Five years out of office, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire remains influential. She’s aiding a longtime friend's bid for Seattle mayor, her son-in-law's run for city attorney, and is CEO of an initiative by Amazon, Microsoft and other corporate leaders to shape the region’s future.
She’s not on any ballot, but former Gov. Christine Gregoire could be a proxy winner of the 2017 election.
Her longtime friend and adviser, Jenny Durkan, is running for Seattle mayor, a move Gregoire encouraged after then-Mayor Ed Murray had been politically wounded by sex-abuse allegations this past spring.
Gregoire’s son-in-law Scott Lindsay is trying to unseat City Attorney Pete Holmes, with her helping to raise money.
Her daughter Courtney Gregoire is in the middle of a second term as a Port of Seattle commissioner and is talked about as a contender for higher office.
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Meanwhile, Gregoire is heading up a private-sector alliance called Challenge Seattle. It is made up of executives from 17 top local companies and nonprofits — including Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing — seeking to shape the region’s traffic, jobs and education future.
Five years after leaving office, Gregoire, a Democrat who served as governor from 2005 to 2013, remains a behind-the-scenes force in local politics. She still lives in Olympia, but has rented a place in Seattle to avoid a daily commute.
“She’s more engaged with the Seattle metro area than she was” as governor, said former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis.
While it’s no surprise Gregoire would go to bat for friends and relatives, her influence hasn’t escaped the notice of those on the other side of her efforts.
“It has made me feel at times I am not just running against Scott, I am running against her,” said Holmes, Seattle’s city attorney since 2010, who said he’s seen prospective donors shy away out of apparent deference to the former governor.
Heather Weiner, a campaign consultant for Durkan’s Nov. 7 opponent, Cary Moon, noted that some of the big corporations involved in Challenge Seattle have helped bankroll a six-figure TV ad campaign against Moon.
That effort, through an independent-expenditure committee called People for Jenny Durkan, has been funded largely by the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Amazon is the chamber PAC’s largest donor, giving $350,000 this year. Among other Challenge Seattle members, Starbucks gave $25,000, Alaska Airlines $20,000, Puget Sound Energy $18,000, Boeing $12,000 and Weyerhaeuser $5,000.
In an interview at Challenge Seattle’s 54th-floor downtown headquarters, Gregoire, 70, said she doesn’t make political asks of the executives in the group.
“I have made it clear to those guys, I will have nothing to do with politics as CEO of Challenge Seattle,” she said. “I do not use my position … I have separated my worlds.”
If there is a common thread among her roles, it’s Gregoire’s belief the Seattle area is better off with business, labor and political leaders rowing the same way.
“My fear is the city is moving in a direction that is not going to maintain how we get done what we need to get done,” Gregoire said. “Rather than screaming and yelling at each other, pointing fingers and blaming, I come from the school of ‘let’s sit down and work together.’ ”
She said Durkan agrees with her on a cooperative and regionalist approach to politics.
Gregoire also has clashed with Moon, who, like former Mayor Mike McGinn, was a leading opponent of the state’s Highway 99 tunnel project. “Do you have any idea how difficult she was when we were deciding what to do with the viaduct?” Gregoire asked.
Weiner, of the Moon campaign, said Moon showed resolve in her objection to the tunnel.
“Cary Moon has the backbone to say difficult things to powerful people,” she said, “whether it’s fighting for transit and transportation alternatives to benefit the people of Seattle, or calling out her opponent’s ties to big corporate interests.”
Challenge Seattle was created two years ago with the aid of Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith. The organization’s focus is to “strengthen the region’s economy and quality of life,” said Anne Fennessy, a public-affairs consultant who works with the group. She added that it “intentionally has no lobbyists and no political affiliations.”
The group has worked on projects including opening up member companies to student internships and tours. It also helped found the Mobility Innovation Center at the University of Washington, which is studying how to prepare cities for driverless cars and exploring a per-mile charge for motorists that could replace the gas tax.
Gregoire is paid $20,000 a month at Challenge Seattle.
Despite her connections with Gregoire, Durkan said she’s heard little about Challenge Seattle’s work.
“Have you figured out what it does? Because I haven’t,” she said.
The Durkan-Gregoire friendship was forged over more than two decades of political and professional association. For most of that time, Durkan has been in the background as an adviser and private attorney, dating back to Gregoire’s three terms as state attorney general.
Most famously, Durkan helped secure Gregoire’s election as governor during the disputed 2004 gubernatorial race against Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi. Gregoire lost in the initial vote count but after two recounts was declared the winner by 129 votes.
Republicans sued, claiming voter fraud and found ballots in King County had tilted the race. Gregoire prevailed in a dramatic 2005 decision by Chelan County Superior Court Judge John Bridges, who roundly rejected the GOP claims for lack of evidence.
On Jan. 20 of this year, dismayed by the prospect of seeing President Donald Trump inaugurated, Durkan and Gregoire left the country to spend the day in Vancouver, B.C., along with Durkan’s partner, Dana Garvey, and others, avoiding televisions.
It was a day of “mourning,” Durkan said, and to “retreat, regroup.”
The next day they returned to Seattle to participate with more than 100,000 others in the city’s anti-Trump women’s demonstration.
“We marched together in the march. It was one of the most uplifting events I have been to on the streets in Seattle,” Durkan said.
A few months later, with Seattle’s political scene roiled by the sexual-abuse claims against Mayor Murray, Gregoire started working the phones to line up support for Durkan.
State Rep. Eileen Cody, a West Seattle Democrat, got a call from Gregoire in early May, when Murray was still publicly undecided about whether he’d seek a second term.
“I was surprised,” Cody said. “I really did think Ed was going to stay in at that point. He was still debating what to do, but he was leaning toward running.”
Cody said Gregoire emphasized Durkan would run if Murray bowed out, which he did within days, announcing his decision in an emotional Alki speech.
Gregoire said she started making calls only after hearing Murray had quietly made his decision. She said she urged Durkan to run because “we are at a pivotal time in the history of this city,” citing her friend’s experience running the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In acting as an adviser to Durkan’s mayoral bid, Gregoire said she’s not involved in day-to-day strategy. “I am probably now her mentor on what it’s like to be a candidate,” she said. “Here is a woman who has been in politics from the time she was born, but she has never been a candidate. We text often.”
Durkan said Gregoire is a “very good friend” but isn’t her go-to adviser for Seattle issues — or even her chief influence when she was mulling whether to run for mayor.
“I probably talked more with Ron Sims,” Durkan said, referring to the former King County executive, adding that she also spoke with former Mayor Norm Rice, City Council members and others. “In terms of the issues facing the city, she is not the first person I would turn to.”
In the family
If Gregoire and Durkan are like family, Lindsay is the real thing. He married Courtney Gregoire in 2008 in a ceremony at the governor’s mansion in Olympia.
“I am proud of my association with her,” Lindsay said of his mother-in-law. “I am not leaning on that at all.”
Lindsay worked as a senior counsel for U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. In that job, Lindsay headed up a high-profile investigation that concluded wasteful security contracts in Afghanistan had likely sent U.S. funds to groups killing American soldiers. He later practiced law in Seattle and in Washington, D.C., with K&L Gates.
After Murray was elected mayor, transition officials traded some emails in which they talked about finding work or volunteer opportunities for Gregoire’s son-in-law, or “Christine son-in-law.”
In 2014, Murray’s office hired Lindsay as a public-safety adviser. Gregoire said she played no role in that, and Lindsay pushed back against the idea he got some kind of “cushy job.” He said he took a 40 percent pay cut and agreed to accept the position at a time the mayor’s office was taking heat for early stumbles in managing the Police Department.
“At the time I took that job, most everybody said ‘you’re crazy,’ ” Lindsay said.
The role had Lindsay working with Durkan, then U.S. attorney, on implementing a Justice Department consent decree to reform use-of-force practices by Seattle police. He left that job this year to challenge Holmes for city attorney.
While he’s running on his own merits, Lindsay said he views Gregoire’s time as state attorney general as an inspiration. He said Gregoire turned that office “into the very best attorney general office out there,” pointing to her role in securing the landmark $206 billion settlement between states with big tobacco companies.
Holmes, who has attacked Lindsay as inexperienced in the courtroom, said he respects Gregoire’s career. He added, “It’s certainly not nefarious to support a relative.”
But, Holmes said, “it’s been more of a feeling of the number of people I have approached who have been supporters, but have felt reluctant because of their relationship with Chris Gregoire.”
Courtney Gregoire, who works as an attorney in Microsoft’s digital-crimes unit in addition to her part-time Port Commission post, has been talked about in Democratic political circles as possibly following in her mother’s footsteps and running for state attorney general. She did not return a call for comment on this article.
Christine Gregoire did not want to speculate on her daughter’s future. “I’ve butted out of that,” she said.