A Q&A with Kim Wyman, departing WA secretary of state

Once she joins the Biden administration Monday, there will be no Republican statewide elected officials on the West Coast outside of Alaska.

Kim Wyman stands in front of the steps and columns of the state Legislative Building

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman outside the  state Capitol Building in Olympia on Nov. 10, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has gotten used to being a rarity in West Coast politics. Right now, she’s the only Republican statewide elected official on the West Coast outside of Alaska — a distinction she also held throughout her first term.

Starting next week, that will change. 

After nine years as Washington’s secretary of state, Wyman is stepping down to take a new job in Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration. Friday marks her last full day in office before she is sworn in Monday as the senior election security lead of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

Also starting Monday, Democrat Steve Hobbs will replace Wyman as Washington’s secretary of state. His appointment by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee will end Republicans’ 57-year hold on the secretary of state’s office, which is mainly tasked with overseeing elections.

Crosscut recently spoke with Wyman about how she caught the attention of federal officials and what she expects to tackle in her new job. 

Over the course of an hourlong conversation, Wyman also spoke about how she weathered attacks from members of her own party this past year, how her political identity has evolved — and how she feels about being replaced by a Democrat.

The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.
 

What will your new job entail?

This job is really about getting out and talking to state and local election officials and finding out what their needs are — and what things I can do to help them secure their physical infrastructure and electronic infrastructure of their elections systems. And, you know, one nice thing about the Department of Homeland Security — and this agency within it, CISA — is they have a lot of resources that are available to state and local officials. And they are available for no cost to those entities. And my job is really to get out first and just make sure they know of those opportunities.

How do you feel about your departure ushering in Washington’s first Democratic secretary of state in almost 60 years?

I think that the nature of the secretary of state's office — demonstrated by how I've operated here in the nine years I've been here — is there's a long tradition by Republicans to be nonpartisan in how we oversee the election process. So I'm more concerned and will be watching how Sen. Hobbs leads the office. And I would hope it would be in that same nonpartisan tradition. And I think the party moniker is less important if you’re going to step into this role. What's important is inspiring confidence across the political spectrum and not just in your party. So certainly, given his history and his resume and experience as a military leader in the National Guard, and his experience in the Senate and track record, I think he's well positioned to be that nonpartisan leader. And I think he's going to be fair and make sure that he's representing everyone.
 

The state Republican Party thinks the governor should have appointed a Republican to replace you. Do you share that frustration?

I mean, I’m going to be the Republican that was in office when it changed hands to the other party. History will definitely mark that transition happened. So I'm breaking this very long streak. But, you know, our state hasn't filled a vacancy for a statewide partisan position in a long time. And the last time that happened, it was a Republican governor, who appointed a Republican U.S. senator to fill the Democratic senator’s slot when he passed away. [Note: Wyman is talking about Gov. John Spellman’s appointment of Dan Evans to the U.S. Senate in 1983. Evans, a Republican, replaced Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat.] That was a while ago in history, 40 years ago or so. But you know, it is up to the governor, and the governor gets to choose.
 

Do you feel any guilt about being the person whose departure caused the office to switch hands?

No, because this opportunity is really a call to duty for me. And what brought us here to Washington 30 years ago was my husband serving in the Army as a ranger at Fort Lewis. And that was a call to duty for military service. And for me, this is a call to duty for federal service, to protect our Constitution. And I know that sounds corny, but it really is why I’m doing this. And I think I’m uniquely positioned to be able to do this work. With the experience I’ve gained in the last 27 years here in Washington, I can help make our country's election system more secure. Right now, our country is under attack by foreign actors. It’s under attack from within, people not believing the election and the election results. And that can shake democracy at its core. 
 

Where do you and your husband plan to live?

We're gonna go to Virginia, and probably rent an apartment or a condominium for a few months to try to just figure out where we want to live and what our future plans are. And, you know, eventually we are going to register to vote in a state other than Washington. And I probably will register as an independent, in part because of the job and the nature of the job. And, and in part, you know, I'm really stepping back from political life in every sense. And I think just being an independent in terms of voter registration is, you know, kind of in line with that as well. 
 

Do you see yourself moving back to Washington state one day?

When we moved here, 30 years ago, we were going to be here 18 months and move back to California. And that didn't happen because a good job became a great career for me. And I have a very supportive husband who hates the rain. And I don't think hate even does it justice. He's kind of to the point of, “I can't do this anymore. I need to live in sunshine or at least see the sun more often than we see it here.” So, no, I think this is a permanent move out of state.

Do you still consider yourself a Republican? 

Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan inspired me to become a Republican because of the principles that he talked about. And those are the various things to this day that make me a Republican — upholding the rule of law, having limited government, having a strong national defense. The idea that prosperity and opportunity are brought about by low taxes. For me this isn't any kind of political commentary, but I hope that the party can get back to those more conservative type principles and, and have it be more about that.

I still consider myself a Republican, but I don't at this point need to participate in Republican primaries in the next year, so I am happy to be [registered as] an independent. 
 

You mentioned your 27 years running elections in Washington state and your expertise there. Do you think the Biden administration also thought your being a Republican was an asset, and that was another reason they chose you?

I think it was one of many. I might have gotten on their radar in 2020, just with the amount of interviews I did, starting with vote by mail, and then evolving over time on election security and the security of a vote-by-mail system. Certainly a lot of the rhetoric that was being spread throughout the year was misinformation and disinformation. And the politics of it, when the president of the United States is attacking the system — I think all of those things raised my profile on a national level.

But I think it really was the work that I've been involved with, involved in here in our state, as well as on a national scale, of building the Electronic Registration Information Center and being on that team that developed this data matching center that has helped us clean up election rolls in 30 states, plus the District of Columbia. Building out the first election cybersecurity operation center here in our state, and kind of leading the way in our state to make sure our security was sound. And, of course, VoteWA [the state’s new integrated voter registration system]. I think a lot of those initiatives that I've had the privilege of being part of — that work didn't go unnoticed. And I think that that work got on the radar of those folks that are trying to build out this agency.

Do you have any reservations about working for a Democratic president?

I know that it is a political appointment, certainly. But given the actual job and the person leading the agency [CISA Director Jen Easterly], it is a nonpartisan position. And [Easterly] has been very clear that she has always been someone who leads in a nonpartisan way. And I think that, if anything, my appointment shows that the administration knows that elections are more important than partisanship. ... I don't believe that anything about this is going to be political. 
 

How did you feel when members of your own party — including GOP gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp — alleged you were overseeing fraudulent elections?

I think maybe the 20 years of doing political campaigns as a candidate, you get thicker skin over time. And my mom used to tell me that just because your friends say you have blue hair, doesn't mean you do, so don’t let it affect you. And I think that that rang true a lot post-2020 election. Just because people are taking you to court, or people are making allegations on a live Facebook feed, doesn't make them true. And, you know, I'm sure I lost a lot of supporters, you know, to those Facebook live feeds [from Culp and his campaign manager, Christopher Gergen]. But over time, I know I'm on the right side of history. And I know over time that the truth will bear out. 
 

How can you convince other Republicans that our elections are fair and not fraudulent? Do you think that you will be able to make the case?

I'm certainly going to continue to try. I'm not sure over the last 10 months that my opinions and my view of our elections have changed their hearts or minds. But I think that the best thing I can do is continue to have the transparency that election officials have across the country of how we do business. I know that counties across our state have been inviting people in to observe and saying, “Here, you know, you need to see our security measures; you need to see that we check every signature on every envelope.” And I think the more that happens, we can kind of start on the grassroots level, at least in inspiring confidence in those local elections.

I hope that by having a Republican in this position and operating in that nonpartisan space, that over time, even some of the harshest critics that are coming from the base of the Republican Party will have started having confidence in our system and that our elections are secure.
 

Do you have any advice for your successor, Steve Hobbs, who hasn’t run elections before?

Take time to learn what the office does and listen to the people who are in the office, because they're very good at what they do, and they always serve the citizens of our state well.

I think that probably the single most important thing you can do is be calm when things maybe don't go perfect, particularly in the area of elections and be that calming voice and that voice of reason when questions arise. And share with people what's happening, be transparent about our processes, so that you can inspire the same kind of confidence that we've been able to inspire in people toward our elections. Learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can — and he’ll be fine.

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.