Washington’s interim Secretary of State Steve Hobbs took office Monday without the luxury of a low-stakes agenda to ease into the role. The former Senate transportation chair traded the pressure to fix infrastructure for a multilayered challenge to keep this crucial office running smoothly, even as he campaigns to keep the job.
The state needs Hobbs up to speed fast on elections administration, an experience missing from his prior résumé. Next year’s election cycle puts all 98 state House seats and at least 26 Senate posts before voters, along with Washington’s 10 seats in Congress.
The districts for those elections could be unknown until Spring because the Washington State Redistricting Commission failed to meet its deadline. Adding to the challenge: He needs immediately to hire a new state elections director to coordinate all 39 counties on this bumpy path.
Hobbs’ commendable leadership and professional record indicates Gov. Jay Inslee may have appointed the right person to handle the complex task. Departed Secretary Kim Wyman kept the state’s vote-by-mail elections humming and made key modernizing upgrades before leaving for a federal elections security role. But she had three decades of elections experience to draw on.
Hobbs developed his qualifications along a different path, serving as a senator since 2007 and for 32 years in the National Guard, a lead agency on state elections security.
Hobbs rose to lieutenant colonel in the Guard, served on active duty in Iraq and Kosovo, and commanded the Guard’s COVID-19 response in Western Washington, often responsible for hundreds of soldiers at a time. This leadership experience should aid his education in the nuances of overseeing 300 employees in 27 widely varied offices, including the State Archives, the State Library system and corporations registration.
Whether elections go smoothly will likely provide the criteria by which voters judge Hobbs’ performance, but it is not his only test. He must undo a Wyman misstep and require all the agency’s employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations to keep their jobs, bringing this office in line with every other state agency in a crucial step to keep workers — and the public — safer during the raging pandemic. Hobbs must also hire well-skilled people for open high-level positions, especially those vacated by nationally renowned elections director Lori Augino, who will lead the National Vote at Home Institute, and Wyman’s top lieutenant Mark Neary for a Mason County post.
Hobbs must stand for election next year for the chance to serve the last two years of Wyman’s unexpired term.
As a renowned political moderate, Hobbs brings another essential quality to the job. At his swearing-in, Hobbs nodded to the longstanding tradition of centrist leadership in the Secretary of State’s office, which had been held by Republicans since 1965. Hobbs is a Democrat but no ideologue. In the Senate he often led centrist pushback to Inslee’s agenda.
“Some would say I’m a radical moderate at times,” he said, and cited the need for elections to transcend party interests, a sentiment echoing the gospel of nonpartisanship Wyman preached many times.
Hobbs said what voters need to hear: that the state’s elections are secure and trustworthy, despite efforts to undermine public faith in them, and that he will mobilize his office to combat this threat directly. Now he must show that he can operate the state’s well-tuned vote-by-mail machinery well enough to uphold Wyman’s legacy and maintain the public’s faith.