In an interview, Gov. Chris Gregoire spoke not only about the legislative session that just began, but also about what she once hoped to accomplish — and what she will leave behind.
A year from now, Gov. Chris Gregoire hopes to be riding shotgun in a big RV, headed to a national park somewhere with her husband, Mike.
Anywhere but Olympia, where she has spent her second — and last — term trying to pump money out of the dry well of the state budget, and watching the education and health programs she put in place go hungry, like kids she just can’t feed.
“My agenda really was just set aside,” Gregoire told me the other day, in an interview before she addressed a Seattle business group.
The governor spoke not only about the legislative session that just began, but also about what she once hoped to accomplish — and what she will leave behind.
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“You’re told, ‘always stay focused, always stay on your agenda.’ That works on little bumps,” Gregoire said. “It doesn’t work when you’re overtaken by a tsunami economic crisis like we have been.”
Her legacy will include a few letdowns, as she has had to cut hundreds of millions from K-12 education, higher education and health-insurance programs for the working poor.
“I think I have gone through some form of the grieving process and … today, I accept that this is what I have been dealt,” she said.
Gregoire finally dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage last week, when she said she would work to make Washington state the seventh in the country to allow it.
I had to ask: What took you so long? Is there less risk now that you are, with all due respect, a lame duck?
“It’s not about risk,” Gregoire said. “It’s very personal. I had to deal with my journey and my faith.”
As a Roman Catholic, Gregoire was raised to see marriage as a union exclusive to one man and one woman.
She approached the issue incrementally, helping put anti-discrimination laws in place and then approving domestic partnership, all the while trying to show voters that same-sex equality affects everyone’s families and friends, she said.
It took her three months to write a speech explaining her decision to support same-sex marriage.
After delivering it, “I felt so good,” she said, “and I have felt so bad, for seven years, about where I was and how much I was grappling with it.”
Meanwhile, many are grappling with a recent study that accused Washington state politicians (including her) of allowing a “policy leadership vacuum” when it comes to higher education.
“I don’t share the view of that study,” Gregoire said flatly. “It is not well done.”
If there is a void, Gregoire said, it is in the lack of advocates for higher education in the Legislature.
To fix that, she led a committee that has recommended creating a new agency, the Office of Student Achievement, which would coordinate between K-12 and postsecondary education.
“We have got a challenge on our hands,” she said.
So do those of us out here in the middle class, who will have to find the money for that increased tuition while making less and paying more for so many other things.
Gregoire knows this but couldn’t offer a solution and turned instead to the positives:
The unemployment rate has gone down, and may even remain flat for February. “Who’d have thought we would have cheered for flat?” Gregoire asked, finally smiling.
It seemed a good spot to ask: How about the highlights?
Last year, as chair of the National Governors Association, she made a toast at a state dinner at The White House — “a Cinderella moment,” she called it.
And there was her meeting with the Dalai Lama, who put his forehead to hers and held her hand while telling a Safeco Field audience that we needed more women who lead with their heads and their hearts, and also with compassion.
“That was amazing for me.”
People don’t know that about her, she said: that there is warmth behind that lawyerly steeliness, and how the hardest part of the job is attending the funeral of a law-enforcement officer or soldier.
“My heart just breaks when I talk to those family members,” she said. “I’m not sure if people have really understood that side of me.”
Whether they did or not, Gregoire hopes they will remember her for seeing us through the worst economic time since the Great Depression, that she fought to fund early-learning programs and is proud of the trade missions that have brought home “big stuff.”
As for her successor, she’s sticking to party lines, supporting U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, over Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican.
“Whoever wins,” she said, “the state is in good hands.”
For now, the pressure is on, she said, to get through this legislative session with a budget that won’t make people bleed. She wants school reform, investments in our infrastructure and equality. “That will cap it off,” she said.
Then Gregoire will be ready to settle into the RV and see what’s going on in other states.
“People won’t necessarily have agreed with positions I’ve taken, or what I have done,” she said. “But I hope that they always know that I did it with what was in the best interests of the state of Washington first.”
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two votes is all it will take.