Gov. Chris Gregoire leaves office after two terms in mid-January. The Seattle Times' Olympia reporter Andrew Garber said down with the governor to get her own take on those eight years.

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OLYMPIA — Chris Gregoire figures she’s leaving office as a better governor than when she started.

After dealing with the biggest budget shortfalls in state history, natural disasters and shootings of law-enforcement officers, “Shove whatever you want at me today. I’m ready,” she said.

That wasn’t necessarily the case when she assumed office in 2004 after serving three terms as state attorney general. Gregoire thought she was prepared, “but (you’re) not as qualified as you think,” she said.

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With a little over a month left in office, Gregoire sat down for an exit interview last week. She talked about her time in office, her regrets, the difficulty of changing state government and what she considers the biggest successes of her tenure.

In one of her last acts as governor, she’s expected to release a proposed budget Dec. 18 that deals with a projected $1 billion shortfall, as well as with state Supreme Court demands for additional education funding.

Gregoire said she’s been trying to align her proposal with Gov.-elect Jay Inslee’s promise not to increase taxes. “I’m trying desperately to honor that, but, man … ,” she said. “I’m trying as hard as I can to leave a viable budget.”

While Gregoire said she’s eager to move on, she also is wistful about leaving after learning hard-knock lessons on what makes the state Legislature tick.

“I can work the Legislature. I’m much better there than when I started. In my first term, I was walking the halls all the time. Now, I know when to walk the halls.”

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: You mention you know the right time to walk the halls. When is that?

A: When I’m watching them. I had certain promises made to me, for example, marriage equality (the same-sex marriage bill that passed last session). I stood there and I looked at them and made sure they knew I was looking and that promises were kept.

It wasn’t on the ultimate bill. I knew I had that (enough votes for passage). It was on whether it was just going to be referred to the voters. That was the critical vote.

Gregoire also said she knows now when to visit Senate and House leaders and when to leave them alone.

Q: What are the secret signals there?

A: It’s not as if there is some formula: I’ve learned how to deal with all of them pretty well. The thing that has been really good for me is that they understand I’m not going to play games with them.

Q: If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?

A: I can ask myself 10 ways from Sunday about the budget because of the recession, and today I don’t have it in me to look back and say how I would have done it differently. I hated my budget. I assume I could have done it differently. Right now, I can’t see it, frankly.

Q: Let’s split our discussion into two parts, because you’ve got two terms.

A: If you look at it overall, my biggest disappointment is I didn’t get as much done on Puget Sound as I had hoped.

Q: When you say that, what do you mean?

A: The cleanup. (Gregoire was referring to the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency devoted to cleaning up Puget Sound.)

Q: That’s your biggest disappointment?

A: Yeah. Because that’s forever. That’s a big forever issue for this state. What I think happened… is we were on our way, and then we just got taken to our knees by the recession. While I kept funding it through other means, it didn’t get the focus I think it needs and deserves because I was so consumed by the recession.

Q: State government is large and hard to change. As governor, do you feel like you have much ability to change the course of state government or is it really along the edges?

A: But for the recession, we couldn’t have made fundamental changes. The recession brought fundamental changes. The biggest changes in what some people say ever … Closing institutions. Getting rid of boards and commissions, rather than continuing to grow them. Putting five agencies into one… unemployment-insurance reform, pension reform. It’s dramatic for state government. But that kind of change won’t happen without a recession…

We’re down to 1996 levels of state employment. We’re (our state has) a million more people. Caseloads are up dramatically because of the recession. You never see that happen in state government. But for the recession, you would not see that kind of dramatic change. But that was by necessity. … It was a donnybrook to get those changes through.

Q: You said, but for the recession, very little would have changed. Why is it so difficult for a governor to change state government?

A: Because of all those people upstairs. Legislators (who meet in the House and Senate chambers, one floor above the governor’s office). It’s not easy to get a dramatic piece of legislation through to make fundamental change. My favorite one: We have the waterfowl stamp commission (Migratory Waterfowl Art Committee). It serves no purpose. It was on the cut list, but it wasn’t cut because some lawmaker liked it. So, no matter what you do up there, you are going to have people who are defending the status quo, who are adverse to change, who are wedded to what it does.

Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

A: Early learning, I think, is absolutely critical. (Gregoire was referring to her successful push to create the state Department of Early Learning, which consolidated more than a half-dozen child-care and early-learning programs into one Cabinet-level agency.)

I’m not going to see the results in my time as governor. I knew that from the beginning. But we’ll see it over the long haul. The transportation tax package, the largest in history, I think that’s big. (Gregoire was instrumental in pushing through a 9.5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase that has paid for billions of dollars in highway projects.)

I like where we got Puget Sound going. What we’re doing with trade … On a very personal level, I’m very proud that voters said yes to (same-sex marriage) equality.

Q: If we had not had the recession, would you have considered a third term?

A: If we had not had the deep recession, would I? You know, I might have. But not after this second term. I just don’t have heart to cut like I did.

Q: Do you feel you left a stamp on this place, and, if so, what is it?

A: I don’t know. History will tell. My hope right now is, frankly, I’ve seen us through the worst of times and I pass the baton on to Jay (Inslee) and I hope he reaps and the people reap every benefit.

We have fundamentally changed a lot of stuff in state government that nobody sees. We’re a better, leaner, good working state government than we were. So, I hope history will reflect I saw us through the worst of times, and I did it with my head and heart.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or

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