Fairhurst wins race for state's top court

By Ray Rivera
Seattle Times staff reporter

11/20/02

Olympia, WA - If the state's newest Supreme Court justice is to be believed, these haven't been nervous days. Just sick ones.

Mary Fairhurst sat at home all last week with the sniffles, a sore throat and a cough as election results poured in. Yesterday, she finally pulled in enough votes to be called the winner, ending the closest contest in memory in a state Supreme Court race.

"I had the numbers up (on a computer) and kept hitting refresh, and when I realized it was going to happen, the phone started ringing," said Fairhurst, her voice gruff from a head cold.

As King and Snohomish counties completed their vote tallies from the Nov. 5 election, Fairhurst, 44, took a 3,500-vote lead over Jim Johnson. Only 3,200 votes remain to be counted statewide by today's county-certification deadline.

Johnson's camp was not ready to concede until the vote is certified, and still hopes to pull close enough to force a mandatory recount. To do that, Johnson would have to finish within 2,000 votes for a machine recount or 150 votes for a hand recount. It would be a first for a state Supreme Court race.

Barring an unprecedented reversal, Fairhurst will replace retiring Justice Charles Z. Smith the court's only African American. Fairhurst will bring to the bench diversity of a different sort, making it the only high court in the United States with a female majority.

"I think it's wonderful that it's not a disadvantage to be a woman in Washington state, and that the citizens of Washington elect very competent women to positions of responsibility," said Fairhurst, a former Supreme Court clerk who heads the Attorney General's revenue and bankruptcy division.

She will join justices Bobbe Bridge, Susan Owens, Faith Ireland, Barbara Madsen, Tom Chambers, Gerry Alexander and Charles Johnson.

A Supreme Court race has not been this tight since at least 1978, according to Public Disclosure Commission reports.

Alex Hays, Johnson's campaign manager, credited Fairhurst's campaign for reaching voters in places such as Spokane, her former home. But he also railed against a negative ad, paid for by a consortium of tribes and environmentalists, that aired in the final days attacking Johnson. Hays said absentee votes received before and after the ad aired show it had no effect.

"Their tactics failed," he said, adding that those who choose to run negative ads in a nonpartisan judicial race "should feel ashamed."

More damaging to Johnson's campaign, according to Hays, were errors in King County that caused hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots to go out late. The Johnson campaign had timed its own campaign literature to reach voters at the same time as the ballots. Instead, the ballots arrived weeks later.

"You don't think that had an impact of 3,000 votes?" Hays asks.

Fairhurst discounted his reasoning. "I don't know why it would impact one person's campaign over another's," she said.

 

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