WENATCHEE, Wash. – The political fate of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (search) hangs in the balance this weekend while a small-town judge decides whether her paper-thin victory was valid.
During two weeks of trial, Republicans argued election errors, illegal votes and fraud stole the election from GOP candidate Dino Rossi (search). Democrats countered that the errors were innocent mistakes and said Republicans lacked enough evidence to justify tossing a governor out of office.
Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges will announce his decision Monday.
The stakes could not be higher for Gregoire, who has pursued her agenda in the Capitol as if she'd won by a landslide.
Rossi may be even more desperate for a resolution. Once a rising GOP star, Rossi has been in a bizarre political limbo the past seven months after winning the first two counts in the governor's election only to lose a final, hand recount by 129 votes — the smallest percentage margin of any governor's race in U.S. history.
If Rossi gets his way with Bridges and the state Supreme Court, he'll meet Gregoire in a rematch election this fall.
Throughout the trial, both sides stressed the momentous nature of Bridges' task.
"This is a historic moment," Republican attorney Dale Foreman said in his opening statement. He said the judge has "a historic opportunity to do justice and to restore the people's faith in our election system."
In her closing argument, Democratic attorney Jenny Durkan said Republicans failed to meet the "clear and convincing" standard of proof for overturning an election.
"They're asking this court to throw out legal votes by people cast in the most important election in our lifetime," Durkan said. "This court may be setting the rules and the roadmap for election contests throughout the state for the future."
Bridges allowed almost every piece of evidence both parties wanted to submit, explaining that he wanted to create the fullest possible record for the state Supreme Court. "I've enjoyed having you folks in front of me immensely," he told the 10 attorneys on the case, "but I don't want to see any of you again."
Bridges, who handles everything from divorces to murder cases, enjoys a sterling reputation in Chelan County and beyond. Both sides say he's fair, and no one has been able to guess his politics. Though he clearly took the trial seriously, Bridges frequently teased attorneys and made self-deprecating quips.
"I would run from your class like the wind," he told one expert witness after a long day of testimony on election statistics.
On Friday, he thanked his staff and the attorneys in the case. "This is pretty outstanding legal work and I congratulate counsel," Bridges said. "I say this today because I know nobody wants to listen to me on Monday morning."
The election challenge unfolded quietly in this central Washington town. Except for the first and last days, most of the seats in the auditorium-turned-courthouse went unfilled.
Rossi supporter Bill Stokes, 67, attended every day of the trial and the pretrial hearings.
"Now that I'm retired I have altogether too much time on my hands," he explained. He said the most important part of the trial was "shining a light on a bad problem" — the problem of election errors.
His focus mirrors the shift on conservative Web logs and radio shows, where election talk has drifted from the demand for a "Rossi revote" to the more complicated task of cleaning up election problems in the Democratic stronghold of King County.
Neither Gregoire nor Rossi attended any of the trial.
Gregoire said she was doing her best to run the state and ignore the trial. But her name was present every day — written in cursive script on a poster-sized copy of the election certification, displayed in a corner of the courtroom.
"This is to Certify, That in the General Election held in the State of Washington on November 2, 2004, Christine Gregoire received the highest number of votes for the office of Governor."