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Nick HandyNick Handy

“When you embark upon a public policy career, you are likely to end up in areas that are interesting and transformative,” he says. “One of the wonderful things about a law degree is all the different directions it can take you.”

An eventful career

Think your job is complicated? Try this one: Six months after your first day at work, the gubernatorial election you oversee becomes one of the closest in U.S. history. TV news trucks fill the parking lot. Ballots get recounted three times. A seven-month legal battle follows.

Also, the election system itself is thrown into turmoil when voters approve a new primary system. Then a fight erupts over whether signature sheets for initiative petitions can be released to the public. That case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even as you announce your retirement, the issue still isn’t settled.

Welcome to Nick Handy’s world. Handy JD’75, retired last year from his job as Washington State’s director of elections. His eventful six-year tenure capped a 35-year career in state government. He has helped shape policy in key areas of open records, natural resource management and elections.

“When you embark upon a public policy career, you are likely to end up in areas that are interesting and transformative,” he says. “One of the wonderful things about a law degree is all the different directions it can take you.”

Handy started his government career almost on a fluke: He wrote an article for the Willamette Law Review about Washington’s new public disclosure law and got hired in the state attorney general’s office, acting as legal counsel to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. It was a heady time to work in that area of government, he says — the fallout from the Watergate scandal led state lawmakers to pass laws opening meetings and documents to public scrutiny.

That led to subsequent jobs at a time when government agencies were re-examining policies in the wake of various crises that dominated the headlines. Handy worked in the state’s Department of Natural Resources during epic clashes between environmentalists and natural resource users; served as executive director of the Port of Olympia after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, helping to create Washington’s first oil spill prevention plan; and ran the state elections division after Bush v. Gore led to calls for election reform across the nation.

“I was always drawn to work in public policy areas that were exciting and current,” Handy says. “Change was actively happening and the climate was ripe for reform.” Handy has made one stab at public office: He ran for commissioner of public lands in 1992 and lost in the primary — despite being endorsed by every major newspaper in the state. He shrugs off the defeat: “I wasn’t really drawn to running for public office,” he says. “At this point in time, I’m done.”

Secretary of State Sam Reed appointed Handy to the elections job in May 2004. Six months later, Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire were locked in an election battle that Gregoire first appeared to be losing — by 261 votes. A hand count financed by the state Democratic Party gave her a 10-vote lead. A judge’s ruling later increased her margin to 129 votes. “That was very gratifying for those of us who worked in the administration,” Handy says.

But the judge in the case also found flaws in the state’s election system. Handy centralized the state’s voter registration database, kept better track of felons who had lost their right to vote and regularly purged the database of deceased voters. He also oversaw the transition to vote by mail.

Lawyer Kevin Hamilton, who represents the Washington State Democratic Party, says Handy was unflappable during hotly contested issues and elections. “He has had to stand in the middle of shouting and finger-pointing and chest-bumping, and Nick always keeps his cool,” he says. “I’ve had elections officials around the country hang up on me, but I never had anything like that happen with Nick.

“He devoted a chunk of his life to running the machinery of democracy,” Hamilton says. “It’s hard to think of a more noble calling than that.”