Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee cut his teeth — politically and professionally — in a Republican-leaning pocket of Eastern Washington.

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Jay Inslee talks often about the years he lived near Yakima, about farming alfalfa, building a family and working as a small-town prosecutor.

But the Democratic candidate for governor rarely mentions another part of his Eastern Washington roots — the nearly two decades he toiled as a plaintiff’s attorney, representing clients in lawsuits against government and businesses.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, while living among the orchards outside tiny Selah, Yakima County, Inslee inhabited a complicated dual role.

He was an affable neighbor, who became a rising political star in this Republican-leaning pocket of Eastern Washington in part by sounding conservative themes during his first election. But he was also an outspoken proponent of many progressive causes who rose to prominence as a trial lawyer.

That part of his legal career — the connections, tactical insights and creative talents honed in the courtroom — jump-started his political life. During his first run for office, for the state House in 1988, his biggest financial contribution came from the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association.

Today, as Inslee uses his rural past to try to connect with Eastern Washington voters, he tends to focus on other things.

He told a chamber of commerce audience last summer that Eastern Washington was “where I raised three feral boys in the apple orchards,” according to the Tri-City Herald. He described himself to the Columbia Basin Herald as “a guy who knows what hay smells like.” His campaign website discusses him going after “criminals and drunk drivers” while on contract as a city prosecutor in Selah.

In a pair of interviews, Inslee said personal-injury law “certainly made me aware that citizens can be damaged by their government.” He described juries as the country’s “purest form of democracy”: decision-making bodies not influenced by special interests.

“I know people who would doubt the importance of the civil-justice system until something happened to them,” Inslee said. “Then they would come into my office the next day and ask me how I could help them save their orchard after it had been damaged by the county.”

But he downplayed the significance of being a trial lawyer, pointing out he also defended farms and businesses being sued by others.

Yet the experience clearly helped.

Young lawyer

Inslee, who grew up in the Seattle area, arrived in Eastern Washington in the mid-1970s, recruited out of law school to work at a small firm — Peters, Schmalz, Leadon & Fowler — where everyone did a bit of everything: bankruptcies, business law, family law, litigation.

The firm had a contract with the city of Selah, “and the new guy always wound up prosecuting cases in Selah Municipal Court,” recalled former partner Vern Fowler.

For a few years that new guy was Inslee, and he handled spousal-abuse cases and DUIs. But by the ’80s, Inslee was gaining attention for his civil work.

He successfully sued a car dealer for firing a worker who refused to take a polygraph and answer questions about drug use. He won $46,000 for a 79-year-old woman who slipped and broke a shoulder in a parking lot. He sued the state after it released to a young woman the name of the mother who’d given her up for adoption.

Outside the office, Inslee was personable, making friends with neighbors such as Karen and Greg Stewart. The couple bought hay from the Inslees and recalled seeing Inslee’s wife, Trudi, watering fields in the evening and Jay standing on planks painting their white farmhouse.

“He’s very down to earth,” Karen Stewart recalled.

In the courtroom, though, Inslee was tenacious. “He was kind of ingenious in his approach to some cases,” Fowler said.

Inslee defended the fired police chief of nearby Zillah after the chief confessed he’d stolen $500 in drug-investigation money but then quickly put it back. Inslee argued his client’s confession was a fib — prosecutors had no proof the money had ever left the chief’s office; the chief just claimed he’d taken it because he was angry. The chief was acquitted.

When a farmer complained government workers had damaged his irrigation system and destroyed his apple crops, Inslee sued Yakima County. When a soft-drink can wrapped in plastic was found to have been shoved by someone into the irrigation system as a plug, the county insisted it wasn’t one of its workers and suggested the farmer’s orchard had been unhealthy to begin with.

Inslee turned folksy, relaying to the jury his own father’s words when Inslee, as a child, hadn’t owned up to mistakes.

” ‘Son, don’t make excuses,’ ” Inslee said, quoting his father, according to news accounts of the trial. “That’s what this case is about, because the county is making excuses.”

One of Inslee’s trickier battles was the case of Dale Lint.

In February 1984, the 31-year-old had spent an evening drinking and playing pool. On his way home, Lint’s pickup broke down on a highway bridge. Lint said a passing car clipped his wrist as he stood outside his truck and knocked him over the bridge’s Jersey barrier. He fell 36 feet and broke his back, becoming a paraplegic.

But a state trooper who responded the next morning reported that Lint, “in an intoxicated state,” had simply fallen off the bridge. Inslee sued the state on Lint’s behalf, arguing that if it had built a taller guardrail, Lint would never have tumbled off.

For two years, Inslee and Michael Tardif, the lawyer representing the state, argued the case in pleadings, spending six months fighting over whether Lint was intoxicated and whether it was relevant.

“Jay was a good lawyer and we got along, but it was a pretty pitched battle,” said Tardif.

The case settled in 1987 and the state paid Lint $130,000 plus $500 a month for life.

A year later, Inslee announced his run for the state House of Representatives. He did so by marching over another highway bridge he said was dangerous and had been the site of numerous accidents.

Political beginnings

Inslee already was politically engaged.

In 1985, for his first foray into politics, Inslee and Trudi, along with another couple, successfully campaigned for a bond issue to build a new high school in Selah.

Inslee also published letters in newspapers. In one, he complained about Congress’ tactical mistakes in attacking Col. Oliver North personally rather than the Reagan administration’s policies during the Iran-contra hearings. In another, he pleaded for greater acceptance of immigrant workers.

In 1986, Inslee, as a board member of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, held news conferences to condemn the state Legislature’s efforts to curb damage awards in liability lawsuits. During his first election race, two years later, Inslee received $6,650 in contributions from the trial lawyers — more than he received from any other source and more than that group gave to all but three of the nearly 100 candidates it supported that year.

But he also outflanked his opponent, several times sounding more Republican than she did.

Inslee, a political novice, took on Lynn Carmichael, a former Yakima mayor and city councilwoman. When a state revenue projection — a forecast that often proves wrong — suggested there might be a budget surplus, Inslee, the Democrat, campaigned for a middle-class tax cut. Carmichael, the Republican, called that irresponsible.

Inslee also accused Carmichael of wanting to expand sales taxes. When she disputed that, he pointed to a copy of a sign-in for a legislative hearing in which her name appeared in the “pro” column for a sales-tax extension. She said the document was filled out by someone else and that she never testified.

“I wasn’t as skilled a speaker or as good at telling a tale as Jay,” Carmichael recalled.

Inslee urged stiffer penalties for drug dealers, a greater emphasis on early-childhood education and mandatory automobile insurance.

Former House Speaker Joe King credits Inslee’s hard work and comfort with retail politics for his victory in that race. Inslee could be found many mornings holding a campaign sign on a street corner. He also went door-to-door greeting voters.

“We recruited him to run, not thinking he had any chance,” King said. “But he kept surprising us.”

In office, Inslee quickly made an impression, passing several small bills as a freshman lawmaker, from regulating steroid use in high-school athletics to setting up a system for state troopers to dispose of seized property.

He worked to pass mandatory automobile insurance and a bill to prevent insurance companies from easily dropping policyholders — a measure sought by trial lawyers. But he also agreed to limit liability for landowners who let people recreate on their property, a position at odds with that of trial lawyers.

“He pushed very hard for what he wanted,” King said. “We used to say, ‘Jay, you don’t know your place. You haven’t waited in line.’ But we couldn’t intimidate him like we could other freshmen.”

When Inslee ran for a second term in 1990, he recruited a young conservative to help manage his campaign. College student Wayne Purdom, son of a popular Yakima-area high-school coach, considered himself a “hard-core Republican.”

“I considered him a very liberal Democrat and said, ‘You understand that I’m interested in politics because I want to beat people like you, right?’ ” Purdom recalled. “I figured I’d help manage it to figure out how to beat people like him later on.”

But Purdom found Inslee to be a straight shooter, even though they disagreed on many issues. He has supported Inslee ever since.

Two years later, Inslee declined again to wait his turn.

When Republican Sid Morrison abandoned his 4th District congressional seat in 1992 to run for governor, Inslee ran and won, becoming only the second Democrat to hold that seat since World War II.

He was ousted two years later during the same GOP revolution in 1994 that ousted sitting Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, of Spokane.

Inslee then moved west of the mountains to Bainbridge Island. In 1999, he made it back to Congress by unseating the Republican incumbent in the 1st District, a largely suburban district in the Seattle area. Inslee held that seat until resigning this year to run for governor.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @craigawelch. Material from the archives

of the Yakima Herald-Republic were used in this report.