Some new guy showed up in the governor’s office this week.
No, he’s still named Jay Inslee. He’s the one who was elected a little more than a year ago after running an amorphous, gauzy campaign that was as short on specifics as it was long on cheer.
“I’m bullish on this state,” Inslee would say, over and over. But you couldn’t get many concrete answers about what he might do if elected. This eternal sunshine of Jay drove his political opponents — and some reporters — a little bonkers.
So when he came into work Tuesday and announced he was unilaterally halting all death-row executions in the state, for the first time I put “Jay Inslee” and “bold” together in the same sentence.
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“During my term, we will not be executing people,” Inslee declared.
No vagueness there about where he stands.
Now whether this sudden boldness is an improvement depends on where you sit. For those who think the capital-punishment system is broken, it’s a paradigm shift. For some victims’ family members, who have been wrung through the courts for decades seeking what they see as justice for some hideous crimes, the boldness probably feels tyrannical.
It’s not surprising Inslee did something liberal — that’s who he is, at heart. But he’s not known for getting way out in front of the public. There hasn’t been recent statewide polling that I know of, but Gallup’s national surveys still show 60-to-35 percent support for the death penalty in the U.S. (down from 80-to-16 percent support 20 years ago.)
By tying the moratorium to his own term in office, Inslee is almost guaranteeing that this will be a campaign issue if he decides to run for re-election in 2016.
Crime has ebbed as a hot-button election topic of late. But it wasn’t long ago it was the kiss of death for a Democrat to be perceived as soft on crime. When he was in Congress, Inslee himself voted to expand the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty. And when he ran for governor back in 1996 he vowed to carry out all executions.
But the number of discoveries that people were wrongly convicted has made it increasingly difficult to justify meting out the “ultimate punishment.” Last year, Washington state ranked fourth in the nation with seven exonerations (though none were from death row). Nationally, 87 prisoners were freed in 2013 after it was found they had been wrongly convicted — a record — including one from death row.
Inslee said his opposition isn’t moral. It’s pragmatic. The death penalty is a waste of money and time for the justice system, compared to locking some of these killers in prison for life and pitching the key. Though Inslee acknowledged many victims’ family members don’t share that view.
“I made what I think was a tough decision here, for the whole state,” Inslee said.
Now, a lot of you may have preferred that Inslee indicate his concerns about the death penalty before he was elected governor. Me, too.
Still, most of the criticism Tuesday was that the governor is “out of touch” with the people. That he went rogue and defied the Legislature. That it’s anti-democratic to go against a major policy that for decades has enjoyed broad support.
Inslee said he wrestled with all that. Now that he’s governor and is responsible for state-sanctioned executions, he couldn’t shake that the system, for the reasons cited above, “just isn’t right.”
Not everyone will like that. But another word for getting out in front is “leadership.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org