The Election That Changed Washington—Ten Years Later

How the 2004 contest between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi transformed the way the state conducts elections, and those who lived through it.

Illustration by Doug Chakya. Dino Rossi adapted from SW file photo. Christine Gregoire adapted from U.S. Army photo.

Ten years ago, as night fell on the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Dino Rossi addressed a roomful of hopeful Republican supporters.

“We are trending in the right direction,” Rossi, a fiscal conservative from Sammamish who chaired the state Senate Ways and Means Committee and had made a small fortune in the commercial real-estate business, told his fellow party members. For the first time since 1984, Republicans in Washington were poised to take control of the Governor’s mansion. Rossi, standing before TV cameras carrying images across the state and country, was the man who’d taken them to the doorstep.

“We’ve waited 20 years, I guess we can probably wait another week,” the candidate would joke from the podium. “This isn’t over yet. There are a lot of ballots to count. Stay tuned.”

The remarks would prove prophetic. The gubernatorial race of 2004 was one of prolonged uncertainty, pitting the state’s well-known Attorney General, Democrat Christine Gregoire, against Rossi, a presumed underdog, and Ruth Bennett, a Libertarian running primarily on a marriage-equality platform. Given the candidates’ differing profiles and the widely held assumption that Gregoire would cruise to victory, no one could have predicted what would transpire over the following month. To this day, Washington’s 2004 governor’s race remains the closest in the nation’s history.

Nationally, Election Day 2004, Nov. 2, was highlighted by John Kerry’s challenge of George W. Bush, only four years after the electoral debacle in Florida helped Bush take office. And while you can’t get much further from Palm Beach than King County, many of the same questions, accusations, and uncertainties that marred the 2000 presidential election would be ominously raised again here during what turned into the Gregoire/Rossi saga. Ballots were lost and found. Conspiracies were construed. Tempers flared. Litigation flew. A recall effort was launched against Secretary of State Sam Reed—twice. And for months, the future of Washington’s political landscape hung in the balance.

Just after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 30, 2004, after two counts of the ballots, Reed certified Washington’s race for governor in Rossi’s favor. Thirteen days earlier Rossi had won the initial ballot count by 261 votes, a razor-thin margin that triggered an automatic recount. The second time around it only got tighter: Rossi won by 42 votes out of 2.8 million cast.

Dino Rossi, after winning 31 of Washington’s 39 counties, was set to be the state’s next governor. But it never happened.

A decade later, the one thing most observers agree on is that it’s still impossible to say definitively who won. As we know, a third hand recount of the ballots—paid for by the State Democratic Party, which footed the $730,000 price tag (i.e., 25 cents a ballot)—would find Gregoire the winner by a mere 129 votes. Gregoire got the good news two days before Christmas, while on a ski vacation at Mount Bachelor, and was sworn in Jan. 12, 2005, with the specter of a lawsuit challenging the validity of the election looming. During her inaugural address, the former governor remembers, a handful of Republican legislators refused to face her as she took the oath of office.

While the court case, held in Wenatchee over nine days in May and early June, would eventually uphold the victory for the Democrat—raising Gregoire’s margin of victory to 133 votes and denying the Republicans the revote they sought—along the way it would bring to light a slew of troubling voting irregularities. All of them—from the widespread mishandling of provisional ballots to the failure to reconcile the number of people credited with voting with the number of ballots cast—are cited in Superior Court Judge John Bridge’s Chelan County ruling. The Gregoire stronghold of King County, which she would carry by over 150,000 votes, would come out looking particularly inept.

To this day, who “won” the governor’s race of 2004 depends on whom you ask.

“I get it every day. People stop me on the street and say, ‘You got robbed! I’m still mad about that! That election was stolen!’ It’s daily . . . It’s daily,” a resigned Rossi now offers. “I think I won. And, certainly, if we had a re-vote, I think we would have won.”

“Yes,” Gregoire says succinctly when you ask her if she believes she was the rightful victor. “Because I served as Governor. . . . When the votes are counted through the legitimate legal process, that’s the winner. . . . To me, you live by the process, and in the end what the process says is the result.”

Christine Gregoire doesn’t talk about the election of 2004—at least that’s what you’re told when you try to track down the two-term governor. It remains, understandably, a sore spot for a politician who defies the typical mold. Gregoire, whose former associates often describe her as more private than most, would rather forget the whole ordeal.

At least until recently, she says.

“I look back on it as one of the worst times I’ve ever had in my professional life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst opponent,” Gregoire tells me by phone from the Harvard University Institute of Politics in Boston, where she’s serving as a fellow this fall. For the first time in a long time, she says, she’s thinking about the election of 2004.

“As a candidate, you have it in your head that it will be over on election night,” Gregoire says of 2004. “You don’t think about the possibility that it won’t be.”

Election Night 2004 was just the start of it for Gregoire, her party, and her family.

“We were at the Westin Hotel, and, I will never forget, there was a swarm of press. This was a heavily covered event,” remembers Paul Berendt, who chaired the state Democratic Party at the time. “There was a tremendous amount of excitement. We wanted her to come down and address the crowd, because there were television cameras there, and we were sensitive to giving them something to cover.

“Eleven o’clock was approaching and there was no word where [Gregoire] was, so I went up to her room. It was a big suite, and there was kind of a back room, and she was in there with some of her key advisers and family members, and it was very quiet, and they obviously thought they were in tough shape. . . . [Gregoire] looked very stressed and not confident, let me just say that. Frankly, I saw a little bit of anger in that room. I think she thought she was going to lose at that point.”

Though Berendt says he believed Gregoire would win, and told her so that night at the Westin—even as the disappointing preliminary results were being projected on her hotel-room wall—he remembers that it was another Democratic voice who was able to convince the candidate to make her way to the podium and speak to supporters.

“About that time Senator Cantwell came in the room, and I said to her, ‘You know, Senator, they’re very down,’ ” Berendt recalls. “And Cantwell looked at the numbers and said, ‘What is Snohomish County doing?’ And we looked at the wall and Gregoire was ahead in Snohomish County at the moment. And Cantwell said, ‘Well, if you take Snohomish County, you’re going to win the election.’

“So she got up and went down and gave her speech. . . . I don’t know. I’ll just never forget that moment.”

Gregoire would tell the crowd at the Westin that night that “I’m coming back down here as the next governor of the great state of Washington.” Whether she believed that or not is anyone’s guess. Ironically, she would end up losing Snohomish County by just more than 6,000 votes.

Race for the Prize: A Tense Timeline

Coming into the 2004 election, nearly everyone considered the state Attorney General a shoo-in. She had already been tested by two tough opponents on her way to the ballot—first when she led the negotiations that resulted in the historic $300 billion settlement against Big Tobacco, and later by beating King County Executive Ron Sims in the gubernatorial primary. But that knock-down, drag-out primary fight left Gregoire reeling following revelations that an attorney under her supervision had missed the deadline to appeal a civil-case ruling, which left the state on the hook for an $18 million settlement, and from accusations that her office had asserted influence over what was supposed to have been an independent investigation into the matter. Later, voters learned that Kappa Delta, the University of Washington sorority that in 1966 Gregoire pledged and later became president of, admitted only whites at the time. Gregoire claimed that she had tried to persuade Kappa Delta to change the racist policy. And though she won the Democratic primary with a comfortable 65.6 percent of the vote, she emerged bloodied and with a depleted bank account.

Rossi, meanwhile, coasted to victory in the Republican primary virtually unscathed—setting the stage for a remarkable contest between two very different candidates.

Even after Gregoire’s primary fight, most considered the Attorney General to have a sizable advantage over Rossi. For instance, an Elway poll from September 2004 indicated that Gregoire held an 11-point lead. But as the campaign went on, the tides began to turn. Observers said the Gregoire campaign lacked focus and message. “It was not necessarily a smooth-running campaign machine,” Berendt now admits. “The Gregoire campaign had some stumbles at the very end. . . . I think the campaign didn’t have confidence in their management team, and this resulted in some confusion in how the end game should be implemented.”

Rossi, on the other hand, was a fresh face, a moderate from the suburbs who seemed to have a connection with Washingtonians outside of Seattle. He was charming; he’d balanced the state’s 2003 budget; and his campaign was “firing on all cylinders,” as Berendt puts it. As a result, by Election Day, as the votes would later confirm, the two would-be governors were locked in a dead heat.

“She ran a terrible campaign. There were times when we were like, ‘Seriously?’ ” remembers Mary Lane Strow, Rossi’s campaign spokesperson at the time. “We were kind of expecting more.”

“You always look back and ask what could you have done?” Gregoire says today. “We clearly could have done a better job all around. We didn’t have the ground effort that is necessary, or get out the vote like we should have. I have to accept responsibility for that.”

Ask about the legacy of the 2004 gubernatorial election, however, and it’s not campaign regrets that Gregoire focuses on. She remembers the pain, uncertainty, and stress that the prolonged ordeal put on her family. But most of all she remembers the larger lessons.

“I don’t think about [the election] a lot, but since I’ve come here, I have,” says Gregoire, admitting that her Harvard fellowship has helped her re-examine 2004. “The most important lesson learned is: Any apathy about whether one should vote or not is clearly decided in that race, where every single vote counted.

“I’m trying to express to these young students how important their votes are,” she continues. “It’s a perfect case-study example.”

Ten years after having what would have been the biggest accomplishment of his career taken from him, Dino Rossi doesn’t have to make time for me. But he does, picking an early Friday morning at a Sammamish Starbucks as a meeting spot.

Before our get-together, however, the former politician, who has since returned to real estate, e-mails me a PowerPoint presentation—the one used 10 years ago by the lawyers representing the state Republican Party during the Chelan County court case that ultimately decided the election.

“It’s good to start our conversation with the facts,” Rossi writes of the e-mail attachment, now a historical artifact of sorts. The fourth slide is particularly telling. Under the header “What Happened?” is a litany of electoral missteps: “Illegal Votes,” “Lost & Found Ballots,” “Election Worker Errors,” “Fraud,” and “Litigation.”

“I thought we could win. I really did,” Rossi tells me. “We won the first one. . . . Then we won again. I was certified governor-elect twice. And they ended up flipping it with felons, dead people, and unregistered voters. I didn’t know I was supposed to be campaigning in graveyards,” he says, laughing.

Rossi, who Berendt remembers as “a really good candidate,” points out time and time again during our conversation that he’s not bitter—“I’m a glass half-full guy,” he says. “Worse things have happened. You’ve got to put things in perspective.” But it’s clear that all these years later he still believes Washington’s system got it wrong. “It wasn’t a conspiracy,” Rossi says of the way things played out in 2004. “It’s just a system so loose that individual acts of fraud can be committed. It’s hard for people go to jail for that, because it’s not an organized effort.”

And, of course, within the Republican Party, he’s not alone in his views.

“It’s the worst thing that ever happened in my professional life. The most frustrating,” remembers Chris Vance, who chaired the state Republican Party from 2001 to 2006, and spent nearly every morning for two months as a guest on the conservative talk-radio station KVI, walking listeners through the party’s growing list of election grudges. “I mean it’s terrible. I can’t laugh about it. It was a tragedy. A disaster,” Vance says. “I’ve had worse things happen in my personal life. I’ve lost both my parents and my mom’s mom passed away and that sort of thing, but in a professional sense it was the most awful thing. The whole thing was just wrong.

“I will never forget, and I almost say never forgive, but there’s no one to punish,” Vance continues, when asked what angers him most about the 2004 election. “It wasn’t one of these things where you lose and you go, ‘Oh well. We fought a good fight and we lost fair and square.’ Bitter is far too weak a term.”

Many Republicans do blame someone—or some county (namely, King)—for what happened in 2004. As Lane Strow explains, the whole experience felt like “going up against the machine.” And the list of significant election accusations made in court by the Republicans is lengthy. David Postman, who now serves as executive director of communications for Governor Jay Inslee, reported in The Seattle Times in early January 2005 that Republicans claimed to have identified “300 illegal votes and more than 400 that can’t be verified” in the 2004 governor’s election, including “240 felons who voted illegally. . . . 44 votes cast under the name of dead people, 10 voters who voted twice in the state, and six who voted here and in another state.” By the time the court case concluded in early June, both parties had tried their hand at turning up questionable votes, with Republicans seeking illegal votes in pro-Gregoire counties and Dems countering by searching for illegal votes in pro-Rossi counties. Combined, both parties claimed to have identified over 2,800 illegal votes.

In the end, Judge Bridges found that a total of 1,401 convicted felons and 19 dead people had cast a ballot—but ruled that both parties had largely failed to prove which candidate the votes benefited. More important, Bridges declared that Republicans hadn’t established that the votes in question changed the election’s outcome, which is a requirement under state law to enable a court to invalidate a vote of the people. Bridges did rule that four of those votes had been cast specifically for Rossi (and one for Bennett), which raised Gregoire’s lead over him to 133 votes.

In the wake of the Rossi/Gregoire ordeal, the much-maligned director of the King County Election Department, Dean Logan, resigned in 2006. And the county—which in his final ruling Judge Bridges took to task for a host of shortcomings, including a “lack of communication, lack of taking responsibility for actions, a lower level of accountability, and difficulty in documenting procedures”—has worked, most say successfully, to increase oversight and accountability. Statewide, as Trova Heffernan, who served as communications director for Secretary of State Sam Reed, wrote in her book An Election for the Ages, some 1,280 changes to the voting process were enacted as a result of the election. “Among the most significant were extensive changes to voter registration, and adopting an earlier date for the State Primary, allowing more turnaround time between the primary and general elections to better serve overseas and military voters,” Heffernan details.

None of these, of course, can help fix what happened in 2004.

“The election was conducted in such an incompetent, sloppy fashion, particularly by King County, that nobody knows [who won],” says Vance. “Only God knows who got more votes.”

As a third-party candidate, Ruth Bennett knew she wasn’t going to be elected governor of Washington in 2004. But she thought she might be able to choose who was. And she almost got her wish.

Now 62, Bennett resides in Arizona, where she’s the executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Southern Arizona and holds a spot on her local school board. But in 2004, Bennett was, in addition to being a semi-retired travel agent, a thorn in the side of the Washington political establishment. It took a lawsuit even to get her on the ballot—a challenge to the state’s 1-percent requirement, which Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy ruled unconstitutional in light of Washington’s new “pick-a-party” primary system—and it escalated from there. As Bennett recalls, she was the Libertarian candidate who wasn’t perennial ballot laughingstock GoodSpaceGuy. “My issues were a little more down-to-earth,” she recalls.

In a race decided by 133 votes, the 63,465 that Bennett ended up with may have made all the difference. “Libertarians have the option of what we call running to the right or running to the left. In a race that’s potentially going to be close, the Libertarians should always be able to decide who the winner is,” Bennett says of her motivations in 2004.

Despite building her campaign on what former Libertarian party chairman J Mills now describes as “legalizing dope and same-sex marriage,” Bennett says her big goal was to get Dino Rossi elected. That may seem strange from an openly gay candidate running as a Libertarian—a party better known for siphoning votes from Republicans—but it was all part of a larger strategy for the party, designed, according to Mills, to prove that Libertarian candidates don’t always hurt the right.

Bennett says she picked her liberal campaign themes “very deliberately.” “I ran hoping I would attract more people from the left, and therefore cause Mr. Rossi to win. And I came within a whisker of doing that,” Bennett says. “It’s not that I agree with a whole lot of his positions. It’s just that I found Mr. Rossi somewhat less odious than Mrs. Gregoire. I think he was a man of greater integrity.”

Like the outcome itself, Bennett’s impact on the outcome remains debatable. Ten years later, Chris Vance maintains that Libertarians take votes from both parties, and says Bennett’s candidacy hurt Rossi as much as it hurt Gregoire. Meanwhile, a December 2004 article by Neil Modie in the Seattle P-I quoted Gregoire spokesman Morton Brilliant as saying Bennett “set out to run a third-party candidacy from the left, stealing votes away from our left flank.” The article also indicates that, at the time at least, Brilliant believed that “Senator Rossi went out of his way whenever possible to mention Bennett’s candidacy, to mention her platform.”

According to Mills, if Republicans had been smarter in 2004, Bennett could have helped put Rossi in the governor’s mansion. The former party chair, who in 2004 ran his own race for the U.S. Senate, says his party approached the Rossi campaign on several occasions, trying to talk them into trying what he calls “cooperative campaigning.” The idea was fairly simple: If Rossi made a concerted effort to acknowledge that he was against the issues Bennett was campaigning on—specifically drug legalization and same-sex marriage—it would both draw conservative voters, who liked what they were hearing, to his side and take more liberal voters from Gregoire’s side. Bennett says her campaign went so far as to ask Rossi and the Republicans to fund a mailer for her in King County. Rossi says he doesn’t remember such a proposal; Vance says it sounds “vaguely familiar”; Mills says it never went quite that far.

Either way, Mills says, the Libertarians’ advances fell on deaf ears. “Our problem was always being kind of endlessly ignored,” says Mills. “We were trying to get [the Republicans] to sort of grasp the fact that they could treat the Libertarian as a real candidate. They could respond to things we were talking about. By simply accurately portraying the message, they could both help us and help themselves. . . . We were trying to get them to think about that and be smarter about it. It never kind of worked. I just don’t think that they were smart enough to understand.”

To this day, Vance remains dismissive. “Ruth Bennett has always tried to make herself part of the story,” he says. “The Libertarian vote is not why Rossi lost. . . . She and the Libertarians were not a big deal then, and even less so now.”

That too depends on whom you ask. “I wasn’t in the next race [the 2008 rematch], and Mr. Rossi lost by almost 200,000 votes,” says Bennett. “I made Mr. Rossi look very good.”

While Rossi is quick to point out that he “never needed the job,” that certainly never stopped him from gunning for it. Four years after having the governorship swiped from underneath him, Rossi lost to Gregoire in a rematch, this time decisively; and in 2010 Democrat Patty Murray took down Rossi in a U.S. Senate race. Today the fiscal conservative has returned to Sammamish to do what he’s perhaps best at: making money in the real-estate market. “A lot of people don’t really understand that I’m actually a businessman,” Rossi says. “I had one political-science class in college. I hated it and I dropped it. And that was it—I’d never thought I’d run for office. . . . I’m very blessed in a lot of ways.”

Still, those within the Republican Party can’t help but wonder what life in Washington might be like today had Rossi been awarded the governorship they say he rightfully won.

“I think we would have a much more well-run state government,” says Lane Strow. “With 30 years of Democrats running the show, there’s so much just doing the same things over and over again, and not really shaking things up. If Dino had been allowed to serve the term to which he was elected, he would have brought such a breath of fresh air to Olympia.”

“The most important thing is, Dino Rossi did not become governor, and that would have changed the trajectory of Washington state politics,” adds Vance. “If you’re a Republican that’s a good thing, if you’re a Democrat it’s not, but it would have definitely changed the trajectory of Washington state politics. We would have been able to build the Republican Party from the top down. Having a governor, we would have been able to raise more money, recruit more candidates, and maybe win other offices. I think Dino would have been a popular governor. It would have changed the arc of Washington state politics for sure.”

Ruth Bennett, meanwhile, is in some sense living her dream. The wild-card Libertarian moved to Arizona in 2010 with her partner of 16 years, but the couple returned to Washington a year ago to tie the knot after Washington legalized one of her main campaign issues—same-sex marriage. And despite how “odious” Bennett might believe Gregoire to be, it’s in accomplishments like that where Paul Berendt says the legacy of Gregoire’s term in office can be felt today.

“Essentially, [Democrats] have not just had this long era of controlling the governor’s mansion, but the state of Washington has consistently been a state that has been on the cutting edge—with gay marriage, or marijuana reform, or the historic closing-of-the-gun-show-loophole initiative that we just passed,” he concludes. “And I believe that an atmosphere creates the ability to do that. And the people that you put into these offices create an opportunity for change. And while I wouldn’t ever characterize Chris [Gregoire] as a major reformer per se, I do believe she allowed ideas to flourish kind of organically, and I believe Dino Rossi was just conservative enough that he would have been resistant to some of these changes and created a different kind of atmosphere.

“That election was very significant,” he says. Even 10 years later.

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