Was that Sonntag's hat being tossed into the ring?

Against the day of a quickie governor's race this November, a cranky independent Democrat puts down some markers for fiscal discipline.
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Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Against the day of a quickie governor's race this November, a cranky independent Democrat puts down some markers for fiscal discipline.

Might Washington state have a new governor soon? The first domino is the smooth pace of the Elena Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court, with Majority Leader Harry Reid saying he will push for a vote before the full Senate prior to the August recess. That would enable President Obama to name a new solicitor general, with Gov. Chris Gregoire apparently a strong contender.

The magic number is 35, that being the minimum number of days prior to the November election for us to have a jump-ball, no-primary election to replace Gregoire, assuming she has been named to the post. If the vacancy takes place after that late-September deadline, then we would wait until 2012 for a proper election of a new governor, and Lieutenant Gov. Brad Owen would serve.

That's a lot of hypotheticals. Besides, as Congressman Jay Inslee explained the other day, "Obama won't do that," meaning he wouldn't time his appointment in such a way as to have a no-primary free-for-all election in November. Inslee, often mentioned as a likely candidate for governor, added that he was giving absolutely no thought to the governor's race, an assertion that is hard to believe. After all, Inslee ran for governor once before, and his dream of being a U.S. Senator is likely a pipe dream given the popularity of the two current Democratic senators.

In this context of a possible frantic campaign for governor this fall, I found interesting the op-ed in today's Seattle Times by State Auditor Brian Sonntag, "Resize state government's footprint." It's a good positioning statement for someone who could mount a serious race for governor, appealing to a center-right independent vote.

Sonntag, a Pierce County Democrat, has certainly declared his independence of his party, playing footsie with Tim Eyman, endorsing Susan Hutchison for King County executive, and ruffling feathers with his performance audits. His op-ed strikes a strong note of fiscal conservatism, toting up the $23 billion in unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions, insurance costs, and disability pensions. He also notes the new estimated figure for next year's budget shortfall, $3 billion. Sonntag's list of cures for these problems is disappointing, running along the banal lines of "comprehensive strategic planning" and setting priorities.

Still, some powerful new notes are sounded: bipartisanship, and moving beyond short-term fixes for cash-flow problems. Sonntag's cranky independence would provide built-in appeal to voters who don't want to ratify the present system or incumbents. Sonntag is a foretaste of the kind of populist backlash that the long Democratic hegemony in Olympia is likely to be creating, especially if the economy remains sour.

Sonntag's likely opponents, Attorney General Rob McKenna for the Republicans, and Inslee or Spokane state Sen. Lisa Brown for the Democrats, might look like they have been part of the system too long. (Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, once in the running, now seems to have too many of his own staff problems to deal with.) I still expect the real contender to be a self-funded fresh face from the business community, probably the new economy, as is happening in California with Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman.

Another reason there won't be a quickie election this fall is the calculation that it would be best for all the aspirants if Gov. Owen were the poor chump who had to deal with the horrible budget shortfalls in the next year or two. A Gov. Inslee or a Gov. McKenna, saddled with two years of pain and bloodshed, might not be a viable candidate for reelection in 2012. Owen, 60, is far from ready to be governor, to be sure, but he would have some value as a sacrificial figure. Given all this, let's hope that Gregoire doesn't get tapped for the solicitor general job.


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