The Democratic governor will campaign in Iowa and Nevada next week. He has signaled that he does not intend to give up his current job, leaving open the option of seeking re-election to a third term if the White House bid flops.
Gov. Jay Inslee entered the 2020 presidential race Friday, launching a longshot campaign with a focused message that he’s the only candidate who would make defeating climate change the nation’s top priority.
In a short video announcing his candidacy, Inslee repeats what has become his signature slogan in recent years: “We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we’re the last that can do something about it.”
Over images of fire-scorched landscapes and flooding, Inslee said the nation must rise to the challenge, portraying a clean-energy revolution as a potential win for the economy and the environment.
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“We have an opportunity to transform our economy, run on 100 percent clean energy, that will bring millions of good paying jobs to every community across America, and create a more just future for everyone,” he says in the video.
The two-term Democratic governor kicked off his campaign Friday morning at news conference at A&R Solar, a Seattle solar-installation company that employs 70 workers. He plans to leave the state for national media interviews, and will campaign in Iowa Tuesday and in Nevada later in the week.
The determination to tackle climate change is nothing new for Inslee, as his video conveys with TV clips of him speaking on the issue over decades. He championed clean energy as a member of Congress and co-authored a 2007 book calling for a national campaign of research and deployment on the level of the U.S. Apollo program, which sent people to the moon, to push the nation’s economy away from dependence on fossil fuels.
Inslee’s national ambitions have been evident for more than a year. He spent 2018 as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, traveling the country to help elect fellow Democrats while making valuable connections with national political donors and operatives.
His rhetoric has turned increasingly toward national concerns, including vocal opposition to President Donald Trump’s environmental-regulation rollbacks and efforts to ban refugees from mostly Muslim nations. In a televised visit to the White House last year, Inslee garnered attention by standing and telling Trump, who favored a plan to arm schoolteachers, to consider “a little less tweeting … and a little more listening.”
While pursuing the nation’s highest office, Inslee has signaled that he does not intend to give up his current job, for which he is paid $177,000 a year. He has left open the option of seeking re-election to a third term if the White House bid flops.
Already a dozen others have announced their candidacies, including Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Democrats Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Other Democratic heavy hitters are reportedly weighing entering the race soon, including former Vice President Joe Biden and ex-Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Inslee, 68, is an ex-congressman and state legislator who was elected governor in 2012, defeating then-state Attorney General Rob McKenna. He was re-elected to a second term in 2016, with 54 percent of the vote.
As governor, Inslee generally has pursued a liberal agenda, backing minimum-wage increases, higher taxes on the wealthy and businesses, raises for teachers and state government employees and declaring a moratorium on the death penalty. He also backed a record-setting, $8.7 billion tax-break deal to lure Boeing’s 777 plant and angered labor leaders by pressuring the Machinists union to approve a contract that ended workers’ defined-benefit pension plan.
He also has pushed an ambitious climate agenda, with mixed results, failing to persuade lawmakers and voters to adopt pollution fees on carbon emissions, but boosting electric-car infrastructure and creating a clean-energy fund that has poured millions into green projects. Despite Inslee’s agenda, greenhouse emissions in Washington have continued to rise, missing near-term reduction goals set in state law.
Washington Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich slammed Inslee’s national ambitions and record Thursday, pointing to management scandals at the Department of Corrections and Western State Hospital, rising homelessness and traffic congestion.
“Taxpayers are plagued by real issues that Inslee and his administration refuse to address. Governor Inslee should do the people of Washington State a favor and resign while he pursues his vanity run for the White House. That way, we can have a governor who actually cares about the needs of the people in this Washington,” Heimlich said in a written statement.
Inslee’s announcement comes at nearly the halfway point of the Legislature’s scheduled 105-day session. Lawmakers are tasked with negotiating and sending a new state operating budget to the governor’s desk for approval.
After years of seeing major elements of the governor’s carbon-reduction agenda stall, Democratic lawmakers are making a big push on Inslee’s latest climate-change proposals. On Friday, the Senate approved a bill requested by the governor to phase out the use of fossil fuels by Washington utilities by 2045.
Inslee’s bid could motivate Democrats to approve the governor’s climate-change proposals, said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, “to help shore up his liberal credentials.”
“I think that the Democrat primary is shaping up to be a race to the left, so I think Jay is going to want to get some success stories where he can say ‘look how left I took Washington,’ ” said Ericksen, a vocal critic of the governor’s climate proposals over the years.
With the announcement, Inslee becomes the first Washington politician to seek the presidency since Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson ran in 1976, beginning as a top contender but losing the Democratic nomination to ex-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was elected president.
Seattle-based political consultant Frank Greer, who has advised several presidential campaigns, said Inslee brings some positives to the 2020 race, including that he’s the first sitting governor to run.
“People like to elect governors,” Greer said. “And people perceive Washington state as a success story.”
Inslee’s status as the sole governor in the race may be short-lived. John Hickenlooper, who just ended two terms as Colorado governor, has been exploring a run through his Giddy Up PAC and plans a possible announcement next week, according to the Colorado Sun. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock also is reportedly considering a run.
Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor who has studied presidential campaigns, said like a lot of 2020 candidates, Inslee’s chances of success are slim.
“Any presidential candidacy is in some dimensions a fool’s errand,” she said, noting that Washington state, in particular, rarely has produced nationally known politicians. Still, O’Mara said, such a campaign “is a terrific platform to spread the message you want to spread.”
It remains to seen whether Inslee can stand out even on his signature issue, given that other Democratic candidates have expressed support, at least in principle, for a shift to a clean energy economy dubbed the Green New Deal.
“Certainly in the Democratic primary that’s a really resonant issue. But the people who have really captured the hearts and minds on the Green New Deal, it’s not Jay Inslee, it’s AOC (New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez), it’s women, it’s people of color,” O’Mara said. “In the Democratic primary, it’s a hurdle for him.”
Early polling has shown Inslee remains comparatively unknown on a national level. In a Morning Consult poll of Democratic primary voters released this week, he placed last among 21 listed candidates, with zero percent support.
Veteran Democratic political consultant Ron Dotzauer, who runs the lobbying firm Strategies 360, dismissed early polling as irrelevant and said Inslee’s focused climate message will be an asset. He called Inslee a skilled campaigner whose down-to-earth style could appeal to early state voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.
“On the liability side, show me the money,” Dotzauer said, pointing to big cash hauls by other early contenders, including Sanders, who raised $10 million in less than a week after entering the race.
Inslee could get support from well-heeled environmentalist donors, both in Washington state and elsewhere. A pro-Inslee super PAC, Act Now on Climate, formed last week, with a spokeswoman saying the group’s first call if Inslee ran would be to California billionaire Tom Steyer.
Steyer, who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, has been an Inslee ally on climate change; the two met in December in San Francisco. A month later Steyer announced he would not run for president himself, instead focusing on a campaign to get Trump impeached.
One of Inslee’s first tasks will be to get on stage for the first round of Democratic primary debates, which will allow up to 20 candidates split up between one debate in June and one in July.
To qualify, candidates must reach at least 1 percent in three national or early-primary state polls, or by receiving donations from 65,000 people — with a minimum of 200 donors in at least 20 states, according to the Democratic National Committee.
Seattle Times staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.