Democracy doesn't get much worse than the Pierce County auditor's race.

IF YOU'RE ATTRACTED to elections the way some are drawn to car wrecks, it'll be hard not to watch the ongoing chain-reaction campaign for Pierce County auditor, a historical pile-up to begin with. Here's the 1998 toll so far:

*Incumbent auditor Cathy Pearsall-Stipek, facing re-election next month, avoided a recall election last month when the state Supreme Court ruled that two recall petitions were without merit and "motivated by spite." Pearsall-Stipek has been criticized for counting absentee ballots more than a week before elections are held—a move halted by the state Supreme Court—and her removal from office is still being sought by CLEAN, a civic watchdog group.

*Her leading challenger, state Rep. Scott Smith, an organizer of the I-200 anti-affirmative-action initiative, is running for the accounting office as a pro-life candidate. He also claimed he once lost out to a less-qualified female candidate for a job at the King County Sheriff's Office, but the sheriff says Smith withdrew his name early and would have gotten the job had he stayed in contention.

*The incumbent and challenger did not officially meet in the primary (Pearsall-Stipek topped Smith by 9,000 votes in a non-counting race). But two independent opponents—Dale Washam and Will Baker—did battle it out, thanks to an odd county law that allows only one independent to run in the general election. Washam, who has mounted three recall drives against Pearsall-Stipek and has lost a half-dozen elections in a row, beat Baker, a flower vendor best known for being arrested for refusing to stop talking during Pierce County Council and Tacoma City Council meetings—and then refusing to leave his jail cell after he was free to go (jailers even once left his cell door open, but he wouldn't depart without an apology). Should he win the general election, Washam vows to sign a contract with voters, promising to resign if asked by 51 percent of those who put him in office.

*Pearsall-Stipek's heavy-handed editing or initial rejection of candidate statements in the county voter guide survived a court challenge by candidates who said their First Amendment rights were violated. Four of the excluded statements were from candidates who each said the no. 1 election issue was the "illegal and unethical election practices" of Pearsall-Stipek. Among the statements she banned was: "Three of the last five auditors who have been elected (including the current auditor, Cathy Pearsall-Stipek) have ended up on the losing end of court cases as a direct result of their actions on the job while in office (that's every other auditor for the last 54 years). . . . Two of those auditors went to jail."

*Pearsall-Stipek was also rapped by candidates for the luck of the draw in a contest to determine which names would be placed in the supposedly advantageous first position on pamphlets and absentee ballots: Of 11 races, the names of 11 incumbents were drawn, earning the top spots and beating odds estimated at 30,000 to 1. Challengers squawked, calling the drawings rigged. KING TV later reported that the cards used in the drawing were marked. But Pearsall-Stipek insisted to the Tacoma News-Tribune it was just "an amazing coincidence."

*In August, Pearsall-Stipek's second-in-command, deputy auditor John Gamble, was found guilty of making harassing phone calls to a Fircrest woman, asking, "What are you doing? What would you do to me if I was there?" Gamble said he dialed the number by mistake.

*Also in August, CLEAN was sued by a Pierce County deputy sheriff, Jim Loeffelholz, for defamation by claiming the officer had filed a false report related to the ejection of two CLEAN observers from a county vote-counting facility in October 1996. CLEAN said the counting was being done secretly and illegally. Observer Susan Coffey won a lawsuit against the 275-pound election worker who choked her, but was awarded no damages.

Not that any of this surprises anyone in Tacoma. Two years ago, an auditor candidate's life was threatened after someone broke her window and left behind a note: "Drop out or you're dead." And, looking back over the past 20 years, longtime auditor Dick Greco was constantly in hot water; just a few months ago, he was released from prison after nearly four years, sentenced for soliciting bribes while in office. He's now 72. There are already rumors of a comeback.

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