Since last week, NW Daily Marker has reported on early signs of an imminent announcement from business consultant and recent congressional candidate James Watkins about a run for Washington State Auditor, the seat left open this year by the retirement of Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag. On Tuesday, Watkins made his official declaration, joining State Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver) and State Rep. Mark Miloscia (D-Federal Way) in the race.
“Today I’m officially declaring my candidacy for State Auditor,” Watkins said in an email statement to supporters and the press. “In our state, the independently elected Auditor serves as the eyes and ears for all citizens and I pledge to be “Your Watchdog in Olympia!”
“I’m running to continue and strengthen the dedication to government accountability, fiscal responsibility and open, effective government championed by outgoing State Auditor Brian Sonntag,” continued Watkins. “With our state government mired in an ongoing financial crisis, maintaining an independent, effective State Auditor is a top priority for voters.”
Watkins also laid out his top three priorities, if elected: strengthening the performance audit program enacted by Initiative 900, utilizing audits and whistleblower laws to find fraud and abuse and championing open government policies and practices.
In addition to being the only Republican in the race, Watkins is also the only candidate with a background in conducting performance audits. In the 1990s, Watkins worked within the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to shrink the size of a then-bloated organization without sacrificing the performance of a vital financial safety net.
Watkins also has the distinction of being the only non-legislator in the race, and his lack of Olympia baggage after the raucous 2012 session could be a tipping factor, among both rank and file voters and those with special interest in protecting the state auditor’s office as a watchdog over government.
Gov. Christine Gregoire and Democrats in the State Legislature have made several subtle attempts to gut and neuter Sonntag’s office, a cause that would be made easier with the election of a soft auditor.
A large component in Sonntag’s successful campaign to fend off those assaults has been his popularity among voters, a bond founded on his independence from the interests he investigates—a vital characteristic in a watchdog auditor.
Both Miloscia and Pridemore will carry into the race a history of connections with special interest groups, a past that voters may see as reason enough to question whether they will advocate for taxpayers. The endorsements Miloscia has already gathered—a long list of unions and local government officials (just the sort who stand to gain from the election of a weak auditor)—could come across to voters as a red flag.
Watkins may also start out his fundraising with a nest egg left over from his recent congressional campaign. Federal Elections Commission records show his congressional campaign fund repaid more than $29,000 in loans Watkins made to the campaign, money one might conceive can now be used to launch his campaign for auditor. If so, Watkins could quickly catch up to the rest of the field in terms of cash on hand to wage an effective campaign.
According to Public Disclosure Commission reports through January 2012, Miloscia only has a little more than $18,000 cash on hand and Pridemore has less than $11,000, but also shows debts of $5,500 that bring his coffers dangerously close to empty. Both have been held back from raising funds during the legislative session, and the entry of a Republican in the race could stimulate more interests from Democratic donors. Sonntag spent more than $81,000 on his successful re-election in 2008.
[photo courtesy of y James Watkins for Auditor]