Incumbent Hilary Franz and Sue Kuehl Pederson were leading in Tuesday night’s primary election returns to become Washington state’s next public lands commissioner. Franz, a Democrat, had nearly 52% of the initial vote count and Kuehl Pederson, a Republican, had garnered almost 22%.
If the leads hold as more ballots are counted in the coming days, both will advance to November’s general election.
The public lands commissioner heads the state Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for the management of 5.6 million acres of Washington’s forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands.
The commissioner leads state efforts in preparing for and suppressing wildfire, plays a key role in adapting state lands to climate change and leads DNR in producing funds for counties and schools through management of state lands.
Franz faced a slate of relative political newcomers. Kuehl Pederson was the only other candidate to raise campaign contributions, according to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission.
The next commissioner will lead DNR through a challenging financial picture only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. DNR produces much of its own funding, and also money for counties and schools, through timber harvest. But, the agency has forecast that what is sustainable to harvest on state lands will drop throughout the next half century.
Franz wants to broaden the agency’s portfolio, leasing more land for solar, wind, biomass and geothermal projects or for industrial, agricultural and commercial purposes.
Kuehl Pederson, a retired fisheries biologist and power manager, has called for commercial logging to be ramped up. She said bad wildfire seasons drew her into the race, and would like to reduce fuel load in the forest.
With 52% of the early vote, Franz led all of the Republicans in the race, combined, by about 12 percentage points.
In an interview, Franz said the initial election returns — which show a base of support in rural counties — suggest to her that she’s made progress in earning the trust of communities she said had “too long” been left behind by state government and economically.
“I came in saying my goal is to bridge the divide — Eastern Washington, Western Washington; urban, rural,” Franz said, referring to the beginning of her term in 2017. “In a state and nation very divided, the numbers show we’ve made huge progress.”
Kuehl Pederson, who led the next closest challenger by nearly 13 percentage points, said in an interview she was feeling great and “optimistic” she would emerge from the primary.
“I definitely see a path forward. I’m just getting started if you look at my campaign fund amount,” Kuehl Pederson said, adding that she expected the Republican party would bolster her campaign coffers. “I have a ways to go. I hope to reach a lot of voters between now and November.”
Franz has a sizeable fundraising lead after raking in more than $840,000 from supporters. Kuehl Pederson has raised nearly $30,000 from supporters, according to data from the public disclosure commission.