Gov. Chris Gregoire announced Monday that she won't run for re-election in 2012. When pressed about whether the past three years of nonstop budget cutting played some role in her decision, she said the cuts were brutal, but not the main reason.
OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire says you can’t point to a single reason why she won’t run for re-election in 2012.
There’s a laundry list, 40 years long.
“I started as a clerk typist the Monday after I graduated, and I really haven’t taken a break since,” Gregoire said, referring to her first government job with the state Department of Social and Health Services in 1969.
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“I need to spend some quality time with my husband and quality time with my family. You add it all up and it was a very personal decision, but at the end of the day I felt it was the right time for me.”
The governor talked by phone while waiting for her Washington, D.C.-bound flight to leave Monday, soon after announcing she won’t seek a third term for governor. Pressed about whether the past three years of nonstop budget cutting played a role, she said it was brutal, but not the reason.
Looking back on her efforts to clean up Hanford as head of the state Department of Ecology, her negotiation of a national tobacco settlement as the state attorney general, and two terms as governor, Gregoire said: “What more am I going to do? … I need to start thinking about what I want to do, and family comes first.”
Gregoire said she informed Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee about her decision Sunday night and urged him to run for governor. Inslee’s office says he’ll make an announcement soon, but probably not this week.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag and state Treasurer Jim McIntire also are considering a run. King County Executive Dow Constantine indicated Monday he wouldn’t run for governor next year, but did not rule it out completely.
Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna announced his bid last week.
Washington’s 2012 gubernatorial contest is viewed as one of the nation’s most competitive. It certainly will be a change of pace for voters who have gone through two rancorous, back-to-back elections with Gregoire and Republican candidate Dino Rossi.
Paul Berendt, who chaired the state Democratic Party when Gregoire first ran for governor, said he’d hoped she would run again but noted that the past six years have “been a meat grinder for her.”
Gregoire, 64, noted she still has 18 months left in her second term. “The worst thing I can think of for the state of Washington is for me to be preoccupied on a campaign right now,” she said. “I need to set my sights on the next 18 months and guarantee that we’re out of this recession. I don’t want to be distracted from that.”
Her trip to D.C. this week is to discuss Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor, not shop for a job in the Obama administration, she said.
Lame-duck status aside, the governor said, “Anybody who comes in to see me thinking I’ve got one eye out the door is just dead wrong.”
The good times
If you plotted Gregoire’s political lows and highs on a graph, it would look like an inverted V.
She won her first term in 2004 by 133 votes — after two recounts and a court challenge. The bitterly contested election put a question mark on her first term.
But Gregoire got through it, and a rebounding economy poured billions of tax dollars into the state treasury by the end of 2006.
By any standard, it was the highlight of her tenure.
A beaming Gregoire greeted reporters in December of that year, saying “I love my budget” and outlining plans to increase state spending by $4 billion, much of it going into education.
She beat Rossi again two years later, this time by a solid margin of 194,614 votes.
Then, almost immediately, the economy collapsed, leading to several rounds of budget cutting.
By last December, almost four years to the day after she released the budget she loved, Gregoire met with reporters to announce $4 billion in cuts.
“I hate my budget,” she said, her voice shaking.
Billions of dollars that she helped put into K-12, higher education and social services during her first term largely have been unraveled.
The governor since has shown signs that the cuts, and Olympia politics, have started to wear on her.
“I’ve tried hard in a number of ways to accomplish what I wanted, and I haven’t made the progress I wanted to make,” she said in January.
Just recently, when reporters asked Gregoire if she planned to run again and had things she still wanted to accomplish, the governor replied, “We’re not on my agenda. I didn’t run on this agenda. I didn’t run on it six years ago, and I didn’t run on it two years ago.”
Gregoire was praised this past legislative session by some Republicans for writing a lean budget and standing firm against asking voters for a tax increase. But there were no kudos from the state Republican Party on Monday.
“This failure to govern, the governor’s low approval ratings and the looming challenge of another bruising election suggested it was time for her to go,” state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said, blaming Gregoire for not doing enough to rein in state spending.
Berendt and current state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz both noted that eight years is about as long as any governor lasts in Washington.
The only person to serve three consecutive terms was former Republican Gov. Dan Evans, who left office in 1977.
Gregoire has talked about the possibility of working in President Obama’s administration.
Obama sent out a statement about Gregoire’s decision not to run, saying: “Michelle and I, along with the people of Washington, will miss her outstanding leadership and thank her for her years of service.”
Gregoire said she will campaign on Obama’s behalf in the next election. She said she wouldn’t be surprised by job queries while she’s in D.C. this week, but said, “I’m not leaving until my job is done, and I’m not looking for a job right now.”
Pelz said Gregoire will be remembered for leading the state “through one of its most difficult periods ever, through relentless budget cutting.”
“For a woman with progressive values to repeatedly reduce social services and the quality of the education system in her state took great leadership,” he said.
Gregoire is credited with being instrumental in helping push through gas taxes that have paid for billions of dollars in highway projects. She also has played lead roles in negotiating and pushing forward agreements to tear down and replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge.
The governor’s office cited steps she’s taken to protect the Puget Sound and restructure health care, as well as creating the state Department of Early Learning.
A long list of accomplishments prepared by her office also mentioned steps taken this year to eliminate automatic cost-of-living increases for retired state workers in older closed pensions, a move expected to save $344 million over two years.
She also touted the consolidation of state agencies, a step that’s expected to save millions and result in 95 fewer state employees.
If not for the recession, the list likely would have highlighted dramatic increases in funding for K-12 and higher education. There’s none of that now.
Pelz said the past couple of years must have been bittersweet for Gregoire.
Bitter because she had to unravel her agenda, but tempered by this fact, he said: “She got to oversee the budget cutting with her values, as opposed to the values of Dino Rossi.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com