BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — As Gov. Jay Inslee sat in an Adirondack chair in his backyard on a recent weekend morning, making his case for why voters should grant him a rare third term, the birds were singing, and out by Eagle Harbor, a state ferry blew its horn.
It seemed a fitting scene for the outdoors-loving political veteran some have dubbed “Sunny Jay,” for his relentlessly upbeat personality, which typically kicks into high gear during campaign season.
News of the nation and world has turned several shades gloomier since 2016, when voters awarded the former congressman his second term as governor. But Inslee said he’s confident he can help Washington bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and steep economic downturn.
“I’m really bullish on the future of our state for the next several years,” Inslee said, wearing a mask for a backyard interview. “But we’ve got to get through this current challenge.”
That statement came days before another devastating body blow hit Washington: Boeing’s announcement that it will respond to the downturn by shifting all 787 production from Everett to South Carolina.
Inslee, who had pushed through a record-setting package of tax breaks to secure Boeing’s 777X line in 2013, reacted bitterly to the 787 news. He called it “an insult” to Washington that would force the state to take “a hard look” at the aerospace giant’s favorable tax treatment — comments some Snohomish County leaders called divisive.
Whether voters reelect Inslee — or opt for Republican Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic, Ferry County — the Boeing news underscores the high-stakes challenges facing the next occupant of the Capitol’s corner office.
Washington’s next governor must chart a course through the global pandemic and orchestrate an economic recovery to reverse the loss of people’s livelihoods and businesses.
And they must reckon with widespread civil unrest in protest of systemic racism in the criminal-legal system, sparked by killings of Black people by law enforcement officers here and around the nation.
With the global pandemic that has now killed more than 208,000 Americans — including roughly 2,130 Washingtonians — Inslee’s response to the coronavirus is perhaps the biggest touchstone of the election.
Culp has centered his campaign against Inslee on a sort of rolling protest of the governor’s mask order and other mandates. That has included numerous big rallies where physical distancing and mask-wearing are scarce.
When Washington this spring shouldered the first coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Inslee became the face of one of the nation’s strictest lockdowns, even shutting down fishing and hunting for a time. He has since been one of the more cautious in reopening businesses and restarting social activities.
The virus and its economic fallout will dominate the conversation in Olympia in the near term. As they write the next two-year state budget, lawmakers and the next governor face a $4.2 billion projected shortfall.
That estimate has been halved from a projection made in June. But it’s still a serious obstacle that could require budget cuts or new taxes for state funding of schools, parks, prisons, wildfire response, mental-health programs and foster care.
The Boeing decision, which is expected to result in the loss of 1,000 jobs, as well as indirect ripple effects for aerospace suppliers and other businesses, is sure to complicate that task.
Last week, Republicans — who are furious about Inslee’s refusal to call a special legislative session so they could help respond to the virus — quickly jumped on the governor’s remarks about Boeing.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, contended that the moment encapsulates Inslee’s approach to other issues such as the COVID-19 response.
“It’s his attitude,” said Braun, whose party is in the minority in the Legislature. “‘I care about people, but only people that agree with me. Other people that aren’t in my wheelhouse or on my side, that’s less important to me.’ It’s been true, frankly, from the very beginning.”
Inslee also has faced withering criticism from Republicans and others for the state Employment Security Department’s loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to unemployment fraud — some to a Nigerian crime ring dubbed “Scattered Canary.”
Coronavirus to be on November ballot
For the most part, the governor has not outlined specific policies for his third term, and neither does his campaign website, which emphasizes past accomplishments and national rankings that have praised the state’s business climate and worker protections.
But Inslee — who has spent more than three decades in public life, including time in the state House and representing two different Washington districts in U.S. Congress — comes with a track record that voters probably will recognize.
If reelected, Inslee vows to continue “a very robust and aggressive attack on COVID, because that’s what we need to do to reopen our economy.”
“We have saved lives in Washington because of some of the decisions that I’ve made,” he said later. “And I stand by those decisions, they have been difficult … they have been hard on business people and employees. But they have been decisions that fundamentally saved lives, and they are based on science.”
Inslee’s response included a strict lockdown at first and a gradual reopening managed closely by the governor’s office.. The governor has said the new budget projections — and his budget reductions, such as his veto of some new spending and furloughs for state workers — vindicates his decision to hold off on a special session to cut programs.
His emergency orders have drawn a barrage of criticism from conservatives, including several unsuccessful legal challenges as well as protests in defiance of the initial stay-at-home order that shuttered many businesses and restricted social activities.
The owners of some businesses — such as Chelan County’s Slidewaters water park, which unsuccessfully sued the governor — have complained bitterly that the state’s restrictions have endangered their livelihoods.
But polls consistently have shown most voters approve of Inslee’s approach, noted Crystal Fincher, a Kent-based Democratic political consultant. If anything, she said, the pandemic has bolstered his management credentials.
“I think people feel like he has done pretty well in managing the state through crisis — that is foundational, especially compared with other states,” Fincher said.
Washington’s reaction to the crisis — compared to states that reopened more quickly or didn’t implement restrictions in the first place — has pushed the state downward on national lists ranking infections and deaths.
Despite having a severe early outbreak, Washington as of Friday had the 25th most total cases out of the 50 states, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
At least 11 states with populations smaller than Washington now have more total cases. Eight of those states also now have more deaths than Washington.
Meanwhile Washington as of Friday ranked 43rd in the nation — tied with Oregon — for cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, according to the data.
Braun, the GOP state senator, said he early on supported some of Inslee’s measures. But the governor, he said, “has been less interested” in input from the GOP, or discussing different ideas about how public-health data could guide his four-part reopening plan.
For instance, a key early metric for counties to advance in the plan at one point was having 25 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. But that was set before the state expanded testing, said Braun, who suggested that using a percentage of positive tests amid wider monitoring now could be a better metric.
But, “He’s been unwilling to have a dialogue about other interpretations of the data,” said Braun. “And that’s not good for the state.”
A climate control governor
Inslee has campaigned on key bills that he and the Legislature approved, including a court-ordered school-funding plan that ultimately led to raises for many teachers and passing Washington’s paid-family leave law.
And Inslee — who last year embarked on an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination based almost solely on fighting climate change — has touted his accomplishments in that realm.
After years of trying, Inslee in 2019 got a package of climate-change bills through the Legislature, including one to eliminate fossil fuels from the state’s power grid by 2045.
If reelected, Inslee is likely to push again for another key climate measure sought by the governor and House Democrats: low-carbon fuel legislation. The proposal has been held up by a handful of Senate Democrats in addition to Republicans.
In fact, Inslee this year took the rare step of wading into an intraparty feud by endorsing Ingrid Anderson, a progressive Democrat challenging incumbent state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, in King County’s Fifth Legislative District.
Mullet has angered unions and other groups with his opposition to Inslee’s proposed clean-fuels standard, as well as a proposed capital-gains tax on high earners sought by the governor and other Democrats.
Bemoaning a push for ideological purity, Mullet said Inslee is sending a message: “If you are not in line with me, I will come after you.”
Inslee said it’s too early to discuss what programs, cuts or new revenues he’ll include in the proposed state budget he’s expected to roll out in December. But the governor’s proposals in recent years have often included new taxes on capital gains, carbon and other new revenues.
Meanwhile, if a right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, Inslee said he believes the state should step in to create a replacement.
The governor has also joined Democratic lawmakers in calling for reforms for policing and accountability of law enforcement in the wake of this year’s protests against killings of civilians by officers, including the death of Manuel Ellis by Tacoma police.
Those demonstrations, Inslee said, have been “very helpful for our country, actually, to awaken consciousness to bring more racial equity to our communities.”
The governor said he wants to support a range of changes being examined by task forces that both he and lawmakers convened. Those groups are considering ideas to create independent investigations of law enforcement, a public database for use-of-force incidents, and changes to police training and tactics, among other measures.
Republicans have criticized Inslee and local officials after some protests have continued to result in violence or property damage. Meanwhile, Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone drew nationwide attention and barbs from the Trump administration.
“Our role is to honor peaceful protest and support cities who make efforts to stop the violence. We do not condone any of the violence,” said Inslee, who noted he sent hundreds of National Guard troops to assist Seattle.
The Washington State Patrol was on standby to help Seattle clear the autonomous zone and has helped other cities, he said. “But it is important to realize the cities make these decisions, we play a subordinate, supportive role,” Inslee added.
The governor’s club
If he wins, Inslee would be the first Washington governor to be elected to a third term since Republican Dan Evans in 1972. At the time, Evans — who’d first been elected when he was 39 — was still in his 40s. Inslee is 69.
Evans recalled some similar-sounding challenges when he ran. The state was coming out of a sharp “Boeing bust” recession, while cities and campuses saw major demonstrations on a near daily basis over civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
Like other moderate Republicans, including former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Evans backed Yakima doctor Raul Garcia in the Aug. 4 gubernatorial primary. He has not decided whether he’ll support Loren Culp in the general election and added Culp has not sought his endorsement.
Culp’s win in the crowded Aug. 4 primary stood in contrast to recent gubernatorial elections when the GOP united relatively early around candidates such as former state Sen. Dino Rossi and former Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant, who sought to appeal to moderate Puget Sound-area voters.
“We just ultimately didn’t have the strength of a candidate pool that we had in the past,” Evans said.
Inslee maintains a massive fundraising lead, having raised $6.7 million to Culp’s $2 million as of Friday.
Former Gov. Gary Locke, who considered but ultimately decided against seeking a third term in 2004, called it an intensely personal decision. At the time, he and then-wife Mona Locke, decided to have a third child instead.
Locke said Inslee “clearly has the energy and the passion” and can see why he would want another term.
“Nobody wants to leave the state at a time when it’s in a lurch, in the middle of troubled times,” said Locke. “There is enough on his plate that he will have a very challenging time.”
Some have speculated that a President Joe Biden might appoint Inslee to a federal position in Washington, D.C., perhaps working on climate-change policy, given the governor’s profile-raising presidential run.
Inslee has said that if reelected governor, he intends to serve a full term — and he reiterated that in the recent interview.
“I stay here,” he said. “Look, I can do great work on clean energy here. I love this state. So I’m not interested in those federal positions.”
“There was one federal position I was interested in,” Inslee added with a laugh, “but that wasn’t going to happen.”