in large part to Seattle itself, the county, which stretches east to the crest of the Cascade Mountains, is predominantly liberal. Barack Obama carried 70 percent of the vote last November.

Washington doesn't register voters by party, but state and federal campaign finance records show that Hutchison has donated more than $15,000 to Republican candidates and causes, including the presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush.

Last year, Hutchison was a prominent supporter of a campaign to make the executive's office nonpartisan. The effort succeeded, so party affiliation is no longer listed on the ballot.

"She won't have to carry the Republican label, and she'll benefit from that" - especially in the primary, before people really start paying attention, said Matt A. Barreto, a University of Washington assistant professor of political science.

"At the same time, partisan leanings eventually become very well known," he added. "Whichever challeneger emerges, they will make it clear that Hutchison is a Republican. And there's not a big base of social conservatives here."

Hutchison has played up the nonpartisan aspect of the office in declining to discuss social issues or call herself a Republican in interviews and in campaign literature, and she has stressed that she has support from some prominent Democrats, including state Auditor Brian Sonntag.

"The voters voted last November that they want this to be a nonpartisan race because they see the problems of the county to be nonpartisan - their sewage, their transit, their courts, prosecutor's office, law enforcement," Hutchison told KUOW. "They're tired of divisive politics."

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In campaign appearances, she has lamented what she describes as bloated government, high property taxes and overpaid county employees who get "luxurious" benefits packages. She criticized the notion that "city slickers" try to restrict what rural property owners can do with their land, and said that to solve sticky problems she'd bring together various interests.

Her top priority is public safety, and she says her four Democratic opponents - King County Councilmen Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine, state Sen. Fred Jarrett and state Rep. Ross Hunter - have all had a hand in shaping the troubled economies of the state and the county.

Her opponents find her decision to keep mum about social issues troubling. They note that in tough budgetary times, programs get cut - and Hutchison's philosophy would indicate where she's most likely to cut. Whether she'd axe money for social services, such as public clinics that offer family planning or abortions, is relevant, they argue.

They say she has little understanding of how county government works, and they've also hit her over her nasty split from KIRO in 2002, after which the station replaced her with a younger Asian American woman. Hutchison sued for discrimination, and the case was settled out of court in 2005. Until this month, hundreds of pages of documents filed by KIRO in the case remained sealed.

News organizations got a judge to release them, and they showed that before she was fired, Hutchison called in sick to take a weekend vacation in Oregon and accused the station's male general manager and its news director, a lesbian, of having an affair. She also took a stress-related medical leave after being told her duties at the station were being reduced.

Phillips praised the release of the documents for giving voters a better idea of who Hutchinson is.

"As county executive, you can't afford to be AWOL to take discretionary sick days, and you have to have nerves of steel," he said. "Her values and her very conservative positions are going to be revealed in this game. She's not going to get away with being a familiar face who nobody knows."

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