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Originally published May 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 3:46 AM

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Top-two system producing more party-of-one races

Leslie Bloss is the only Republican running for an open seat in Seattle's 36th District, but you probably won't see her name on the November...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Leslie Bloss is the only Republican running for an open seat in Seattle's 36th District, but you probably won't see her name on the November ballot.

She isn't expected to make it through Washington's new top-two primary, in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

In the liberal 36th District, which includes the Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods, Bloss' two Democratic opponents are likely to take first and second place in the Aug. 19 primary.

"It's really pretty sad," said Bloss, who's competing for the seat left open by retiring longtime Democratic Rep. Helen Sommers. "It's not fair for voters."

Although state officials had predicted single-party contests would be rare under the new system, there could be a half-dozen legislative races this year with candidates from the same party running against each other in November.

In the past, candidates who won the primary in districts heavily dominated by one party would generally coast to a win in November. Now they face prolonged and expensive fights.

"When I first got into this, I had planned a vacation after Aug. 19. That will not take place," said John Burbank, one of the two Democratic candidates in the 36th District. The other is Reuven Carlyle.

Secretary of State Sam Reed acknowledged the whole thing "is strange. Weird for all of us. We've never seen anything like this in our state."

But Reed said, "I really think it's going to be a healthy thing in the long run."

He predicts the new primary will lead to more competitive races. And he doesn't buy the argument that it shuts out candidates who deserve to be on the November ballot. It just means parties have to field stronger candidates to ensure a spot in the general election, he said.

The chairmen of the state Democratic and Republican parties disagree. They've long opposed the top-two primary and are looking for ways to kill it in court.

"Republican voters in Seattle have the right to vote for a candidate in the general election. And that right is being taken away from them," Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said. "Democratic voters in Eastern Washington have the right to vote for a Democrat in the general election and that right is being taken away from them."

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There's some speculation that the state treasurer's race could end up with two Democrats in the general election. State Rep. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle, is running against Democrat ChangMook Sohn, the former chief economist for the state. However, Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said the GOP candidate, Allan Martin, is "a very strong candidate." Martin is the current assistant state treasurer.

But legislative races in both Eastern and Western Washington likely will have two candidates from the same party running in November.

For example, in Seattle's District 46, which includes Northgate, Lake City and parts of Greenwood, two Democrats are running for the seat left open by Rep. McIntire. No GOP candidate has announced yet.

And in District 7, in Northeastern Washington, four Republicans are running for the seat held by Rep. Bob Sump, R-Republic, who is retiring. No Democrat has filed.

Reed argues that in those cases, voters previously may have had one unopposed candidate on the November ballot. Now, they'll have two people to vote for, albeit from the same party. That, he said, increases choice for voters.

Voters created the top-two primary when they approved Initiative 872 in 2004. However, before the new system could go into effect, the state's major parties sued. They argued it infringed on their right to pick their own nominees for the general election.

The parties won their case in the U.S. District Court and in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, keeping the top two from going into effect.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year overturned the lower-court decisions and reinstated the top two.

In addition to allowing single-party contests, the new system has the state parties scrambling to figure out the best way to inform voters which candidates have their official backing.

Before the top-two system was created, the parties used the state primary to winnow the field of candidates down to those who would be their nominees in the general election. Parties liked it better because voters had to choose a party ballot and pick only from that party's candidates.

Now, voters can cast ballots for any candidate, and the primary will no longer serve as the official party nomination process.

As a result, the state Democratic Party has established its own way of determining which candidates they consider their nominees. In legislative races, Democratic precinct committee officers in each district are supposed to designate an official party candidate for each state House and Senate position.

That designation won't appear on the primary ballot, but candidates can use it in their campaign literature.

The state Republican Party is encouraging precinct officers to nominate candidates but is not making it mandatory.

The new nominating process has led to some intraparty wrangling.

Precinct officers in the 36th District, for example, would not endorse a candidate. Peter House, chair of the 36th District Democrats, said they dislike the new top-two primary but are uncomfortable nominating candidates. "We just thought the nominating convention would be too awkward and not democratic enough," he said.

Party rules allow Pelz to nominate candidates in that situation. Pelz picked Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a public-policy research center, as the official Democratic candidate.

Burbank said Pelz named him because "he recognized my work for the past two decades has been very important for Democratic polices in the state."

However, the nomination hasn't dissuaded his Democratic opponent Carlyle, who has raised more than $95,000 in campaign contributions — twice as much as Burbank.

Carlyle, an entrepreneur who works in the wireless and software industries, said the fact Pelz picked Burbank means little. "This is not the party. It's Dwight Pelz. He's the nominee of one guy," Carlyle said.

State Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said he's not even sure if the party nominees will get any financial help from the committee.

"If we have two strong Democrats after the primary, we'll probably just let them work it out," Hunt said. "They'll have to raise money on their own and fight it out amongst the brotherhood."

Party leaders say it's too early to say how this will all play out.

"We'll find out how satisfied the voters are with the top two," said Esser, the state Republican Party chairman.

In the meantime, Bloss, the Republican candidate in the 36th District, plans to keep running despite the odds. The last time there was a contested primary in 2004, the two Democratic candidates took 87 percent of the vote, the Republican got 12 percent and a Libertarian took 1 percent.

"I got involved because it would have been them [the two Democrats] running unopposed," said Bloss, a local Realtor. "I'm hoping people look at the issues rather than, just because I'm a Republican, discounting me."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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