In debates and political ads, Jay Inslee and the state Democratic Party are portraying the former eight-term congressman as a fresh-faced reformer — and the two-term GOP Attorney General Rob McKenna as "Mr. Olympia."
His party has controlled the Washington governor’s office for 28 years, but that hasn’t stopped Democrat Jay Inslee from trying to seize the role of outsider in this year’s gubernatorial race.
In debates and political ads, Inslee and the state Democratic Party are portraying the former eight-term congressman as a fresh-faced reformer and two-term GOP Attorney General Rob McKenna as “Mr. Olympia.”
Inslee summed up his case during the final gubernatorial debate this month, saying he’d be a “disruptive force” in Olympia, and talking up his plans to import private-sector “lean management” practices to state agencies.
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Meanwhile, Inslee and his allies have continuously attacked McKenna as the insider in the state Capitol.
“This is campaign jujitsu,” said Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, adding the effort makes political sense given negative voter sentiment about state government.
A recent anti-McKenna mailer from the state Democratic Party referred derisively to “Olympia” or “Olympia politicians” seven times.
The mailer criticized McKenna for increases in the attorney-general’s office budget and for testifying in favor of a pay raise for himself in 2007.
It also hit him for endorsing a complicated “tax swap” proposal being considered by a top Democratic budget writer as a step toward adequately funding public schools.
The Inslee campaign hit the same points in a TV ad last week, superimposing a beauty-pageant-style “Mr. Olympia” sash on McKenna.
Such attacks are an effort to weaken McKenna’s central campaign theme, that he’d represent a “new direction” for state government, Elway said.
An Elway Poll in April found nearly two-thirds of voters believed their tax dollars were not being well spent by the state. And 71 percent said most state agencies are ineffective.
May seem a stretch
Such anti-Olympia sentiment may seem a stretch coming from the party that long has dominated the state Capitol.
The Democrats’ three-decade hold on the governor’s office frequently has been accompanied by control of one or both houses of the Legislature.
The last time the GOP held the governor’s office and both legislative chambers was 1982.
Currently, Democrats hold all but two statewide elected executive offices and majorities in the state House and Senate.
McKenna has mocked Inslee’s reformer claims, pointing out the Democrat’s long tenure in Washington, D.C., was preceded by a stint in the state Legislature.
“His attempts to portray himself as an outsider just arriving on the scene just aren’t credible,” McKenna said during another recent Seattle debate.
Inslee’s campaign has been bankrolled by the same coalition of unions, trial lawyers, environmentalists and others who backed previous Democratic governors.
Inslee was endorsed enthusiastically in February by the union representing state workers, which cited his 96 percent “right” voting record on the union’s score card.
But Inslee says he wouldn’t be afraid to take on his own allies as governor.
His campaign website calls him a “maverick,” and he frequently points to votes in Congress against the Iraq war and against the deregulation of Wall Street in the 1990s as examples of his independence.
When asked about how he’d shake up Olympia, Inslee brings up his plans to implement “lean management” throughout state government.
McKenna criticized Inslee’s repeated “lean” references at a news conference after a recent debate. “The only thing that’s lean is his management experience,” he said.
“Lean” refers to a program of continuously examining an organization’s work-flow and processes to find and eliminate waste.
The concept was pioneered by Toyota decades ago and has been adopted locally by Boeing and Virginia Mason.
The zeal for “lean”
Inslee’s zeal for “lean” is a relatively recent development. He did not sponsor any bill to promote lean management for federal agencies during his 15 years in Congress.
In an interview, Inslee acknowledged he became focused on “lean” only after he began to contemplate running for governor. He said a lean-management program is something that “can only be done by a chief executive.”
In July 2011, about a month after announcing his bid for governor, Inslee sent five members of his congressional staff for a “custom seminar” on lean concepts at Virginia Mason, according to John Gillespie, a hospital spokesman. Inslee resigned from Congress in March to campaign for governor full time.
Lean management wouldn’t be entirely new for state government.
Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a “lean transformation” executive order to state agencies in 2011, telling them to start training and using lean principles to improve their work.
This past week, the governor’s office issued a report on the state’s lean-management efforts, noting several successes.
The state Department of Licensing, for example, cut customer-service-center call wait time by more than four minutes and boosted the number of calls answered by 3,400 per month.
But in a news conference Thursday, Gregoire dismissed Inslee’s frequent claims lean management would help free up money to adequately fund public schools. Gregoire also criticized both Inslee and McKenna for ruling out tax increases she now says will be needed.
The attorney general’s office, under McKenna, has gone through a series of reviews, which included “lean” practices. His office credits those efforts with saving $400,000.
Inslee says state government has made small steps but that he’d demand much more if elected. In the final gubernatorial debate, he said he’d insist all state workers are trained in lean principles.
Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, the Legislature’s leading “lean” evangelist, said Inslee is correct the state hasn’t gone far enough with its lean programs.
But he warned that properly implementing lean would cost money for outside assessments and consultants the state has not been willing to spend. “Lean is an expensive thing you have to manage well,” he said.
Skeptical of promises
Republicans continue to be skeptical of Inslee’s promises of change.
Former state GOP chairman Chris Vance said McKenna would shake up state government through the thousands of hiring decisions controlled by the governor’s office.
“The truth is, in Olympia you’ve got a cadre of people who have worked for Lowry, Locke, Gregoire — one Democratic administration after another. If Jay Inslee wins, it’s highly likely those same people are going to shuffle the deck chairs and continue to be major players,” he said.
But Inslee insists he’d be more likely than McKenna to bring a new crowd to the Capitol.
“There is actually an advantage to having not been in the Olympia circles the last seven years, and that is, I am not beholden to people,” he said during a debate in Vancouver. “I can bring people in from private enterprise. I can bring what we need in Olympia, which is new blood.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.