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Originally published August 8, 2012 at 9:26 PM | Page modified August 8, 2012 at 10:45 PM

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Justice Gonzalez's win raises questions about role of ethnicity

State Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez won 58 percent of the vote statewide. But his opponent, who did not campaign and raised no money, was tallying 42 percent and for now capturing 30 of 39 counties.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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State Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez noted Wednesday that he's the first person with a Latino surname in Washington history to win a statewide race, capturing 58 percent of the vote in partial returns.

But his little-known opponent, Kitsap County attorney Bruce Danielson, who did not campaign and raised no money, was tallying 42 percent and for now capturing 30 of 39 counties, raising the question whether ethnicity played a role.

The debate emerged as partial results in another state Supreme Court race showed Seattle attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud leading with 31 percent of the vote; former Justice Richard Sanders with 28 percent; King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Hilyer with 26 percent; and John Ladenburg, the former Pierce County executive and prosecutor, trailing with 15 percent.

The top two will move onto the Nov. 6 general election.

Hilyer, who was winning nearly twice as many votes as Sanders in heavily populated King County, appeared poised to pass the former justice.

About 175,000 votes in the county plus additional arriving ballots remained to be counted.

McCloud appeared likely to advance to the November election with her second-place standing in King County, as well as her strong showing in other parts of the state.

Gonzalez, who will run unopposed in the general election by winning more than 50 percent, attributed the outcome largely to the fact that only King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties published printed voter guides that listed his contest.

"That's a dangerous state for our democracy and the outcome shows that," Gonzalez said, adding that he had to overcome the lack of information with radio advertising in selected counties in Western Washington.

He also said that being from King County hurt him in other parts of the state, particularly Eastern Washington where Danielson swept all the counties. And he pointed to the coin toss that put Danielson first on the ballot, while saying he believes some voters chose a name because of how it sounds.

"Justice Gonzalez is being very gracious, which is his character," said Hugh Spitzer, an affiliate law professor at the University of Washington who has studied the state Supreme Court for years and ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the court in 1998.

But the results strongly suggest that many voters, who historically haven't done homework on judicial races and make choices based on race, sex and other factors that don't have anything to do with qualifications, rejected Gonzalez because of his Latino surname, Spitzer said.

"It's difficult to know, but I have to believe it was a distinct factor, unfortunately," Spitzer said, noting that Gonzalez — a former prosecutor and King County Superior Court judge — had broad experience.

Danielson, whose law office is in Seattle, questioned that reasoning Wednesday. While ethnicity might have been a factor, Danielson said, so was his own website, which allowed voters to learn about his strict constructionist views on constitutional law.

Also, the appointment of Gonzalez to the seat in November by Gov. Chris Gregoire might not have sat well with voters who don't like her, Danielson said.

At the same time, Gonzalez spent large sums on radio ads and gained the support of special- interest groups, Danielson said.

Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington and an adjunct law professor at the university, said he plans to study the results, citing research and data that show Latino candidates get fewer votes among non-Latino constituencies.

Some voters are not going to choose someone named Gonzalez, he said, particularly in places where there are anti-Latino attitudes, such as central and Eastern Washington with its low record of electing Latinos to government bodies.

"So it's not rocket science; we know these things are happening," Barreto said.

Whitman College professor Paul Apostolidis, who leads an annual report on politics and the Latino population (www.walatinos.org), said Wednesday that thin leadership and existing obstacles in the political system combine to keep Latinos from proportionate political representation.

In its 2012 report, Apostolidis' class at the Walla Walla school studied the 10 most heavily Latino counties over the last 30 years, all of which are in Central and Eastern Washington.

Latinos won only 5 percent of the city-council and school-board elections, even though they make up more than 20 percent of the population.

Those positions often are springboards to bigger offices, he said.

Gonzalez is the second justice of Hispanic heritage to serve on the state's high court. Charles Z. Smith, of African-American and Cuban descent, was the state's first ethnic minority on the court. He was appointed in 1988 and served until 2002.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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