No, it's not weird that so many people are running for WA lands commissioner
The pool of candidates vying to become Washington's next commissioner of public lands is getting crowded. The number of candidates competing for the job has taken some people by surprise, but those familiar with the role say it isn't that strange to see so much interest in the position – even if voters don't always know what the state's lands commissioner does.
As of mid-October, seven candidates are in the running for next year’s election, with five Democrats and two Republicans in the mix. Seven people also ran for the position in the 2016 primary.
So what does the commissioner do? The office oversees management of millions of acres of public lands – including wildfire response – as the head of the state's Department of Natural Resources. The department manages much of the state's forests and waters, as well as the revenue from activities like timber harvests and recreation.
"There's really almost nothing that DNR does that we're not interested in at some level," said Paul Jewell, a policy director at the Washington Association of Counties.
Jewell says the election of a lands commissioner often gets overlooked as voters focus on higher ballot races, like governor and president. But he says the job is critically important for everything from water resources and agriculture, to forest health and natural climate solutions.
"There's a lot of different policy directions that the agency can choose to go," Jewell said. "All of those things are affected by the decisions of the Department of Natural Resources – which is led by the commissioner of public lands, who is elected by the people."
It's a rare position – only a handful of states elect someone to manage natural resources.
Even though many people who have worked with lands commissioners aren't surprised at the number of candidates so far, a few are raising their eyebrows at the timing. Some organizations, tribes and elected leaders are starting to throw support behind certain candidates, while others say it's still early in the process to decide which would be their preferred pick to take the lands commissioner job.
With 10 months to go before next year's primary, several candidates have fundraised tens of thousands of dollars according to data from the Public Disclosure Commission – including two who just announced their campaigns in September.
Rachel Baker works with Washington Conservation Action, an environmental advocacy and policy group. She says it makes sense that so many people want the job, especially in a state where conversations around climate change are growing increasingly urgent.
"We're seeing expansion of wildfire in the state, and so I think people are reacting to these big challenges to solve, and we're seeing incredible growth and opportunities," Baker said.
Candidates' websites say as much. Wildfires are a chief concern for many, with most also mentioning the role Washington's forests play in the economy and the fight against climate change.
The state’s current lands commissioner, Hilary Franz, is making a run for governor next year. But people familiar with the role she’s leaving say the job isn't typically one that candidates seek in order to propel themselves to a higher office later on.
"I think it's a mix of people who care about the issues and people who have been in government and feel like they are good managers – good stewards of both the government and the environment," said Todd Myers, a former campaign consultant for a previous lands commissioner. He says some people might even see it as their final political job, though Franz is an exception.
That's another key reason some people say there's such a sizable pool of candidates: the job is available without an incumbent running for re-election.
Still, the 2024 lands commissioner race is more competitive compared to other statewide positions without an incumbent running. Only two candidates are currently running to become Washington's next attorney general, and a handful of candidates are competing to become the state's next governor.
But it's early. Candidates officially file paperwork with the Secretary of State's office in May, and voters decide next August which two candidates will face off in the general election. That leaves plenty of time for more people to join in – or for some to drop out.