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Originally published Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 5:16 PM

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Big field of candidates jostles for secretary of state's job

An open race for Washington's secretary of state has attracted a crowded field of high-profile candidates, including former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels; Jim Kastama, a conservative Democratic state senator; Kim Wyman, Thurston County's auditor; and Kathleen Drew, a former state senator and former aide to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Associated Press

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A rarity in the state's politics — an open race to be Washington's top election official — has attracted a crowded field of high-profile candidates.

Among those running for secretary of state are Greg Nickels, the former Seattle mayor who gained a national profile for his environmental activism; Jim Kastama, a conservative Democratic state senator who was a key swing vote in state budget negotiations; Kim Wyman, Thurston County's auditor; and Kathleen Drew, a former state senator and former aide to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Washington has had only two secretaries of state since 1980, Ralph Munro and the incumbent, Sam Reed, who is not seeking re-election.

The secretary of state, who oversees state and local elections and registers and licenses private corporations, is not as visible a job as governor or attorney general. However, in recent years, the office has been more in the spotlight, as tens of millions of dollars pour into initiatives and election campaigns and because Reed oversaw the excruciatingly close recounts in the 2004 gubernatorial race between Gregoire and Dino Rossi.

The three Democrats in the race — Drew, Nickels and Kastama — are likely vying to face the Republican Wyman in November. The top two finishers in the August primary will advance to the general election, regardless of party.

The Democrats are trying to retake an office that Republicans have held since 1965.

Sam Wright of the Human Rights Party, Karen Murray of the Constitution Party and David Anderson, who didn't list a party preference, also are on the ballot.

Wyman, Thurston County's auditor since 2001, said she wants to continue the work Reed has done. Reed was widely praised for his oversight of the 2004 gubernatorial recounts in a highly charged environment.

"Even though it was tough, he followed the law," said Wyman, adding she would run the office in a politically neutral way. "We've seen states like Florida and Ohio, where you had partisan secretaries of state that affected the integrity of the elections process."

One of Wyman's goals would be to modernize voter registration, with an aim to make it more automated and strike a balance between security and access.

She said she's reluctant to make significant changes to the initiative process. Some advocates complain that increasingly large corporate interests have too much sway with initiatives. With Initiative 1183, last year's liquor-privatization measure pushed by Costco and other retailers, both sides raised more than $35 million.

Wyman says that in the end, voters decide an initiative's fate.

"Our voters, quite frankly, are pretty smart," said Wyman, who has scored the endorsements of Reed, predecessors Munro and Bruce Chapman, and the Washington Education Association, which typically backs Democrats

Nickels, who served two terms as Seattle's mayor before being ousted in the primary when he sought re-election in 2009, is attempting a political comeback.

He said one of the things that attracted him to the race was that elections should be run in a professional, nonpartisan matter. Nickels would like to look at possibly changing the initiative process and exploring ways to blunt the effect of big money in politics.

"How do we make sure that it's the average person, and the average voter, that is ultimately the voice that counts?" he said.

The initiative process "started to go sideways" with the advent of paid signature-gatherers, Nickels said. Among the ideas he'd like to pursue is having signature-gatherers paid hourly, rather than by the signature.

Nickels acknowledges that getting elected to statewide office as a former Seattle mayor is a tough slog.

"It's definitely uphill," he said. "I think there's a thing when the Seattle mayor runs for governor, it's seen as a touch of arrogance. I'm offering my service in a down-ballot office, I have the experience and I can offer a record of success."

Drew, a former state senator from Issaquah, has picked up endorsements from the state Democratic Party, as well as Gregoire.

She would like to make it easier for people to register and to vote, especially young people. Among her ideas are to make it easier for people to register to vote when they renew their driver's licenses, and to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister before they turn 18.

"I also want to look at what the overall standard policy is on ballot drop boxes. Generally, they are not provided on college campuses or throughout the community. I want to make sure people have access to return ballots," Drew said.

She, too, would like to see changes in the initiative-gathering process, perhaps by requiring that paid signature gatherers be residents of Washington.

Kastama, a state senator form Puyallup, was a member of the "Roadkill Caucus" of conservative Democrats. He often angered fellow party members by siding with the GOP, but said his goal always has been to find compromise.

"I have proven, in my 16 years in office, that I have tried to work across the aisle," Kastama said.

He cites his experience chairing the government and elections panel after the tight 2004 gubernatorial race. And he would like to emphasize the secretary of state's responsibilities in the business community by better coordinating resources.

"We have a lot of economic-development programs in our state, and a lot of them are excellent," Kastama said. "But for someone to find these resources is often impossible."

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