Secretary of State Sam Reed leaves office this week, ending the weightiest chapter of a more than 40-year public-service career that has been stamped by a trademark centrism.
Reed’s approach hasn’t always endeared him to political partisans of either party. The moderate Republican bucked elements in his own party several times – as a defender of abortion rights on the ballot early in his career, later as founder of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, and in backing the state’s blanket primary that let voters split tickets.
But the peak of friction came in 2004 when he angered both parties with his decisions on how to fairly count ballots in the razor-close governor’s race. Democrat Chris Gregoire won that race by 133 votes after two recounts and a court challenge by Republican Dino Rossi — but initial ballot counts showed the edge going back and forth for days.
Years later, Reed does not count the 2004 election as his No. 1 accomplishment.
“Most people consider my handling of the gubernatorial election to be my No. 1. I really honestly view it as I was just doing my job,” Reed said. “You know, I took an oath, I had conducted recounts as Thurston County auditor, and I just did what I’m supposed to do.”
Of all he did, Reed hopes to be remembered best for his championing of an open-primary law — most recently the voter-approved “top-two” runoff that lets the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party.
Question: What difference do you think that top-two primary makes?
Answer: One of the political ills of our modern American political system is I think too much of the ideological extremes and too much strident partisan politics. And while I very much believe in the political parties and the important role they play in the process, I think it has been damaging to our system and is causing some of the problems we are seeing in our Congress and in some of the states around the country like California.
The top-two primary is structured in such a way that (candidates) better realize that they need to campaign in the middle and they need to realize that the independents are going to be voting and they better talk to the independents. In our state, the independents are a huge portion of our electorate. I think that is very healthy for our political process.
Q: Your public-service career ran more than 40 years, counting your work as assistant secretary of state for (former Secretary of State) Ludlow Kramer, 23 years as Thurston County auditor and 12 as secretary of state. What drew you to public service in the first place?
A: I was inspired by my grandfather, Sam Sumner — after whom I’m named Sam Sumner Reed — who was a prominent attorney and kind of pioneer in Wenatchee. He had been in the Washington state Legislature, served as Chelan County prosecutor and served as state chairman of the Republican Party back in the ’20s. Sunday dinners with my grandparents were a civics lesson, a history lesson. Considering how boring they could have been for a kid, they were actually very inspiring — he was one of these guys, an orator, who could connect even with kids.
Q: What do you think your party needs to do to become more viable in Washington state politics, and perhaps even nationally, given some of the trends in demographics?
A: What a lot of us more moderate Republicans have been talking about for a long time is we absolutely have to be more inclusive, reaching out to other ethnic groups. And I think that has particularly hurt us with what has gone on nationally with respect to the whole Latino community. Immigration in particular. (President) George Bush actually had a very good plan (for immigration reform) but his own party — there were Democrats too — hurt him.
With women, there is a bit of a bum rap (on the GOP). But unfortunately, a certain faction of the Republican Party has been so visible in terms of right-to-life issues and all that. The Republican Party has also got an image, among certain women, of being anti-woman. Of course, that’s the majority of the electorate, so you have to get out and focus on that.
Q: Do you think Republicans, in order to become more viable, have to change some of their basic beliefs?
A: I don’t think so because when I look at particularly a lot of these ethnic groups, whether you are talking about Latinos or Asians a lot of their convictions and their family values and things they really care about — their entrepreneurialism and all that — really fits into the Republican message. That’s one of the reasons I think it’s such a shame they have been so alienated by the immigration stuff that I think was a big mistake. Actually, it started way back in California with Gov. (Pete) Wilson of all people. I was disappointed because he seemed to be a good man. But he went off the edge.
Q: What advice are you giving to Kim Wyman, your successor as secretary of state (who also replaced you as Thurston County auditor)?
A: Fortunately, it is advice that in some ways Kim doesn’t need. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. She went out and worked her fanny off to get elected, which is important. She was at every Lincoln Day dinner, she was at every Republican Central Committee She is a Republican and the Republicans are very proud of her — the only Republican elected to statewide office (and) the only statewide elected Republican on the West Coast.
My advice is when you walk through that door you are now serving all the people of the state of Washington. And you can’t forget that for a minute. You are going to get called by party people; you are going to have Republicans up in the Legislature come down and lean on you and all that. Now, if they are leaning on you for the right reason — to do something you should be doing anyway — great. But you are going to have to learn how to say no. You are going to have to learn how to accept the fact they are going to be mad at you at times.
But your job is not to be the Republican secretary of state; your job is to be the secretary of state for all the people in the state of Washington.
Q: Is there advice you give to the next generation about going into public service?
A: The last two years I’ve been in office I’ve done something you may not be aware of. I noticed that there were a really interesting group of Republicans elected in 2010 as the pendulum swung back a little bit. I had met some of them and thought, there’s some good people here — and it’s not just the obvious, (Sens.) Andy Hill, Steve Litzow (and others in the House and the Senate).
On Wednesday mornings, I invited them in to have breakfast with me at 7. I had sessions for them, among other things, talking about civility, moderation and bipartisanship. But also bringing in people who were thoughtful, forward-thinking people who could envision where the state needed to go in the future. We talked big ideas. We made the point we were not here to talk about legislation or amendments to particular bills. I said I want you to think about where this state should be in five or 10 years.
They liked it so much they started inviting others. I invited a dozen or 14 and we ended up with 25 or so. Some of them said it was the highlight of the session for them. I thought that was kind of sad.
I advised them not to get caught up in the short run — particularly caucus games, where the Democrats are trying to get those Rs to take a bad vote or the Republicans try to get the Democrats. Your impact is not whether you were able to screw somebody over. Your impact is did you really make an impact for this state in the long run. That’s not an easy message. But that was my message.
Q: What are your plans in retirement?
A: We’ll travel a little bit, but we don’t have any grand plans. I’m working with WSU (Washington State University). There is this endowment for the Sam Reed professorship on civility and civics. (I’ll help) fundraising on that and also help them to set up a committee to oversee it.
I’ve also been recruited — by the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard — to apply to be a Harvard fellow in the fall of 2013 to lead seminars for undergraduates with the concept being they’ll get a chance to interact with somebody who has actually served as an elected official and actually had to govern and all the practicalities of that.