Battle for Washington public lands commissioner begins

Kevin Van De Wege, a moderate Democratic state senator, entered the race Wednesday. Three other Democrats, all more liberal, are eyeing this seat too.

By: - June 21, 2023 4:43 pm

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Lake Sutherland (Van De Wege campaign)

Democratic state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege on Wednesday launched a campaign to become Washington’s next commissioner of public lands.

Van De Wege, a moderate Democrat, is the first person to formally enter next year’s contest to succeed Commissioner Hilary Franz who is forgoing re-election to run for governor.

He said he’ll focus on making forests healthy and sustainable through permitted harvests and prescribed burns to reduce potential fuel for wildfires.

“I’ve been a firefighter my entire professional life. When I say I understand the danger and destruction caused by wildfires, which are becoming more frequent and more destructive, I speak from experience,” he said. ”I feel wildfires are affecting our community more than they should.”

Van De Wege, 48, lives in rural Port Angeles and represents the 24th Legislative District, which spans Jefferson, Clallam and Grays Harbor County and stretches into the northwest corner of the state.

A native of Washington, Van De Wege grew up in Whatcom County. He served as a volunteer firefighter before deciding to turn it into a full-time career. He got his first firefighting job in Sunnyside and attended paramedic school in Vancouver.

He is in his second term in the Senate following five terms in the House of Representatives. Van De Wege has chaired the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee for six years and serves on the Ways & Means and Health & Long Term Care committees.


This is his first run for statewide office. He called it “the culmination of my political career.”

As the head of the Department of Natural Resources, the lands commissioner manages 5.6 million acres of state land and the revenue it generates. The post comes with an annual salary of $161,905.

“I am very passionate about protecting our natural resources in our rural areas” and managing state lands in ways that create jobs and generate money for schools, he said.

 In his tenure, he’s drawn fire from progressive Democrats and environmentalists for voting against some of their initiatives, such as the Climate Commitment Act  and capital gains tax. He has voted for some controversial ones as well, like the low carbon fuel standard.

Eyeing the contest

And at least three Democrats more politically liberal than he may enter the race.

King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove, Shoreline City Council Member Keith Scully, and former state senator Mona Das, all Democrats, each said Wednesday they may run. 

Upthegrove, of Des Moines, served five terms in the state House of Representatives before getting elected to the County Council where he is in his third term. He ran for lands commissioner in 2016, finishing third, behind Franz, in the seven-candidate primary. He served five terms in the state House of Representatives.

“I am taking all the steps to prepare to run,” he told The Standard earlier this month. “But I haven’t made a final decision.” 

He first revealed interest on Twitter following Franz’s entry into the gubernatorial contest.

“We need to make sure the next Lands Commissioner has strong environmental values and the skills and commitment to protect public lands,” Upthegrove tweeted a few days before filing paperwork for his campaign committee.

Scully was first elected to the Shoreline City Council in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. He currently serves the role as mayor, a position filled by appointment by the other council members.

An attorney, his current practice at a Seattle firm focuses on intellectual property. He is a former legal director for Futurewise, a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates on land use policy. He worked there before Franz, a former executive director of the group.

“I have not made a decision. I am definitely contemplating it,” Scully said Wednesday, adding that he hoped to decide this summer but has no specific timeline.

On issues, he said, healthy forests must be a focus of the next commissioner, he said. 

“I think I have a different take on things than Sen. Van De Wege,” he said.

Das, of Kent, entered the Senate after beating the incumbent Republican senator, Joe Fain, in 2018. She chose not to seek re-election in 2022.

“I am seriously considering running for Commissioner of Public Lands,” she said Wednesday, declining to comment further on her plans.

In her term, Das authored the state’s plastic bag ban law and a measure requiring plastic containers for beverages, household cleaning products and personal care products sold in Washington contain minimum amounts of post-consumer-use recycled content.

No Republican had publicly expressed interest in running for the seat as of Wednesday.


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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.