A year ago this week, as the Democrat-controlled Legislature prepared to certify Christine Gregoire as Washington's new governor, a throng...

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OLYMPIA — A year ago this week, as the Democrat-controlled Legislature prepared to certify Christine Gregoire as Washington’s new governor, a throng of angry Republicans gathered on the Capitol lawn and chanted “revote! revote!”

Gregoire probably won’t face such rancor Tuesday when she delivers her first State of the State speech. But it’s clear she has not yet waded free from the swamp of the 2004 election — the closest and most contentious governor’s race in state history.

Many Republicans remain suspicious, if not convinced, that Gregoire and the Democrats stole the election.

But Gregoire’s low approval ratings — hovering near 40 percent in most recent polls — suggest it’s more than just Republicans and conservatives who are unhappy with her. There are even signs that she isn’t faring well among some rank-and-file labor-union members, normally the loyalist of Democrats.

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Gregoire’s poll numbers have been inching up, and one national polling firm now has her approval rating at above 50 percent. But, according to another firm, Gregoire remains one of the lowest-rated governors in the nation — down there with Louisiana’s Kathleen Blanco and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gregoire attributes her unpopularity mostly to the monthslong legal fight over her 129-vote election victory over Republican Dino Rossi.

“I really don’t know how anybody could be high in the polls when for six months it was just constant, constant bashing,” said Gregoire, who was nearly halfway through her first year in office before Rossi and the Republicans gave up their election challenge.

Praise and criticism for the governor

Supporters say Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire had a stellar first year, but critics paint her as a big spender.

Supporters say she:

• Helped pass the biggest transportation-improvement package in decades.

• Restored funds to reduce class sizes and give teachers annual pay raises.

• Provided state-funded health care for tens of thousands of poor children.

Critics say she:

• Approved hundreds of millions of dollars in new general-fund taxes.

• Increased state spending by more than $3.5 billion.

• Added hundreds of new government jobs.

Amid all the turmoil, Gregoire says, the public hasn’t gotten a chance to know her or what she stands for. That’s essentially the same thing she said about her 2004 campaign after nearly losing to Rossi.

Gregoire said she believes her numbers would be better if more people knew all she has accomplished as governor.

Since she took over, the state has embarked on its most ambitious transportation-improvement effort in decades, restored hundreds of millions of dollars in voter-approved funds to reduce class sizes and raise teacher pay, and added tens of thousands of low-income children to Medicaid, a government-funded health-care program.

“We’ve just failed to get this message out,” Gregoire said.

While conservatives still seethe over the 2004 election, they say there are other reasons the public hasn’t warmed up to Gregoire.

They contend she hasn’t been the anti-tax, government-reforming, “blow-past-the-bureaucracy” governor she promised to be during the 2004 campaign.

With help from the largest Democratic majorities the Legislature has seen in a decade, Gregoire last year approved more than $400 million in new taxes for the state general fund. And if lawmakers approve her latest requests, state spending in her first two-year budget will be more than $3.5 billion higher than the previous budget — a 15 percent increase — and the number of state employees will grow by more than 1,000.

“Instead of challenging the status quo in Olympia … she has generously subsidized the status quo,” said John Carlson, a KVI talk-show host and the Republican nominee for governor in 2000.

Popular attorney general

During her time as state attorney general — from 1993 to 2005 — Gregoire was one of Washington’s most popular political figures. She won all three of her elections with ease and drew national acclaim for her role in taking on the tobacco industry.

But lately, evidence of Gregoire’s tattered public image is everywhere.

During the annual Apple Cup game at Husky Stadium, the crowd booed when Gregoire’s face showed up on the giant scoreboard.

A few months ago, when the state trial lawyers were trying to convince voters to reject a doctor-sponsored medical-malpractice initiative, they ran television ads pointing out that state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler opposed the measure. They didn’t mention that Gregoire also opposed it.

She’s even having trouble among some of the Democratic Party’s biggest allies. In a recent internal survey, a prominent statewide labor union asked its members how they would vote in a rematch of the 2004 election. Rossi won by a slim margin.

It could be much worse. Gregoire knows her ratings have been buoyed by the state’s rebounding economy, which has added more than 50,000 jobs since she took over.

As nearly any politician would tell you under similar circumstances, Gregoire says she doesn’t fret about her low popularity ratings.

Recent developments, however, suggest otherwise.

The state Democratic Party in October paid $18,000 for a series of focus groups aimed partly at gauging people’s impressions of the governor. No one from the governor’s office or state party will say what those focus groups revealed.

But since then, Gregoire has replaced her communications director and her press secretary and brought on Ron Judd, a prominent union leader, as her chief political adviser. She also is hiring a new speechwriter.

There has been talk from her top aides about finding ways to show the softer side of a governor often perceived as stiff and scolding. And, annoyed by conservative bloggers deriding her as “Queen Christine,” Gregoire’s press office on Oct. 31 started calling her Chris in news releases.

Gregoire said she wasn’t consulted on the name change but adds she has always gone by Chris with her friends. She said she hasn’t even seen the results of the recent focus groups and has no intention of going along with any sort of personality makeover.

“I can’t do the job if I’m supposed to be somebody else,” Gregoire said. “I need to be myself.”

Jim Kneeland, a public-relations executive who in past years was one of Gregoire’s closest advisers, said Gregoire has always been “more policy than politics” and should stick to that. But he said it will be difficult for her to get her message out because the media don’t pay as much attention as they did in years past to the day-to-day doings of the governor.

Kneeland groaned at the talk of a makeover.

“You’re not talking about changing the person, you’re just talking about trying to change the image she projects,” Kneeland said. “That’s not what people want.”

“Just forget the numbers”

Kneeland and other political consultants agree that Gregoire’s biggest problem is that too many people are still angry about the election.

But time heals most wounds, they say, even in politics.

“If I was advising her, I would just tell her, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” said Bob Gogerty, a Democratic consultant.

Gogerty, who didn’t support Gregoire during the 2004 Democratic primary, said she has won him over.

Indeed, while Gregoire may not be doing so well in the eyes of the general public, she’s winning high marks from the political establishment, especially big business, labor and environmental leaders. Some even suggest she accomplished as much in her first year as former Gov. Gary Locke did in two full terms.

After last year’s legislative session, lawmakers from both parties described her as far more engaged than Locke — a better listener, more decisive and better at making it clear where she stands on issues.

Democrats were particularly pleased with her role in helping push through tough new car-emission standards and a new law requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for mental illness.

One of her main campaign themes — creating a Life Sciences Discovery Fund to boost biotech research — is taking shape.

But most agree her biggest achievement is the state’s massive new transportation package, which will increase the gas tax by 9.5 cents a gallon to help pay for $8.5 billion worth of transportation improvements, including eventually replacing the earthquake-vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Gregoire was instrumental last spring in forcing the plan through the Legislature.

In the past, such efforts in Olympia were thwarted by the voters. And it looked like that would happen again when conservative activists put forward a ballot measure — Initiative 912 — to repeal the gas tax.

Early last fall, Republican leaders said the broad support at the time for I-912 was partly the result of the public’s pent-up frustration over the 2004 election.

But in the end, the gas tax survived. I-912 was defeated by a wide margin, thanks mostly to overwhelming opposition in the Puget Sound region.

Though Gregoire stayed mostly behind the scenes during last fall’s campaign, her supporters say the defeat of I-912 is a better indication than any public-opinion poll of whether she is headed in the right direction.

“I’d tell her to just forget the numbers,” Gogerty said. “I would let people know what she stands for, because she stands for the right things.”

Looking ahead to 2008

Gregoire faces a tricky paradox. The personal trait that often wins her the most praise — her intensity (Gregoire prefers to call it focus) — might also be a political liability.

During one of her campaigns for attorney general, she even cut a TV ad poking fun at her reputation for being overly intense.

In person, Gregoire comes across as friendly and sincere. There’s even the occasional moment of self-deprecation, such as when she refers to herself as a “recovering lawyer.”

But that side of her seems to rarely shine through in public.

“She comes off the same way that Slade [former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton] used to come off — as an attorney,” said Randy Pepple, a public-relations executive and Republican consultant. “It’s more analytical, rather than emotional.”

Such descriptions are most confounding to people who work closest with Gregoire.

“I don’t know this person that people keep describing as overly intense and scolding,” said Denny Heck, a former state lawmaker who served as a policy adviser on Gregoire’s 2004 campaign. “I know her as bright and funny and very warm.”

So why don’t more people see her that way?

“The important question is, will they see it by the next [election] — when it matters,” Heck said.

While both Gregoire and Rossi say it’s too soon to start talking about a rematch in 2008, both are making preparations. Gregoire has already raised more than $350,000. Rossi has raised nearly as much and is keeping his name in circulation by touring the state to promote an autobiography he self-published last year.

Gregoire said the 2004 election left a “pox on everyone involved.” But she believes that during the next three years she will win back some people who voted against her, “so long as I work on the issues they care about.”

Political consultant Blair Butterworth, who ran Locke’s campaigns, predicts Gregoire will grow more popular — especially if her staff starts doing a better job of showing the “interesting, nice, sort of joyful side of her.”

But he said Gregoire needs to accept that anger from the 2004 election runs deep and a lot of moderate voters probably will never swing her way.

“She’s not going to have a slam-dunk re-election no matter what she does,” Butterworth said. “Not even if she, like Moses, leads Washington into the promised land.”

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

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