For state auditor in the Aug. 7 primary, The Seattle Times editorial board recommends state Rep. Troy Kelley, D-Tacoma, and James Watkins.

BRIAN Sonntag has proved himself an ardent advocate of the people in his 20 years as state auditor. He and his smoothly run office have diligently sought out misspent pennies in routine public audits, encouraged agencies to do better through performance audits and championed open, transparent government.

Now, as he leaves office, the people must replace him. The good news is voters have a strong field of four candidates vying to replace him, including three Democrats — state Reps. Troy Kelley of Tacoma and Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and state Sen. Craig Pridemore of Vancouver — and one Republican, business-development consultant James Watkins of Redmond.

Among them, two stand out: Kelley and Watkins.

Kelley, elected to the state House in 2006, is past chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee and vice chair of the House Business and Financial Institutions Committee. He previously was an audit-team leader for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Watkins, an unsuccessful challenger to former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee in 2010, has extensive experience in auditing in the private sector and worked at the FDIC in the 1990s.

Sonntag himself has studiously avoided endorsing anyone in the race, although he said positive things about Kelley two years ago when he was running — not for state auditor, but for re-election to the state House: “He’s the independent voice we need.” That’s the quote you see in Kelley’s TV ads.

Sonntag also noted that Watkins is “particularly qualified based on his background and experience to advance the Auditor’s Office and be an independent advocate for taxpayers.”

Miloscia and Pridemore are fine public servants, but Watkins and Kelley have the edge in this contest among four strong candidates.